Proposal design needs to be a critical factor in your company's approach to RFP responses. This is something you, the creative leader, can influence and impress upon your company's executives by explaining to them that:

  • Document layout isn't just about aesthetics.
  • An impressive look and feel can help you make the "shortlist".
  • A well-designed layout makes the reviewer's job so much easier.
  • Subconsciously, good design gives your submission a solid, confident appeal.

Your proposal document may be the prospect's first point of contact with your company. If the evaluation team's experience is professional, client-friendly and clear, it bodes well for the future of your relationship and can give your bid the winning edge.

Since first impressions last, your design team has an opportunity to make the evaluation team's first impression so positive that even before they begin to read you have put them in a positive frame of mind about your company. How your proposals look and feel, how easy they are to read and the extent to which they show that a high level of effort was invested in turning out a quality product all give your company a edge over competitors and can increase your win rate.

Have Your Designers Work Collaboratively with Desktop Publishers

Some government proposals have strict requirements and instructions (Section L) for page layout. Often responses to federal government proposals are page limited, while others could be several hundred pages. Some commercial proposals require the use of a supplied template or table. However, if layout is not mandated, your design team has carte blanche to create a proposal template that makes your company's proposal stand out from the crowd.

Most RFP responses, both government and commercial, require that the response document be submitted as a Microsoft Word document versus InDesign. Use of Word should not be an inhibitor to creativity as the same design and legibility principles apply. Your design team should work directly with the desktop publishing staff (Word experts) in developing a template for making a proposal maximally reader friendly.

Elements for Consideration

Make the document "skim-friendly." Keep in mind that evaluation teams will skim documents before making a decision to review it closely. Apply smart and thoughtful design principles that will enable evaluators to evaluate fast. Make it fast and easy for reviewers to find all the essential information. Use techniques that make it easy for reviewers to find key information. Organize your content to decrease the time and effort required of evaluators. A proposal that is easy to evaluate is likely to be more competitive.

As you develop your design template be conscious of:

  • Page Layout
    • Use of a Grid--Establish a rhythm and give your template function and form to create order and unify the elements on the page. Grids ensure documents are visually well organized so that information flows in concert with the readers' expectations based on the guidelines in the RF
    • White Space--A page is more inviting when there is ample white space. A page jam-packed with text, running from margin-to-margin makes the page look daunting to the reader. The more white space you can infuse into your document, the easier it will be for the evaluation team to read and understand your solution and increases your chances of receiving a high score.
    • Line Length--Optimum line length should be approximately 60 characters.
    • Paragraph Size--Strive to shorten paragraphs to avoid presenting large blocks of text to the reader.
  • Make Benefits Stand Out--Emphasize positive ideas such as low- risk and high benefits through the use of call out boxes, sidebars, theme statements and pull quotes.
  • Use of Graphics--Proposals that incorporate a key visual element (such as a logo or graphic) makes the proposal stand out. Develop graphics that are relevant to the proposal's overall message and have substantive meaning. The graphics that work best are ones that add to the story. If the graphics don't add to the story, save the space. Each selected visual should be able to stand-alone and send its own message in lieu of words. Each graphic used should make a single point.
  • Typography--Avoid overusing bold, italic and underlining.
  • Use of Color--If allowed, selective use of color can attract attention to the main points of your proposal.

A Likely Scenario

An evaluation team receives two RFP responses. One is thoughtfully designed, including easy-to-read, well-organized text, color graphics and is professionally packaged overall. The second proposal is adequate as far as responding to the RFP, but contains none of the design elements of the first. The price both companies quote are comparable. Which of the following statements best reflects your initial assumptions about the competing proposals?

  • The first proposal is better because it demonstrates that the company knows its business and has gone to extra lengths to ensure that its proposal stands out.
  • The two proposed solutions are similar and both companies quoted comparable prices, so they are equal.
  • The second proposal is better. The first one looked nice, but such design and packaging is frivolous and shows that the company does not manage costs well.
  • None of the above.

  • The correct answer is "2"--the proposals were equal. Why? Design and readability are not official evaluation criterion to the RFP response.

    Any influence that visual design has is indirect--proposals are not graded on readability, but a proposal that is more readable might score better because the evaluators have a greater understanding of its content. In this case, an "intangible" benefit can have a "tangible" outcome for your company.