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Proposal Writing 101

One of the most challenging tasks in the world of running your own graphic design business, whether as the head of a large agency, partner in a small firm, or a freelance designer is to write a comprehensive, articulate proposals when bidding on a job. How much information do you include to demonstrate that you understand the scope of the job, without giving away too much of your thought process and ideas? How do you determine a fair price? What will make your proposal stand out from the rest?

I’ve been running my own graphic design firm for over 23 years. I’ve written hundreds of proposals, for many different project, both large and small and have learned to navigate my way through the process by following some simple rules. Recently I was a guest speaker in an Master’s Degree class in graphic design. I talked about my working procedures, and client interactions; horror stories and “best-client” tales. But what many students seemed particularly interested in was how to write a proposal. This is for those students.

I. Find out the facts.

If it is at all possible, I like to schedule a face-to-face meeting with the client before writing a formal proposal. I ask all decision-makers be present so that I can get their input firsthand, and not find out later that the CEO has a completely different idea of what they are after from what the Marketing Director has in mind.

Before attending that initial meeting, look up your client on the Internet. Explore their website thoroughly, check out those of their competitors. What is their social media presence? What printed materials are they currently using?

Make sure that you are clear on what the scope of the project includes. Ask questions. Make sure that you have all the information you need to create your proposal.

If the client is not available for a meeting before the proposal, find out everything you can from your point of contact who sent you the original request. Ask all f the questions above in order to understand the parameters of the job.

II. Don’t try to fake it.

If after the meeting, you feel that the project is beyond the scope of your abilities, see if you can employ a team to help you with portions that you do not understand as well. I am a great print designer. I am getting to be a better web designer because I partner with a great web designer on those kinds of projects. I am upfront with my clients about who I am partnering with and I never pretend that I am doing it all myself.

III. Be excited.

I have been told time and time again that I was awarded a contract, not because I am the cheapest, but because I am so enthusiastic about the project. If you’re not excited, maybe you don’t really want to be doing that work. I have definitely turned down requests for proposals after finding out the details.

IV. Language of the Proposal

Send an immediate email response to your client after the initial meeting, or phone call, thanking them for including you in the process, an reiterating your understanding of the scope of the project that you will be bidding on. Give them a date when they can expect your proposal and then deliver it ON TIME! Always check your spelling and grammar! Nothing says, “Don’t hire me,” like a series of typos and bad sentences.

Here a good basic list of things to include in your proposal. 1. Cover letter Thank the client for including you in the bidding process. Explain that if they have any questions they should not hesitate to call.

2. Brief outline of what was discussed in the meeting. Describe your understanding of the client’s goals for the project. Give a bullet-point list of objectives to be achieved, and any project details that the client mentioned. Demonstrate your knowledge of their current market position and what changes they are looking for, goals that they hope to achieve, and any company style guide restrictions you should have been made aware of.

3. Proposed Scope of Services From something as simple as a #10 brochure, to a complex branding effort, your client needs to know what exactly it is that you are going to provide, and what those services will cost.

Your list might look something like this: • Logo • Letterhead • Marketing brochure (size and format) • Website • Social Media Marketing

Add items you will be contracting with outside vendors such as • Copywriting • Original art or photography • Use of stock images

4. Working Procedures

“Yes! We want to work with you! What’s next?”

It is important that a client understands what will follow once they accept your proposal. Break down the work in a series of Phases if it is a large project. For instance, in a total rebranding effort, your first Phase might be the logo. Within each phase, I break down the process into two steps. Visual Explorations and Refinement and Finished Art. Below is an example of steps for a client brochure with inserts. This was the first Phase of an ongoing marketing effort, which I outlined in the same way for subsequent portions of the project.

Phase I. Comprehensive Brochure and Inserts

Step 1 – Visual Explorations

If Shoot the Moon is awarded the job, we would like to schedule a fact-gathering meeting with the staff involved as soon as possible to get the first-hand input on the project from all the ultimate decision makers. (I absolutely ALWAYS begin a job with a fact-gathering meeting where all the decision-makers are present. This might be just one person, or a number of people, but it needs to include those who have the ultimate decision on the final product.)

After the meeting Shoot the Moon will provide you with an outline of what was discussed to make sure that we are all on the same page with goals, timeline, etc. When the client has approved the outline, we can begin the design process. The designer and copywriter will be working closely together, so that each component supports the other. The writer will be in constant contact with the client in order to get their input on topics to include and people to interview.


Be very specific about how many presentations of ideas and revisions you are willing to make at each step of the project. I have numbered the revisions that I included with this project. Include a paragraph that the client must initial that states if they go over their revision limits, additional hours will be charges as Author’s Alterations. You can certainly be flexible with this, depending upon the client, but I have had a client who insisted on what amounted to a total redesign after going through a series of approvals. Since I had not said EXACTLY how many revisions they were allowed, they insisted that I do the work at no additional charge. I won’t make that mistake again.

(1) In our first presentation, we will present printed comprehensive layouts, showing at least two different directions for the main brochure and two of the inserts. We will use rough text as available and will demonstrate paper ideas, binding options, and proposed photography or illustration style. It will be helpful if the same decision-makers are present at this meeting so that we can get all feedback firsthand. Throughout the design process, we will be keeping in mind the overall cost of the piece, and design to fit within the printing budget. As soon as we have a good idea as to the direction the pieces will take, and the printing requirements, we will provide specifications to a number of printers who are qualified to do the job in order to obtain the best price.

Step 2 – Refinement and Finished Art

When the client chooses to proceed with one particular direction for the pieces, the designs will be further refined, and another (2) presentation will be made reflecting any changes desired by the client. This presentation will include the main brochure as well as all four inserts in a comprehensive layout. The text will also become more developed based upon the conceptual direction chosen and at this time final photography or illustration decisions will be made.

When final images are available, Shoot the Moon will also be receiving final copy as an electronic file. Another set of comprehensive layouts (3) will be created for all pieces and presented to the client. These will have all final copy and artwork in place.

The client will be sent an electronic file in pdf format (4) of the completed job to proof one last time before it is sent to the printer.

* Insert that alteration clause here.

Any copy or artwork changes desired by the client should be made at this time, before it goes to the printer or to a live site.

Changes made beyond this point will be billed in addition to the original estimate at $__ per hour. [Client initials] ______________

IV. What do I charge?

This is a tricky question. Rates vary wildly from state to state, and within different market sectors. I find that non-profit organizations tend to include marketing in their budgets, and so are sometimes willing to share with you their cost restrictions. Non-profits also understand the importance of marketing their mission. Corporations and Financial Sector clients are all about the “Return on Investment” and want you to quantify how your cost will ultimately give them a greater return.

Having been in the business for so many years, I have a good idea of what my market will bear and it is something that comes from experience. Ask your peers what they charge. Ask you client if they have a budget they are working within. Sometimes that can save you loads of time when you find out they have very little. Often they need you to help them formulate their budget.

You have to walk a fine line of getting a good value for your services, without pricing yourself out of the market. It might help you establish an hourly rate if you give a per-project price and then keep very close track of your hours. What does that figure average out to? Keep that in mind the next time you bid on work. If a client calls you and asks you to revise your price, how much might you be willing to come down, and if you are willing to do so, you need to have a way to justify it. Perhaps the scope of services changes, or the client provides the copywriting. If you reduce your cost without explanation, your client will wonder how you arrived at your original price. Like I said…it’s a fine line.

Don’t even talk to me about doing work on spec. That’s a topic for another day.

V. Case Studies

If I am bidding on a major piece of work, I will include one or two case studies of similar projects, or something that I did for a client in the same field. I will do a brief description of the client’s initial needs, our solution, and what the end result has been for them.

For more information check out The Graphic Artists Guild, is an online resource to help with pricing and other industry concerns. I suggest you order the handbook. Use it as a guideline. I’ve found some of the pricing is a little high for the Baltimore Market.

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