Creating a professional design proposal

I feel like no one ever talks about design proposals, it’s almost as if everyone is too busy working on projects.
How do we get there though? Do you just send an invoice for your work? Do you create a fancy presentation and try to sell a client on your services? In reality, it’s a combination of both. Over the course of 7 years we have redesigned our proposals 4 times. Each time getting better and better at it. Now we have about an 80% close rate and the only reason people go somewhere else is that we are out of their price range. You can also skip towards the end to download an example of our proposal that we are using. So let’s dive in.


What’s a good proposal?

The answer is simple. A good proposal is a proposal that makes the client pick you for their project. Easy to say, much harder to do. So how do we make a client pick you? We believe your proposal should succeed in these areas:

  • Show that you know what you are doing.  This is covering all the bases, things they didn’t think about. Show that you have a process and this is not your first time. You want to indirectly communicate that they can rely on you. You are a professional that understands their project inside out. You are not their friend’s friend who knows a guy (they already got a quote from him anyway)
  • Show how you are different. This is harder to do then it sounds since you can’t just come out and say it. You have to do this indirectly. There is so much competition out there that it’s almost impossible to stand out. Therefore you have to excel in all the categories, that’s much harder to do then excel in one (ex: their friend might be the cheapest option but they are not professional)
  • Make it personal. If I had to give someone one recommendation or pick the most important point it would be this one. After all, this is why they are even considering their friend’s friend who knows a guy because someone on their team knows and trusts him. How do you do it? Be transparent with what you are going to do, don’t beat around the bush, don’t use fancy words or jargon. Make it seem that this whole proposal was made just for them.
  • Don’t waste people’s time. When we first started we did make our proposal lengthy and fancy. We thought that the cooler the proposal looks and the more pages it has the bigger and more serious we look. As we got more and more experience we saw that we got outbid by people with much more simple and shorter proposals. They just had all of the other points. Sure your proposal should look nice but don’t overdo it. This is not a marketing campaign.
    Nope, this is a marketing booklet and not a proposal. Nor you nor your client is going to read this.


Creating Structure that makes sense

Now that we know our goals we can break things apart and create a structure for our proposal. This is up to you. Some people decide to dive in straight into pricing, some people split it up into different sections. Here is the structure that we use and why.

Introduction – 1 page: In one to two sentences we go over the current state. For example, we might say that the website has poor navigation and is outdated and that’s why this project is being started. We then write a short paragraph explaining what we will be doing and a core list of bullet points what will be done. These are important to a client and it helps everyone to focus on what’s important.

Process – About 2 pages: Next we like to go over the process of how we are going to build a web project or design a brand. This is there so that client knows what to expect during our process. We go through the process in person however it’s good to have this in here since you never know who else might see this proposal. This section is excellent in showcasing “How you are different” as well as “Making it personal” points from above.

Specification – 1+ pages: This is where we go into details about features for their project. If we are going to have a gallery for a client we are going to describe using bullet points how things will work. We think of it as a feature list for what we are doing with sub-points to clarify functionality. If we have done a foundation stage beforehand (more on that later)  we would also include or refer to those wireframes.

Timeline – 1 to 2 pages: Our estimated timeline and workflow for the project. We don’t include dates since actual start date changes frequently and instead write a time frame for 1-2 weeks. If projects are short we avoid timeline altogether.

Other stuff – 1 to 2 pages:  This is where we talk how we handle revisions, and talk about optional services we provide like hosting or photography.

Pricing – 1 page: We always have an upgrade option as well as a downgrade option. This allows us to create a proposal that goes above what client expects as well as show an option for how much the bare minimum would cost. Having pricing towards the end is great since people have to go through everything to reach it.

Finalizing pages – 1-3 pages – these pages talk about why a client should go with us and have things like testimonials from clients and some project before and after comparisons. These are only here in case someone else other then our point of contact reads our proposal. The final page is a Terms of Service agreement that goes over legalities of the proposal.

Making it modular

You don’t have to use our structure but chances are yours will be very similar. When designing your proposal you need to think ahead and realize that you will be creating many variations of it. The best proposal is the one you don’t have to spend a lot of time on. That’s why we split ours into blocks that we can take out and add. The way we wrote our initial template and structure we used above allows us to quickly take blocks out and put them back in without losing the flow of the entire proposal.

In the end, you want to make it look like each design proposal is unique. In our example, only the introduction page is almost 90% unique to the client. All other pages with the exception of Specification page are about 90% the same and only have a slight variation. Even our Specification pages usually consist of reused blocks so we seldom write them from scratch. We still read everything all the way through to make sure it reads like a unique proposal and add a sentence here and there to give it a more personal touch.


Foundation and why you need it

The main issue with 80% of the proposals is that they are not personal enough. I don’t mean you have to be your client’s best friend, I mean that proposal doesn’t really dive in deep into the project. Even if you followed all the structure and advice above your proposal will just scratch the surface of the project. It doesn’t include all the little details like research, wireframes and other specifications, and how could it? You would have to spend a significant amount of time with the client (even weeks that you don’t have) to flush out all those details. And the worst part is that most of the time your client doesn’t even know what they need. I am sure you experienced this before, once a project starts it quickly becomes something else. If you are experienced you will hopefully address it as a revision and if not you hope that the blanket price you gave it will be enough to finish it within the budget.  This is where Foundation comes to the rescue.


How it works

You tell your client that rather than giving them a blanket quote that will probably be not accurate you would like to do a “Foundation”.

  • You work with a client for a few weeks and flush out all the features, layout, wireframe, research etc.
  • Based on this you will then create a much more accurate proposal with an accurate quote.
  • The client will have to pay you a set amount for this Foundation.
  • Because this proposal is so flushed out, your client has an option to get other bids based on the spec. you put together
  • If a client decides to go with you the cost of the Foundation goes towards the price of the proposal.

This is a great strategy since the client will get some experience working with you, they have an option to not go with you if you are too expensive and you still get paid for your work. You can still use your current proposal template, now it will be just more flushed out. In many years of us using this method we never lost a client to someone else. Is it because we are so cheap? Nope, it’s because during that Foundation stage you get to work with a client and build a personal relationship. At the end, you really understand their project and they know you do, so they much rather go with you then try to explain the details again to another company even if you have written all the details out in a proposal. Of course, this might be an overkill for some projects but for anything that’s going to take more than a month to build this will make things easier for both parties.


Designing your next proposal

What page size should you use?

For page size, we went with horizontal size of 11×7.5 inch. The reason being is that most of the time proposals were not printed and were shown in board meetings or on the screen. Because of this, we prioritized landscape layout, an aspect ratio is such that the left and right black bars are minimized on the screen yet proposal can still be printed if needed and will fit on 11×8.5 paper as well as European A4 format. By being a little smaller size then a piece of paper it allows you to trim your proposal in the office if needed.


Use Simple Design

When designing think simple layout. This is not a brand manual or an advertising project you need to communicate what you are going to do to a client and over-designed proposal will just waste people’s time. That doesn’t mean you should open up Word add your logo to the corner and paste a bunch of text in either. Think clean and simple. Which brings me to the next point; don’t use your favorite design app. If you open Adobe anything to get started you will be making the same mistake we did many years ago. Adobe InDesign / Illustrator etc are great apps for designers, they are just not great for making proposals. First, even if you are a designer and you are an expert in using them they don’t allow for quick content editing and tweaking by none designers. No sales staff knows how to use them or has them installed. I know today you might be the only person in your company but always think ahead, someone else might be adjusting or tweaking your proposals later.

Don’t worry you won’t be presenting

Why you should use PowerPoint.

So what should you use? We ended up settling on PowerPoint many years back and it worked great ever since. Don’t worry you won’t be presenting anything. The reason we chose it is that almost everyone has Office installed and you can easily send your proposal to a secretary to do a quick tweak.  PowerPoint files can be opened on a Mac and more recently you can import them into Google Office, retain all the look and functionality and collaborate on your proposals with people on your team. Once you finish your design you can hand over your template to your sales team and they can tweak it from there without you having to teach them anything. Yes, the design is going to be a little harder to create but PowerPoint is fairly flexible (you can change the slide size and arrange elements however you want) and the final document can be exported into PDF just like any Adobe file. PowerPoint supports excel integration as well as templates, so you can have a unique layout for each section if you desire to do so. As a bonus, you can even do a boring presentation for your client. You can download the light version of what we are using for proposals to get you started so you can get an idea of how we have it set up.


This is just one way to create a design proposal. A beautiful and well-written proposal is not going to close the deal for you but a poor one can surely keep you from it. Have ideas on proposal writing? Share them in the comments below we would love to hear what you are using.

Leave a Reply