What is a design brief and how to write it?

What is a design brief?

A design brief is a collection of guidelines about the goal of the design; a description of the methods to achieve this goal; and a description of the desired outcomes. Alongside legal and recommended documents (such as general plan and detailed plan, design requirements, legal norms, guides, and standards), it is the most important document for price quotation as it provides directions about what is required.

A design brief is necessary for several reasons.

  • First, for the complete outcome and for the justification of design decisions. In developing a design brief, the client thinks carefully: whom, what, and why they are designing; how the goal is achieved (concept and/or method); and how the result is evaluated, i.e., on what basis we determine whether the proposed solution meets the goal.
  • Secondly, the design brief is a strategy that plays a role of a filter, based on which design decisions are made to achieve the desired result. If a problem or a challenge arises, the design brief helps set priorities and find the best solution.

When developing a design brief

Defining the work area

Usually, the work area covers the entire property, but sometimes it is not necessary to deal with the entire property. The boundaries must be fixed to clarify the extent of the design area, e.g., it can be given as a scheme, etc. In some cases, it may be necessary to include part of a neighboring property, which should then be marked as part of the work area. In the case of co-ownership, it is important to mention who are the decision-makers. If the work area consists of several properties, and if these properties fall under the jurisdiction of different local governments, this should be highlighted.

Who are we designing for?

It is important to consider who are the users of the outdoor space. Users are described, e.g., age groups (children of different ages in a kindergarten; public space might include children, adolescents, adults, elderly), capabilities and special needs (people with visual or mobility impairments), interests and expectations (e.g., a bicycle path separate from the pedestrian path), and supporting accessibility and independent mobility (like handrails and benches with backrests along the footpath, smooth and not slippery pavement). Describe how they use the outdoor space (like spending time there, moving through the area for daily activities) and what they need for this use (list of functions of the outdoor space).

What and why are we designing?

Once users have been identified and described, it’s necessary to decide what needs to be created in this space for the user to perceive it as a coherent outdoor space. Based on the user’s characteristics, decide what functions are needed on the site, what added value can be offered to the user, what are future trends (e.g., from the perspective of an aging society), how to connect the new and existing outdoor space and their functions, and achieving harmony (meeting the expectations of the user, and achieving coherent outdoor space).

Who is responsible for ordering the site investigations and specific parts of the design work?

If it is planned that the landscape designer handles the ordering of site investigations (a topo-geodetic base plan, engineering geology for construction) and special investigations (radon study, noise study, mobility study, tree survey and herbaceous plants survey), this should be pointed out. If the client organizes these studies, this should be clearly stated.


On one hand, the proposed design for outdoor space is determined by valid planning documents, recommended documents, design requirements, and legislation. But on the other hand, it is important to think how the outdoor space should look aesthetically and make the user feel (with all their senses) themselves when they are exposed to this outdoor space, what their experience should be. To achieve this, the concept or design principle is very important; what is the desired quality standard for the design; and whether we are designing for 20, 30, or 100 years. Based on this, living and non-living materials are selected during the design process.

Interested parties and stakeholders

This point is important when the client is not the end user of the outdoor space being designed. In the case of public space, it is necessary to collaborate with the local government and local residents (including NGOs) to achieve the best result. The format of involvement must be decided; how proposed suggestions are considered and included in the design and other related matters. E.g., workshops, surveys, ways of public presentation (online or in-person public presentation), etc. This also gives the design team an idea of how to plan the workload, the time required for the work, and the order of the tasks.

Setting priorities

What is the highest priority for this project and why? Knowing the values that guide the design, i.e., what is most important to achieve within the project, it becomes clear what compromises can be made under certain circumstances and what not. For example, in the case of budget cuts, prioritization provides good guidelines on what is indisputably important and where cost reductions can be made without sacrificing the achievement of the goal and the set values, and without the result becoming unrecognizably altered.


The schedule should consider all aspects, including the time for site investigations, design phase, communication, and approvals. It is important to leave time for the completion of different site investigations, special studies, and all design phases. Also, one needs to take into consideration that not all parties can work on the same time and there is a certain order in the work process. For example, the design can start when site investigations and special studies are complete. Sometimes there is a false understanding that design can start without site investigations and special studies being complete, but this is not the case, as information from these studies affects the design process, and starting without them leads to unnecessary work. Also, it should be considered that there is a certain sequence in design, i.e., the work of one specialist depends on another, and certain parts cannot be done at the same time. Also, consider that communication with local governments takes time and the approval process may be longer than planned.


Consider how often and what channel is used for information exchange between the parties involved in the design will take place. It is good to name the involved parties already in the design brief, e.g., local government (including the National Heritage Board, etc.) approvers and other property owners whose approval is needed for the design.


Plan the budget for design and construction to clarify what resources are allocated for the achievement of the end goal. Also, consider the complexity of the design. For this purpose, it is wise to include a budgeting stage in the design (and also mention this requirement in the design brief) that reflects the construction cost, e.g., at the concept design or preliminary design stage. At these stages, major changes can still be made to the design if the cost-benefit analysis indicates a need for it.

Benefits of a strong design brief

A high-quality landscape design and outdoor space is based on a good design brief. With this document the client describes the characteristics of the user, what functions are needed on the site, and what is the concept and quality level the outdoor space.

A strong design brief pays off for several reasons.

Saving time from unnecessary redesign

A good design brief is precise, clear, unambiguous, as short as possible, and highlights everything that is necessary. The goal is to bring out as much as necessary and as little as possible so that the document does not drag on. Such a design brief ensures that all parties involved in the design understand the goals and expected outcomes. This helps avoid confusion, unnecessary redoing, and misunderstandings in later design stages.

Saving time with communication

Clear communication ensures that all parties involved are informed about the project’s progress and know what and when is expected of them.

The design brief helps involve everyone in the right time, ensuring that their contribution to the design is included to the project. The local community’s contribution to the design’s success increases the community’s sense of belonging, thereby accepting the design and supporting its further development and construction.

Risk mitigation

The budget and schedule in the design brief help to ensure that the project has the necessary financial and other resources to complete the design by the planned deadline.

A prioritized design brief helps make quick decisions and implement necessary measures in case of challenges. Clear priorities allow the design team to anticipate possible problems and, in the event of their occurrence, offer the best solution so that the goal is achieved based on the set values.

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