No one ever showed me how to write a proposal. My current process has been distilled from scores of experiments, some successful, others not so much. Between my own experiences and in talking to others, I think there are several key points that can be applied across the board.
As designers, we are busy by nature. Personally, I always have about four or five open projects at any one time, whether it be freelance work, a new article or just fiddling with one of my sites. Just about every other designer I’ve met walks a similar path. Maybe it’s our built-in ADD—our subconscious effort to never be bored. Who knows.
But this natural dysfunction can let some of the important left-brain, business-oriented stuff get lost amid the shuffle. One of these is the writing of proposals.
The reason I bring this up is actually two-fold. First, I am currently redesigning the cover for the proposal writers at my day job. This involves a custom-cut folder with full color on both sides and a large flap in back to hold printed collateral. I have been working closely with the writers to draft something simple, useful and elegantly branded.
Second, for whatever reason, I have found myself writing a pile of proposals for freelance work lately—in the past month or so, I have drafted six original proposals, four for new clients. I have won two assignments, been turned down for one, waiting to hear back about two more and the last just kind of fizzled away as the client decided not to proceed.
In both cases, I hear the same thing: the prospective client remarks on the scope, thoroughness and obvious effort of the proposal, and often says it’s the best one they have ever seen.
I don’t write the proposals at my job; in fact, we have a team of three writers who prepare them. But I can make a few observations. They are complete but not too wordy, they are well designed and thoughtfully organized, and they are accompanied by not only a stack of supporting collateral (case studies, product brochures, whitepapers, etc), but by a digital version on CD-ROM that holds PDF copies of everything.
For my own proposals, I don’t prepare any type of special packaging. I deliver everything in Word format over e-mail, with minimal text formatting, and no extraneous graphics. My proposals are content-focused, and usually break down in the following order:
- Purpose and Goals
This is basically the overview—what the client does, what I will do and the primary directives of the assignment. Nothing complex.
- Specific Directives
This is where I break down the overview into specific sections. For instance, if the “Purpose and Goals” section specified three distinct tasks like logo design, letterhead and website, then there would be a full section for each going into greater detail.
- Process and Deliverables
This is the timeline of the project, broken into phases with estimates for time to completion. Each phase is given a paragraph of description, including what will be delivered to the client and how it will influence later phases. For a site design, Phase 1 would be “Research and Information Gathering” and the last phase would be something like “Site Launch.”
- Pricing and Cost
Everyone’s favorite section, and the one that is, unfortunately, usually read first. This is where I state my hourly rate, the estimated number of hours and some light legalese to prepare them for the proper contract (stuff like kill fees, cost overruns, etc). This section is very brief and to the point.
Although I have been freelancing for years, no one ever showed me how to write a proposal. My current process has been distilled from scores of experiments, some successful, others not so much. Between my own experiences and in talking to others, I think there are several key points that can be applied across the board:
- Content is king. Spell out everything in detail because it should all be crystal clear before signatures are traded.
- Unless a photo or illustration directly supports the content, lose it.
- Presentation matters. Type treatments, color choices, physical binding and presentation can all aid the cause. Don’t go gaudy.
- Spell check. It’s your best friend.
- Make it personal. Speak in a natural tone and avoid overbearing language or extended legalese. I’ve always found third person more appropriate (“the client”) than second person (“you”).
- Be organized. Lay out your content intelligently, and make sure the proposal elegantly flows from topic to topic.
- Always include pricing. Don’t have a party and not serve cake.
- Be firm and concise. Avoid wishy-washy verbiage, vague references or drawn-out descriptions. If your proposal were an actor, it would be James Woods.
Update Sep 13, 2004: Now includes a free sample!