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What you need to know about proposal layout design to win

What should you focus on when formatting your proposal?

Is proposal layout design just the icing on the cake? Does it improve your chances of winning? Is presentation everything? Or is it completely irrelevant to the decision maker? How much do impressions matter? How much effort should you put into the design of your proposal layout?

What is the most important priority?

I think it is like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs applied to proposals.

At the base, and your first priority, is RFP compliance. If you are not compliant with the requirements in the RFP, you may not even be eligible to win. If you can’t at least follow the instructions and comply with the requirements, you aren’t even in the game. If there is no RFP or the customer will tolerate a certain amount of non-compliance, which may be true in some B2B proposals, you still need to address your approach to the customer’s requirements first.

Next comes messaging, and by that I mean articulating what the customer needs to realize to select your proposal from the alternatives available to them, and to articulate it from the customer's perspective instead of your own. Most companies do not do a good job at this level and never really get past it. At this level, layout design can be as simple as possible. It can be plain and ordinary without lowering your chances of winning. A great layout design can't make up for ineffective messaging in a proposal, because it is read differently than a brochure or advertisement.

Once you have effective messaging, then you can learn to communicate it visually with graphics. It does not make sense to jump into graphics without being able to articulate your messaging. But once you can do that, graphics can take it to a far more effective level.

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Learning to conceptualize your message and conceptualize graphics can go hand in hand. It depends on whether you are a visual thinker or not. But regardless of whether you conceptualize both at the same time or take them one at a time, you must have solid messaging. Visual messaging is a big improvement, but not an absolute requirement.

Once you have messaging communicated visually, then you are ready to consider layout. Proposal layout design is at the tippy-top of the pyramid. That makes it either a finishing touch or the last priority. Proposal layout design, like graphics, supports visual communication, but it is a far more subtle tool. Very few companies ever make it to the level where the highest priority for improving their proposal win rate is to focus on layout design. Actually, none that I have ever known.

I'm usually too focused on winning to put time into proposal layout design

I started my career in layout design and typography. I love the subject. I almost never bring it up with the customers who engage me to improve their proposals, even when I think their layouts could be greatly improved. This is because there always seem to be higher priorities to focus on that will have a bigger impact on their chances of winning.

People are tempted to jump straight into layout design because they want to submit a proposal that looks impressive. But messaging is hard and requires inputs from many people, so an improvement in layout design can look like low-hanging fruit. But in proposals for anything more complicated than a commodity, messaging counts for far more than presentation.

That said, if your role in the process is to finalize and produce the document and someone else is responsible for messaging, then it makes sense that you take pride in the layout design, advocate for it, and put all your effort into it. But if you look at proposals holistically, there are definitely other things that have a bigger impact on whether the proposal wins. If you want to play a critical role in the proposal, you need to get out of the back end of the process and use layout and design to drive the parts of the proposal that have a larger impact on whether it wins.

The best product development efforts incorporate design at the very beginning. They don’t wait until the product specifications are complete and then think of design as just being about appearance. Apple starts with design and its product development efforts are led by designers. This is because they define design as satisfying the end user and not as appearance.

Proposal design, including layout and graphics, can be used to drive the considerations that go into achieving a great proposal that reflects what it will take to win a proposal. If proposal layout design is simply about typography and appearance, most companies will never reach the point where that is the highest priority for increasing their win rate. But if layout is really about proposal design, then it’s about discovering, articulating, and building a proposal around what it takes to win. And that should always be the highest priority in proposal development.

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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