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Proposal Design – Step-By-Step

Proposal design is critical.

First impressions undoubtedly last – and you have a fantastic opportunity to make the first impression your readers get of your proposals so impactful that, even as they begin to read, you can put them in a more positive frame of mind than they will bring to reading another proposal with a less attractive, less professional appearance.

Before You Start – Is the Layout Mandated?

If your business proposal is being written in response to a Request for Proposal (RFP) then the layout may be mandated. If the client has requested a particular layout then respect this request – unless you have prior permission to depart from their mandate. To see how to handle this issue check out the module: “What about Client Specified Layouts?”.

Which Proposal Elements Need Design?

If the layout is not mandated then you have ‘carte blanche’ to create a proposal design that makes a business proposal stand out from the crowd. The Winning proposal structure tells you what design elements you are going to have to consider when you begin the work of creating an attractive presentational layout for your proposal. In making a business proposal maximally attractive you’ll need to design:

  • A title page for your proposal
  • Table of contents
  • A title page for each section and for each appendix in your proposal
  • Fonts for all of these title pages
  • Fonts & styles for the different headings within your proposal
  • Fonts for the body text of each section
  • A style for the headers & footers

Let’s take each of these elements and examine the best way to handle them – starting with the first part of your proposal the reader sees: the Title Page.

The Title Page

Your title page should communicate a few basic facts:

  • The Client Name (Logo optional)
  • The Proposal Title
  • Name of your company or your name
  • Date
  • Corporate Address Information
  • Contact name & details

Business Proposal Design - Cover Page

Figure 1: Title Page

Figure 1 above is the cover page from the template developed to illustrate this chapter. You can see the effect that good proposal design can have on the visual impact of your proposals. Note the use of the graphic to make the design a little more impactful.

When you set out to design a good title page you obviously have to look at the layout of the various elements you will display on the page (title, sub-title, address information etc) but you will also at this early stage have to consider what typeface to use. Your decision on typefaces is an important step in your proposal design, and it will have an impact on all aspects of your proposal – not just the readability.

Your selected fonts will also dramatically impact the ‘look & feel’ of your business proposals – the first and last impressions they make and their readability. There’s a separate module on selecting the right typefaces / fonts coming soon: ignore this critical element at your peril!

Headings

In the modules on outlining and writing you learned how to outline the messages in the various sections of your proposal so that the reader was drawn through your ‘story’ – from idea to idea.  They would start reading at the uppermost level of the title of your section, and be drawn deeper into your discussion of the section, idea by idea, level by level.

The physical layout of your proposal will need to reflect the relationships between the various ideas in your proposal’s sections. To establish those relationships visually your proposal design should use a series of headings that have a visually hierarchical relationship that reflects the hierarchical relationships of your ideas – going from major ideas down to minor detail.

Business Proposal - Heading Design

Figure 2: Heading Designs

Figure 2 shows you how the various headings in your proposal layout should be related. When the reader sees any one of the headings above it should be very easy to establish the relationship between the information it presents and the information presented under all other headings.

Once you have selected your fonts and designed your heading levels, formatting the rest of your proposal becomes very easy indeed.

Table of Contents

All proposals should have a table of contents to help orient readers on where to find key information.

Business {Proposal - Basic Table of Contents

Figure 3: Basic Table of Contents

Figure 3 above show a simple Table of Contents for a smaller proposal – and it includes the very minimum information you include in your table.

The minimum level of detail for the Table of Contents in any proposal is top level section title headings – and you should expand your Table of Contents to include as many levels of sub-headings as you feel is necessary to make your proposal easy for the reader to navigate.

Figure 4 shows an example of the same Table of Contents fleshed out one further level of headings for Section 2.

You should build in as many levels of headings as you feel are necessary to make the proposal easy to navigate.

Business Proposal - More Detailed Table of Contents

Figure 4: More Detailed Table of Contents

Title Page for Each Section

Including a title page for each section gives your proposal design a much more organized and professional appearance.

Business Proposal - Section Title Page

Figure 5: Section Title Page

Figure 5 is the Section Title Page from the template developed to illustrate this chapter. Keep the section titles as clear and legible as this example. On a point of design: notice how the simple blue line used in the section heading ties into the blue proposal title you saw earlier, and in with the blue motif used in the content pages (you’ll see that later).

Proposal Content Pages

Earlier in this module you saw how to select different format styles for the various elements of your proposal – it is in the content pages of your proposal that the wisdom (or folly) of your selections will become apparent.

Business Proposal - Content Page

Figure 6: Content Page

In Figure 6 you can see how contrasting the Sans Serif fonts of the headings with the Serif font used for the body text results in a very legible document.

Body Text for proposals should typically be 10-12pt in size – I favor 12pt for clarity and legibility.

Note how the different heading styles make the relationships between the various sections on the page very clear indeed. The additional use of the indent on the second level headings enhances this effect.

Finally, note how a very simple motif (the small blue square) gives the document a professional finish and a certain flair. These are elements that a designer will naturally bring to the table when making a business proposal stand out – another argument for the modest investment required to have a professional produce a unique template for you (if you’re interested in contacting the designer who create this template please contact me using the form at the foot of this page (and I’ll send you her details).

Paragraphs and Alignment

In figure 6 note the use of ‘justified’ alignment – i.e. the left and right margins are even and not uneven or ‘ragged’. This simple formatting choice makes for an overall impression of a very neat and tidy presentation of your content.

Margins

Vast tracts of text can be intimidating to a reader and so you will find that most well-designed templates will include a lot of ‘white space’ – afforded by the margins of the document on the left/right and top/bottom. White space makes a document appear more inviting and easier to read.

In general your proposal design should include margins that are no less than 0.5 inch / 1.25cm – and a little more can dramatically improve the attractiveness of your document.

If you are printing on a single side of the page only (recommended) then it is a good idea to allow a little extra space in the left margin to allow for the space your binding will take from your pages.

Headers & Footers

There are two other elements obvious on the content page in Figure 6: the headers and footers – those two lines at the top and bottom of the page which effectively frame the page.

The footer is the ideal place to put the page numbers that make navigation a lot easier, and along with the header is great for making a proposal feel more ‘published’- allowing you to add information like the proposal title and the name of the proposing organization (as in Figure 6).

Make Sure Your Content Page Styles Work

The content pages are where your readers will spend most of their time when reviewing your proposals. So, when you have settled on a set of styles for the various elements of these key pages be sure that the overall effect is one that encourages you to read the proposal.

I would strongly recommend that you have some colleagues (or even existing clients) review your proposal design – providing feedback on any aspect of it that they find less than clear or friendly (again, having a designer produce a template for you makes much of this process very easy indeed).

Creating Your Own Templates

When you go through the work of selecting appropriate fonts, headings and a good look and feel it makes a lot of sense to save that proposal design work in the form of a template that you can use and reuse in the future. There are a few ways that you can go about creating your own proposal templates – all of which are discussed in the module entitled ‘Creating Your Own Business Proposal Templates’.

Good Proposal Design is Essential

There is an old saying: “clothes maketh the man“. How your business proposals look and feel, how easy they are to read, and the extent to which they look like some effort was invested in turning out a quality product all give you an additional edge over your competitors.

Do not cheat yourself out of more proposal successes than you deserve by skimping on the time, effort or money necessary to produce a proposal design that clothes all of your Winning proposals in the finest proposal design and layout you possibly can.