Working freelance: How to deal with a weak brief.

Hi guys. I need some advice on this one.

I try to get some freelance industrial design business up and running.
Although I’ve had luck having several potential clients contact me, it hasn’t turned into a job yet. The conversation dies out in the initial phase.
I lately got the thought that I may scare the clients away with, to me, relevant questions regarding their projects.
I just feel that I need to know the information I ask in order to create a successful project.

A case:
I’ve been contacted by a company that wants me to design a, lets say, bag.
In their initial mail they stated they “would like to have our design made which will be unique, user friendly, easy to carry and stack.”

Very general, if you ask me.

I then asked:
“1. Who’s the target group? E.g. Children, young people, adults?
2. What’s the intended use? E.g. school, work, hiking, travel?
3. What’s the expected quantity?
4. What makes this bag better than all the existing bags? Price, functionality, design?”

Their answers:
“1. It should be something which usable to all different age groups.
2. Similar to “an existing product that they refers to”, more all round, this way we sell the same item to a broader target group.
3. As a trial order we are thinking of starting with 2000 pcs and then increase depending on the demand.
4. Good Unique design, good quality, safe and user friendly at a decent price.”

It feels to me that they really don’t know what they want their bag to be. In my eyes it going to be a tough, if not impossible, game to make a unique, quality, safe, user friendly bag for all age groups at a decent price.

I’ve been schooled, and have a personal belief, that it’s important to have a specific target group, know exactly how the new product is going to differentiate from the existing products and have a quite good idea about the cost price limit. It is just vital information for making the best design. I might be wrong.

Now is the time when I typically start to ask what they mean by “unique”, which level the “decent price” is at, and try to explain that it doesn’t really make sense to design a bag that 12 year old Tommy think is cool and at the same time is user friendly to his 83 year old grandma.

What is your thought on this?
I try to create a good base for the project, but I might appear rude?
Do you deliver designs based on this level of information?
Do you teach your clients to make a proper and more specific brief?

I look forward to hear about your experience, because I’m getting a bit confused about this.

Thanks on beforehand.
Best regards,

I think you are doing everything right. I fear if took such ambiguous jobs like that you would go through a million iterations and still have more work left to do.

One thing you can do is do a presale type of project. Do a quick 1, 2 hour project to get them interested and see if they respond. Then once youve got their interest, you can lay down the contract. Be absolutely, 100% clear on the terms of your work, and what they will get and for how much from day one.

A lot of people do not excel at writing briefs.

Can you do an in person meeting to align on schedule and scope? If so construct some activities to make it easy to create a brief, and make phase one of the program you writing the brief (more billable hours).

Some things I would do in the activity.

  1. Print out images of different types of users (young, old, fashionable, frumpy, high style, dressed for specific functions): have the client pin on the wall images of the types of people the bag is for

  2. Print out images of different activities then same as above, have them pin the activities to the board

  3. Print out images of different types of possible competitive bags (from Hello Kitty school girl bag to a mountaineering pack) and same as above

  4. Print out images of different types of retailers, big box, global, niche, regional, boutique, have them pin up the ones they see the bag selling in

These kind of things are valuable exercises to charge for. Helping someone know what they want to do (or to put it in more expensive terms, opportunity identification and parameter alignment) is very valuable and will save lots of design time ($$$) for them going forward.

Some other questions, do they have a target BOM cost, a target retail price, a target margin, any existing material or color pallets (could be another exercise here if not)?

Thanks yo and sketchroll! That is some really great advice. I’m glad to hear that I’m not totally off.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to meet them in person due to different countries… but using the same approach through a skype-call will do, I think.

I really like the pedagogic way of showing images of the different user groups, uses and competitors. I’m definitely going to use that in the future.

My question now is how much effort to put into convincing the client that they need to be way more specific in their product brief, and they should pay me help them be more specific?
At some point I feel that they are convinced that doing an undefined unique all-around bag for all age groups is the way to go, and I don’t wan’t to waste too much time trying to convert them.

Maybe doing a quick general presentation explaining the importance of a specific target group, use, cost, etc. will help.
What do you think?

Thanks again for the great answers.