How to Use a Creative Brief as a Strategic Storytelling Tool

Most of us in the business world believe that when it comes to content marketing, “design matters,” but we may not understand why. What those of us who are non-creative, profit‑driven types—myself included—really want to know is how design drives sales and affects our bottom line. 

Before we can successfully use design to build our businesses, we first need to understand the elements of good design—what it is and what it does. In this podcast, designer Debbie Millman outlines how design speaks to, understands, and connects with audiences and how a simple creative brief can be the beginning of a powerful marketplace story.

Debbie Millman a designer, artist, author, educator, CMO of Sterling Brands + host of Design Matters, the world's first + longest running podcast on design. Today's conversation shows us how a simple creative brief begins a powerful marketplace story.

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Today I’m here with Debbie Millman. I am happy to interview her today, because she really is a design expert. She’s got a lot of experience and passion around this topic, and she’s well established in the field.

Let’s start by telling a story. Tell us about when you realized that design was important.

It’s an interesting question, because I would say that subconsciously I knew quite a lot before I recognized consciously that it was important. There are a couple of things that happened to me when I was a kid that really impacted my whole life.

Why Design Matters

My father was a pharmacist. He had his own pharmacy. When I was a little girl, my mom would take me to visit him at the store. I was enthralled by the packaging. We’d spend countless hours looking at the packaging—whether it be Goody barrettes, or Stayfree maxi pads, or Lay’s potato chips—and imagine the world that these products came from.

Like the girl that was on the Stayfree sanitary pads packaging at that time, back in the ’60s and ’70s. She was walking on a beach in a beautiful gossamer dress. I wanted to know who she was. Why was she there? What was she thinking? What did she do when she wasn’t on the package?

I envisioned these lives that these characters had. Even the little cartoon characters on cereal packaging for me had a soul, they had lives, they had a whole world that I wanted to inhabit. That was when I first, in hindsight, recognized that design impacted me.

It really wasn’t until I was in college that I first started to study design a little bit. I worked on my student newspaper as an editor, but I very quickly realized I was much more interested in how the pages looked than how the articles read. That’s when I realized that design was a discipline and really started to take it seriously as something to consider doing for the rest of my life.

As you’ve worked in that field, you’ve done some things to establish yourself in the field. You’ve written some material, you’ve written some books. Tell us about some of the things that you’ve done in that space.

The first 10 years of my career—I’ve been working now for a bit over 30, believe it or not—the first 10 years, I would say, were experiments in rejection and failure, where I learned what to do and what not to do and how to do things and how not to do things.

The second 10 years is when I really got my footing in the discipline of design, I think I really became a practitioner. It took about 10 years for me to really get good at what I was doing. 

This last 10 have been about advocating the power of design. That’s when I began writing and doing my podcast and getting the word out, so to speak, about what design could do, the power that design and branding have in our culture. I often say that the condition of design and branding reflects the condition of our culture.

It’s only been in the last 10 or 12 years that I’ve come to understand how and why. I’d say the first 10 years were experiments, the second 10 years were practicing, and now this last 10 years is a combination of practicing, experimenting, and also advocating.

I appreciate you offering that experience. We live in a culture that’s very instant. We have a lot of things that are instantly accessible to us.

I call it the 140-character culture.

We expect that successwhich can be defined a number of ways, but success or prominence in somethingcan happen instantly. What you just described is the exact opposite: I had to spend some time not doing so well. I had to spend some time dedicating myself to a discipline. I had to spend some time advocating on behalf of that discipline.

For those of us who want to leverage design, we have to think about it in terms of that discipline you just described versus the instantaneous, “I have

Speaking, Understanding, Communicating: the Elements of Good Design

I’m going to set this up. You are a creative. There are those of us in the business world that would call ourselves not-creative. We are brass-tacks, bottom-line, profit‑driven business people. I put myself in that category.

There are some times when the “pure creatives” and “pure business peoplehave friction, because we speak two different languages. However, the reality of business requires both things. It requires, if you will, the hardcore profit-and-loss and the hardcore design.

If we’re going to have a conversation around how to use design to build our business, where should we begin?

I think it’s important to recognize that design is not just about design. Design is about cultural anthropology, it’s about behavioral psychology, it’s about economics, and it’s about creativity. Good design is a combination of all of those things.

  • Good Design Speaks to the Culture: If you aren’t able to understand the condition of the culture, the condition of what is happening and why things are happening in the way they are in our day‑to‑day lives, the anthropological trajectory of how we are evolving, you’re never really going to be able to understand the zeitgeist and capture the zeitgeist in a way that means something to people.
  • Good Design is Based on an Understanding of Behavior: If you’re not able to understand how people think, why they choose the things that they do, why they make the rational and irrational decisions that they make about what they choose to have in their lives, you are never going to be able to capture the imagination of the consumer.

People often believe that what is going to make a difference to a consumer, to a shopper, to a human being, is a different form or a different flavor. People don’t care about that anymore. People want to know how this brand, how this design is going to make a difference in my life.

Unless you have a higher order of purpose, unless you can really provide a differentiation for why your product, your brand, your thing is different from everybody else’s, all you’ll ever do is inspire a trial. You won’t inspire loyalty. You won’t inspire stewardship. That’s really what is required now to create a meaningful brand.

  • Good Design Communicates a Sense of Value: When it comes to economics, people since 2008 have been talking about the value proposition. I think that’s only one part of an equation. It has to do with a return on investment. There also has to be some type of reason that this is going to be valuable to people.

    If the value proposition was all that mattered—and there are people who think that is the most important thing—then why would we be selling so many iPads? It’s not just about the cheapest or the most easy to achieve. It’s about what makes somebody feel better about themselves and creates a sense of being valuable in their lives. That’s really critical to understand now when calculating any return on investment.
  • Good Design Flows from Great Creative Material: Finally, it’s about having great creative material because that will set you apart. That will create a sense of desirability in a way that very few other disciplines can. 

Design is not just about design. Design is about those four disciplines that come together to create the most holistic expression of a brand and of a product.

zeitgeist definition

Meeting a Need: Good Design Doesn't Iterate

In my own business, I have examples of clients that come to me and say some version of “Hey, we want to be the next iPad.” They’re not always comparing themselves to the iPad, but that’s the basic idea: We want to be the latest success. 

You’ve just said it’s a little deeper than that. It’s a little deeper than just creating a gadget that you think will be interesting to someone else. We have to tap into a different conversation. 

Back to the iPad, that would have been less relevant 10 years earlier. We were ready for the iPad at the time the iPad was introduced. We already had the iPod, we already had the Macintosh computer. There was an opportunity for it, where 10 or 20 years earlier the opportunity was different. Am I capturing that well?

Yes. I do think that one of the interesting things about Appleand it’ll be interesting to see if and how that can continue without Steve Jobs at the helmwhat they were so remarkable in doing is not responding to what they thought consumers wanted. What they were able to do was create what they thought people needed.

One of the famous quotes about need versus want is the line that Henry Ford famously said at the turn of the 20th Century, which was: If he had asked consumers what they wanted in better transportation, they would have said a faster horse. They would not have been able to envision the car.

It is up to designers and inventors and marketers to evolve culture by creating new opportunities that have yet to be thought of. If all we’re doing is rehashing old things or creating variations on a theme, we’re not going to really be able to innovate. That’s not innovation. That’s repetition. 

The great designers, the great inventors, the great marketers are those that take a chance by creating something that hasn’t been there before, in an effort to further our humanity and our opportunities and our abilities. That’s what I think is most exciting about branding.

It’s really about the ability to invent things that haven’t been invented before to create new opportunities for humanitywhich sounds really lofty, but I’d rather be lofty than redundant.

I appreciate that. If a business leader is listening, and they’re in the category that you’re describingthey believe that what they have really is not simply an iteration on but a true improvement ofwe are moving forward.

If they believe they have that kind of thing in front of them, but they can’t drawsticks and lines, boxes and circles are the best they can gethow do they communicate with you? How does design help that person start to move forward from a design perspective?

That’s a really good question. The best design reflects the best ideas. Ideas, in many ways, are easy. Strategy is much harder.

I could ask any designer to come up with a redesign of a label of a beverage. It would take them a couple of days maybe to do something that was really interesting, maybe less. But if I were to ask for [a label design for] an entirely new beverage that had never been created before, that might take a really, really long time.

The best design is reflecting the best strategy and unique ideas. Strategy is really choosing to perform activities differently or choosing to provide different activities than rivals. That’s a sort of Michael Porter / Harvard Business School definition of strategy.

This is where designers can really help marketers and inventors and executives: How can you help refine an idea to ensure that it is performing different activities than rivalsthat it really is providing something different in the marketplace and creating the best possible reason for being? 

If all you’re doing is an iteration of something that’s already been done before, why does the world need that? Why does the world need another bottled water? Why does the world need another carbonated soft drink, another salty snack, another over‑the‑counter pharmaceutical? What is the reason for being? 

What you want to be able to do is create a reason for being that meets a fundamental human need. If you can uncover what that is, you have a very good chance of creating some meaning in the marketplace.

Where It All Begins: The Creative Brief

I’m going to ask this next question from my level of understanding. That may be very, very low, shallow, elementary. 

I have what I believe to be a world changing idea, at least marketplace changing idea. I believe that what I have is really good. It’s worth investing in. I’m talking to a design expert. What picture do we draw first? Do we draw a logo? Do we draw a website design? What do we do first?

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked to try and create the next Nike swoosh. If you deconstruct the Nike swoosh first and look at its history, it was created overnight by a student. Phil Knight gave her $60. He didn’t even like the Nike logo she came back with. He felt that it didn’t have the same sense of energy as the popular Adidas logo of the time. But he was on a deadline for printing his shoe boxes, the sneaker boxes, so he went with it. 

If you look at the logo as a piece of iconography, if you turn it upside down, it’s the Newport cigarettes logo. It’s not the mark. It’s the marketing. You can’t start with style first. You have to start with the substance. 

If you’re looking to design something, you’re looking to reflect what the meaning of the brand and the product is. 

  1. First and foremost, you want to develop a creative brief: What is the criteria for success in this visualization?
  2. Once you have that, you begin to sketch, you begin to draw, you begin to come up with ideas that help visually articulate the language of this product. 
  3. Then you can create an idea visuallyonly then. 

Create the meaning. Create the point of difference. Create the criteria for success. Then begin sketching.

Define Before You Design: The Elements of a Creative Brief

What that means is that my first step needs to be to create a creative brief. Are there certain things that typically go in a creative brief? 

I think one day of working on a creative brief saves about two weeks of design time—just so you know. It’s advantageous from a financial standpoint as well. 

You need to create a creative brief that has really differentiating language. For example, many, many years ago I was at a conference and was listening to a really smart guy talk about some of the language that was given to him in a creative brief by one of the world’s largest food companies. The directive was to create something that appealed to contemporary moms.

What does that mean? Nothing. It means nothing. It’s not just about contemporary moms. What mom wouldn’t describe herself as contemporary?

Have you ever met anyone who says, “I’m contemporary?” No one uses that word. What are we talking about?

Exactly. Who are you trying to target? Who are you trying to get interested in this product? 

  1. Define your audience. 
  2. Define the need state. 
  3. Define how and why this matters. 

Then you can begin designing.

Let’s say I’ve got my great thing, I’ve created the creative brief. I’ve done my job of giving some words or some language around this thing that I do. Now do we start drawing? When do we start drawing?

Now you can start drawing. 

You do have to realize that unless you’re really, really in tune with culture, it’s very difficult to use yourself as an arbiter of great design if you’re not a designer. What’s interesting is that people will hire designers and then direct the designer to do something that the designer may or may not think is a good idea.

Design is a really subjective experience. That’s why it’s so important to have a sound, strategic point of view about what this product can dobecause design is really subjective. Art is really subjective. You’ll find as many people that like Jackson Pollock as don’t, or Salvadore Dalias many people like him as don’t. There is no one way of thinking about design and art.

The one bit of advice I would give to non‑designers hiring designers is: let designers do their job. Trust the designer to show you what you might not consider possible. Don’t decide what’s impossible before you even realize what’s possible.

It’s the leader’s job to provide leadership. Then, after that, get out of the way.

Get out of the way. Sure, bring all of your expertise in the market to the evaluation, but give the designers some runway to take off before you shut down the engine.

Very good. Debbie, thank you so much for giving us a way to digest this design conversation. 

It’s been a pleasure being on the show with you today. Thank you.


Debbie Millman is a designer and the host of award-winning podcast Design Matters, the world’s first and longest-running podcast on design. She also serves on the board of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping eradicate sexual abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. She can be contacted via her website,, on Twitter @debbiemillman, or by email at

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