Advice from me

Writing a creative brief for a computer exhibit

When you’re commissioning a museum computer exhibit one of the most important things to get right is the initial brief that you send out to contractors to tell them what you want. A good brief can produce a great exhibit that dazzles your audience with its creativity, beauty and wit. A poor one can be untold grief. These guidelines aim to help you get it right.


General points
Parts of a brief
1) Message
2) Audience
3) Budget
4) Timescale
5) Appointment process
6) Content background
7) Design guidelines
8) Hardware
9) Point of contact
10) Suggested format
11) Project background information

12) Deliverables
13) Rights and licenses
14) Other information

General points about a creative brief


The purpose of a brief is to tell your contractors what you want from your exhibit. It should tell them which areas and issues are most important to you, which aspects of the exhibit you’re already decided and those which you’d like the contractor to come up with something for. Contractors have a lot more experience in their medium than you do and a good brief encourages them to come up with creative ideas to communicate your message to your audience. It should give them all the information they need to put together a proposal for you.

Coming up with proposals takes time and work

Its important to realise that coming up with a proposal takes the contractor some time and effort for which usually they are not being paid. They have to add up budgets to work out what is affordable, they have to check schedules and the availability of workers, they have to come up with an idea and they have to create a presentation to show you. The amount of time they put into this depends on how likely they think they are to get the job, how attractive the job is to them and whether they think you’re likely to change your mind about what you want. This amount of effort is pretty constant so if you can’t decide whether to have 2 small exhibits or 1 big one and ask the contractor to put together a proposal for both then they’ll put half as much time into each alternative. If they think you’re likely to ring them up after sending they’ve put together a proposal and say “Oh, the budget is half as much as it was” or “Our director has said it must include Penguins” then they’ll put less effort into it. And if you do change the terms of the brief and ask for a new proposal, what you get back will have had much less time put into it and tend to be safe and boring as the contractor wants to cover themselves for when you change your mind again. Another thing to consider is how many other contractors they’re pitching against – if you’ve got more than about 3 contractors in the pitch then its likely that none of them will put much effort into the pitch unless you pay them.

What this means as far as writing the brief is concerned is that you will have to make some firm decisions when you write the brief and commit yourself to them. The earlier you can make these decisions the more you will get for your money as sorting things out later costs more in time and money.

The contractor is also judging you

As you’ve probably realised from the preceding paragraph a brief and pitching process is actually a two way piece of communication. Although you hope to make a judgement on the contractor from their proposal the contractor is also making a judgement on you as client. If you can inspire the contractor with your project and make them feel that you value and support their creative input then they’re more likely to respond with something great. If you come across as professional and organised the contractor will tend to present a better proposal because they think this is likely to be a good project. You need to be clear about what it is you do want and also clear about the areas where you’re open to suggestions. Most of all you need to have a clear decision making process so that the contractors are sure that you won’t change your mind half way through and waste work and time.

A brief is a communication document

You should consider your brief like any other piece of communication. Make sure that the most important parts are at the beginning and highlighted. Put the less important parts in Appendices. Don’t use museum or legal jargon – you want people to read it. Don’t just cut and paste large chunks of documents written for some other purpose in the hope that some of it will be relevant – if the contractor realises that they can ignore some parts of the brief they may ignore other parts that are more important. Make sure that contractors have a contact who they can ring up with any questions and encourage them to do so. It’s much better to spend some time talking to contractors before a pitch than for them to turn up and have completely missed the point.

Sometimes you don’t need a creative brief

The whole point of a creative brief is that you want the contractor to be creative. You want them to use their experience of the medium and their creativity to come up with some exciting new way of communicating your content. This is generally the best way of creating a new exhibit. Sometimes, however you know exactly what you want down to the last detail and the project is more “Build to time and budget”. This is usually when you have an existing exhibit which you need to make a technical change to – eg “Convert this to work on a Macintosh”. In these cases you can use a more standard procurement process similar to one you might use for say, buying computers.

Parts of a brief

In this section I’ll be going through the various sections that your brief should contain. The most important to get right are the Message, the Audience, the Budget, the Timescale and the Appointment process. If you’re not sure about any of these then its better to delay sending out the brief while you sort them out rather then just sending something out and hoping it will sort itself out.

1) Message

The message is one or two sentences that sum up the essence of what you want to communicate to your visitors.

Why do I need this?

The reason for having the message is that it gives the contractor something to focus on and when you’re making decisions about how to design the exhibit you can just ask yourself “Does this help communicate the message?” - If the answer is no then you probably don’t need that feature.


Here's an example message for an interactive on the MMR vaccine.

Ages 8-12 Vaccination can stop you getting diseases.
Age 12+ If vaccination levels fall below a certain level then you will get outbreaks and possibly epidemics of the diseases. And those who cannot be immunized for medical reasons will have no defense.

Here's another for an exhibition based in an historic manor house

The Manor house structure and appearance of the Manor house has been changed many different times by different people for different reasons .

And another for an art exhibition

Picasso and Matisse lived in similar times and each was inspired by the art of the other.
Matisse's art is often based on the use of colour whereas Picasso's tends to be an exploration of form.

2) Audience

You should try and specify a target audience for your exhibit. Ideally make this audience is as specific as possible.

Why do I need this?

There are two main reasons for this:

  • Different audience groups have different needs and likes. You wouldn’t try to design a TV program to appeal to pensioners, teenagers and five year olds. If you try and design your exhibit to appeal to everyone then you’ll end up with a bland mush which appeals to no-one. If you know your audience then your exhibit can be much more interesting and alive.
  • If you don’t specify the target audience then you will end up designing the exhibit for yourself. I’ve seen quite a few exhibits designed for middle aged museum professionals rather than the actual preferences of the target audience. (For some reason people coming up to the big four-zero or big five-zero are particularly susceptible to this so be self-aware).

Sometimes you’re designing an exhibition for a specific target audience anyway so picking one is easy. At other times your exhibition is supposed to appeal to “everyone” – so what do you do? Here are some tips:

  • Look at your exhibition and see where there’s a gap. So if your exhibition is primarily static objects – which don’t tend to appeal to teenagers, then make teenagers the primary audience for your interactive exhibit.
  • Children under 8 have difficulty reading and grasping complex concepts. They’re also too small to reach a lot of exhibits. So in general you should design exhibits specifically for this age group.
  • If you’ve got several exhibits then aim then at different audiences.
  • Just because you’ve specified your primary audience doesn’t mean your exhibit won’t be used by other groups.


Here’s an example of an audience specification.

The primary audience for this exhibit is children aged from 8-16. However, the look and feel of the exhibit should not put off interested adults.

Here’s another one.

The primary audience for this exhibit is adults aged from 20-55. However, the exhibit may be used by children over 12 and older adults.

3) Budget

You should specify a fixed budget for your exhibit and a payment schedule based on deliverables from the contractor. Your budget should be for the software only, not the hardware (see hardware below). You should also state whether this includes such “extras” as travel and things such as licenses for media such as photos. Unless you’ve got a good reason not to it’s generally a good idea to say that the budget sum includes all these “extras” and no other money will be paid.

You should also specify on what basis you’re expecting to pay the money. My recommendation is to pay in stages based on deliverables and keep back 5-10% of the sum until the software has been working faultlessly with the public for 3 months.

Why do it like this?

You should include a fixed budget in your software brief. This requirement often surprises people who have been involved in procurement for other items such as IT. After all you wouldn’t buy a washing machine by walking into the shop and saying “I’d like to spend £500 on a washing machine”. The reason you specify the budget up front is that the question “How much does a computer exhibit cost” is a bit like a the proverbial “How long is a piece of string”. Due to the complex nature of these exhibits you can’t specify exactly what you want so if you don’t tell the contractor the budget they are forced to guess how much you were thinking of spending – if they get it wrong then you’ve both wasted your time. I’ve been in several situations where the client either didn’t specify the budget or kept changing it – in most of them the contractor decides that the client doesn’t know what they’re doing and the project will be a nightmare so they pull out before they’ve even started.


Here’s an example of a payment schedule.

1st Prototype version 25%
2nd Prototype version 25%
Final Version 20%
Robustness testing changes made and installed on site 20%
Software working without defects after 3 months on gallery 10%

4) Timescale

You should include a provisional timetable indicating deliverables from both client and contractor. Make clear that this is a provisional timetable and you may be open to negotiating changes.

Why do this?

By including a timetable you communicate to the contractors what you are expecting from them and when – you also tell them what they can expect from you. This makes it much easier for them to plan the project and allocate resources. It also avoids situations where the contractor makes assumptions about your programme which turn out to be wrong. You may be concerned that you can’t estimate how long it will take the contractor to do a particular job – don’t worry, this is why you made it a provisional timetable – you can negotiate these with the contractor on appointment. The important thing is that both sides agree on the timetable before much work starts.

An example timetable

1 Client issues creative brief to the contractor
3Contractor pitches proposal to client
4Client accepts proposal and issues a contract and sends draft written content
7Contractor delivers 1st prototype of the exhibit
8Client tests 1st prototype exhibit with visitors
9Client feeds back results from visitor testing to contractor.
Client delivers final written content and media such as images/pictures to the contractor

12Contractor delivers 2nd prototype of the exhibit to client
13Client tests 2nd prototype exhibit with visitors
Client feeds back results from visitors testing to contractor
16Contractor delivers final version to client
17Client tests final version for quality and reliability (robustness)
18Contractor makes any changes needed by robustness testing
19Client installs exhibit on the gallery

5) Appointment process

You should include a paragraph stating how the appointment process will work and what you are expecting from contractors.

Why do this?

It’s much better to explain how you’re doing things at the start as there is no “standard” process that everyone knows. Writing down what you’re going to do ensures that there are no misunderstandings.


We are looking to appoint a single contractor to create this exhibit. We will be inviting three different contractors to tender for this and we will be making out selection based on creative pitches to be held on 15 th June 2005.

For your pitch you will be allocated 45 minutes. This will include 10 minutes for you to make a presentation and a further 35 minutes for discussion. A data projector will be available. We will also need a written statement of your cost plan plus terms and conditions.

The contract will be awarded to the contractor, whose proposal, in the opinion of the selection panel, satisfies best the requirements laid out in this brief.

6) Content background plus additional materials

You should include information on the content contained in the exhibit. There’s no reason why you can’t include all the relevant information you have but if its more than a paragraph or so then put it in a appendix so it doesn’t swamp the rest of the brief. If you have any supporting media then it’s also a good idea to list what you have here – you might send the contractor a sample but its usually not necessary to send everything you have.

In more unusual cases you may be expecting the contractor to source information about the subject. This will definitely add to the cost of the exhibit and the content may not be of the same quality if you supply it yourself. If you do this make sure you specify any checking and sign-off procedures you have for the content. If you want to be able to change the content after the exhibit has been installed you should indicate how often you would want to do this and to what degree. Think carefully before you ask for this because making the content easily changeable will be a lot of extra work for the contractor and reduce the quality of the exhibit, sometimes considerably.

Why do this?

You’re expecting the contractor to come up a creative interpretation of the content in your exhibit so you have to give them some content. In general, the richer, more detailed and more interesting the content is the more they have to work with and the better the exhibit will be. As a museum you’re usually a source of content expertise and you need to communicate this knowledge to the contractor so they can create a good exhibit.

7) Design guidelines

You should include any guidelines you have on the design of the exhibit. This should include any usability, production or graphical guidelines. If your organisation has a brand strategy that you want to use you should also include it.

Why do this?

If you have guidelines that you want the contractor to follow its much easier if you put them in at the start. As has been said before the contractor is much more likely to pay attention to something in the initial brief and they won’t waste their time (and your money) producing something which doesn’t fit your requirements. Be aware that production schedules for print designs are often very different from that for computer exhibits so you may have to warn your exhibition designers that they will need to produce graphic design guidelines in time for you to send out in the brief. You may also need to remind them that you need colours for computer screens to be specified using the “RGB” system rather than the “Pantone” system used for print.


Your exhibit should conform to the guidelines laid out the appendix “Requirements for all museum computer exhibits”.

Graphic Design

Your exhibit should conform to the gallery typeface – Helvetica and to the colour palette laid out below:

Purple – RGB(126,0,151)
Pink – RGB(184,40,151)
Lavender – RGB(174,144,222)

8) Hardware

Ideally you should give the technical specifications for the computer, screen and any other hardware you will be using. Don’t actually buy any equipment until you have appointed the contractor and they have confirmed that they can create an exhibit for this hardware. If you haven’t made a firm decision yet you could put a set of “minimum” specifications for the hardware so that whatever you end up with will exceed this. Getting the contractor to choose the hardware isn’t ideal as most software contractors don’t know much about hardware issues such as maintenance but if you do this then allocate them a separate budget for hardware and keep any leftover money that they don’t spend for spares and other exhibits. Sometimes you may give the contractor a choice between different hardware equipment – for example, either a touch screen or a joystick. If you’re feeling really adventurous you could let the contractor propose their own novel user interface. This can create really innovative exhibits but if you’re doing this it’s a good idea to make sure that you have another separate hardware expert to judge the feasibility of their proposal.

Why do this?

Its good practice to have the software contractor confirm that they’re happy with your choice of hardware, for some exhibits they won’t be able to start work until the hardware specification is confirmed. However if you give them one budget for both hardware and software you give them a difficult dilemma. Should they put your maintenance and exhibition design needs first and spend a lot of the budget on good quality hardware? Or should they buy something cheaper and increase the amount spent on software, that is increase their own budget? To answer this they would have to second guess your needs, which is very hard for them to do. Avoid the problem by buying the hardware separately or at least allocating a separate budget. Some contractors are very keen to propose novel interfaces to exhibits. This can be very hard to get right as they have to be robust, safe and easy to use so having your own hardware expert to judge their proposal is very useful.

Example hardware specification

The exhibit will run on the following computer

Pentium 4 3.2 Ghz
512 MB RAM
128MB PCI Express Graphics card
Windows XP Professional
60GB Hard drive

The screen will be a 17” touch screen with a resolution of 1280 x 1024

9) Point of contact

You should give the contractor one point of contact in your organisation which all communication goes through. Your organisation will probably seem very complex and confusing to the contractors, don’t make them have to deal with lots of different people.

10) Suggested format

You may like to put in a suggested format or outline for the exhibit. This is fine and helps the contractor understand what you want. If you’ve had some more specific ideas for the exhibit you could put them in as well but make sure you clearly mark them as “starting ideas” or something similar so the contractor doesn’t feel that they have to implement these as they stand. Another thing you should include is if there are any ideas that you definitely don’t want to consider. What you should avoid is the temptation to write out a storyboard for the exhibit. Whatever you put, make sure that the contractor understands that the most important thing is communicating the message to the target audience.

Why do this?

If you’re after a fast paced action game because the rest of your exhibition is a bit sedate then it’s a good idea to make this plain – and vice versa if you’re after something slower. Similarly if you’ve already had some ideas for the exhibit you may as well share them with the contractor. However, what you have to bare in mind is that the whole point of the creative brief is to make use of the contractor’s creative experience to produce a more imaginative exhibit. If you put in your own idea and the contractor feels that this is how it has to be then you’re wasting your money and their expertise. Putting down a storyboard that you’ve put together yourself is getting too detailed with the design too early – spend your time refining your message and your content.

Examples of suggested formats

“We would like this to be a fast paced action exhibit to contrast with the rest of the exhibits. A possible idea is that you have to race around the manor house collecting as many historical artefacts as you can within a certain time limit. We would like to avoid the use of talking historical characters as the museum already has many other exhibits containing these.”

“We would like this to be a quiet reflective exhibit which adds context and background information to the rest of the gallery. A possible format is to use the idea of a library to suggest a peaceful environment full of information.”

11) Project background information

Put in a short paragraph about your organisation and your project. You would normally put this as the introduction to the brief; I’ve put it towards the bottom of this document because it’s not as important as some of the other items.

Why do this?

It’s good if the contractors have an idea of who you are, what your organisation does and why you’re commissioning the exhibit. You could also tell more about your project including such things as a gallery plan and how long the exhibit is supposed to last. All this can help provide them with some useful context that you might have missed elsewhere; it can also introduce them to your organisation if they not come across you before. As an added bonus, if you can convince them that their work is part of an exciting project which will be seen by thousands of important people you’ll make them more enthusiastic about the whole thing.

12) Deliverables

You should put in a list of the deliverables you are expecting from the contractor.

Why do this?

This is similar to the timeline in that it helps the contractor understand what you are (and aren’t) expecting them to provide.

Example of deliverables list

For each exhibit we will need the following deliverables on a CD.

  • An automatic installer which installs the software
  • The source code for the software
  • The manual for the software in a common computer format such as Word or PDF

For more details on this see the Appendix “General Requirements for Museum Exhibit Software”

13) Rights and licenses

You need some kind of statement about who will own what rights to the finished exhibit. This doesn’t have to be some complex legal statement but should protect both sides.

As a client you need the right to use the exhibit indefinitely without extra payment plus also to use it in any publicity. If you intend to use material from the programme for other purposes you should say so in the brief, but note that every additional use may incur copyright fees. Usually you also want to prevent the contractor selling it to someone else. If you think that you might want to sell the exhibit – say to another museum or in your shop then you should negotiate it with the contractor – they may charge extra for this, particularly as they may have to pay more for any third party assets (such as images) that they use.

Why do this?

As you can see rights can become a complex issue and it’s much better to reach an agreement at the beginning before you’ve awarded the contract.

14) Other information

You may want to add other information into the brief, depending on the project. As a general rule you should mention anything which may cost or save the contractor time and/or money. So, for example, if the contractor is a long way from you, you may like to specify a minimum number of visits which they must make to your premises. Another example is if you have a large selection of pictures and videos they can use for the exhibit then this will save them having to create them themselves and they’ll be able to spend more time on other things.

© Joe Cutting 2005. You are welcome to use this document for your own purposes but you must retain this acknowledgment. You may not sell all or any part of this document or use it for financial gain.