So first, starting with the basics, let’s quickly define what IS a design proposal?
1. What is a design proposal?
A design proposal is simply a document that states what design work you propose to do for your client.
And in exchange for what money and in what timeframe the projects is going to get done.
Basically, it’s a written offer from a seller (you as a designer) to a potential buyer (a client who needs some designs).
Keep in mind that a proposal is not a pitch, so you should never send one without having a conversation with your client first.
This is super important—proposal are NEVER the first step in the sales process.
You must have a call with your client prior to sending one—You need to qualify your lead first!
Have a conversation with your potential client either on the phone or in person to see if it would be a good fit for you.
Are they even in the same ballpark?
What are their goals and objectives for this project?
Do they have a specific deadline that you need to meet?
So before you actually start putting time into crafting a proposal, you need to know a few facts about the project.
Also be aware that clients will usually reach out to multiple designers in order to find a good fit for them.
Clients often use proposals to gauge the risk of going with a particular designer.
2. Why clients ask for proposals?
Now there are many reasons why clients ask for proposals, some are more genuine that others.
An obvious reason why clients ask for proposals is because they want to find more information, right?
However, be aware of time-wasters, meaning those who don’t actually have a job for you, they’re just gauging the market.
As I mentioned earlier, you shouldn’t be sending proposals to every single inquiry that comes your way.
First, have an upfront conversation with your client about the money, the time and the project scope.
Another reason why clients ask designers for proposals is because they just wanna say "no” politely.
If you’re on the phone with your client, and you feel that the conversation doesn’t really go that well.
Meaning: they’ve been asking you some difficult questions, or they’ve had some objections that you didn’t handle well.
Well, then they may simply say “Can you send us a proposal?", which is a polite "no"—so be aware of that!
But if you feel the conversation DID go well, and they’re within your ballpark and they like your process and your work and so on.
Well, then it’s a genuine ask, and they welcome you to the competition and they simply want to compare your bid.
Because look—Clients usually have many options to choose from, right?—You're not the only designer who can do the job.
And of course, in the best case scenario, a client will ask you for a proposal, when they’re TRULY ready to hire you.
So if you’ve agreed more or less, on the budget, and the timeline, and the scope of work.
Well then, their ask is basically a verbal agreement and they really wanna work with you.
So now it’s just a formality—they need to see a written proposal because they’re ready to get started.
3. When to send a proposal?
Timing here is really important here—sending a proposal should never be the first thing, and hopefully it’s not the last one either.
A proposal should only be sent once you qualified the lead and it’s just more of a formality now.
As I mentioned earlier if you feel like it’s a good fit, then you naturally sent a proposal to seal the deal.
Since it all basically comes down to your prior conversation with the client—Now let’s talk a bit about that sales conversation that precedes sending a proposal.
And as Jonathan Stark advises, there are 3 WHY questions that you should ask your client:
Why this? —Why do you need to design this? Why you need a new logo?
Why me?—Why you want to work with someone like me? Why not hiring a designer of Fiverr?
Why now?—Why do you want to do it now? Can't this project wait? What's gonna happen if you don't do it?
The goal of asking these questions is to qualify your lead.
Whatever you’re working on a logo design, a website, or packaging—it doesn’t matter.
You should always ask these questions before sending a proposal.
The thing is that the project must be important to you client, because otherwise it's going to be really hard to charge premium rates (or even “fair” rates) as a designer.
Let's describe these questions in a bit more detail.
The goal of the first question—Why this?—is to uncover the real business objective behind this project.
They usually have in mind some kind of an outcome, like for example:
“We want to redesign our logo because it looks outdated"
So then you ask again:
“Why you need it?”
and then they reply:
“Because the current logo doesn’t make us look good”.
And then you add this:
“So what happens if you have the right logo?”
And they respond:
“Well, with a new logo and branding we hope to gain competitive, increase sales....”
Aha!—"gain competitive edge", “increase sales”—that’s how you uncover real business objective (and you can be more specific here as well and talk numbers).
Anyways, now you can use these findings later on in the proposal.
The purpose of the second question—Why now?—is to remind them that project has some urgency.
Because if they've been trying, let's say, to redesign their logo in-house for over 6 month, but without any success, then they understand that they need to work with an outside expert who can help them get it done successfully.
Or perhaps they have a certain deadline in mind e.g. they need a new logo and identity, because they’re preparing a pitch deck for investors and this needs to get done by certain time.
If the project is NOT urgent, then the client will slack with making a decision, they'll be putting it off.
So make sure this project IS important to them and it needs to be completed within a specific timeframe.
Or otherwise they will either keep losing money, or won't get funded, or will lose to competitors etc.
The last question—Why me?—is there to see why they actually contacted YOU in the first place.
Why they think you’re a good fit for this project?—Maybe they liked your portfolio.
Perhaps you have a certain industry experience, or maybe someone recommended you.
Whatever it might be—You want to know WHY.
IT will also remind them that you ARE the viable option for them, since they’re reaching out.
That way they will actually see the VALUE that you can create for them.
4. What clients want to see?
Once your lead is excited to start working with you, then it’s your job to customize the proposal to uniquely address their goals & objectives.
Basically all clients want the proposal to confirm the four following things:
How much does it cost?
How long does it take?
Do you understand them?
Can you really help them?
It’s in your best interest to prepare a proposal that answers these questions.
Starting with the obvious one—How much does it cost?
Here they want to know not only how much you’re going to charge them for that logo or a website, but they will also need some help to be able to justify the price for themselves.
So it’s your job to break it down into smaller pieces that gives your client more clarity about the total cost.
If you go too granular here, you risk a chance of getting a request to remove some pieces just to lower the overall price—but this is exactly what you want to avoid!
You don’t want clients to haggle with you about every single item on your list.
This is your process and this is what allows you to produce great work.
On the other hand, if you just put a single rounded number in your proposal, then you risk a chance of it looking too arbitrary and it will just turn them away.
A good practice is to break it down into a few segments and using some numbers that don’t look fabricated.
Like for example, say $2,950 dollars instead of $3,000
The second important thing that every client wants to see in a proposal is the timeline of course, right?
Meaning—how long is it going to take you to complete that logo redesign for example.
You see, in the business world “time is money” and no client wants to drag their project endlessly.
However, if you overpromise here, then it might look like you’re either NOT serious or you don’t really understand them and their needs (or the project scope).
That’s why it was important to ask the question “Why now?” in the sales conversation—So that now have a specific deadline in mind, or at least their expectations.
And you can combine it with your past experience with similar projects and your availability in order to estimate some reasonable timeline for this project.
It’s also a good practice to use some deliverables/meetings and link them to your payment structure—that way, your client can clearly SEE, how the projects is going to progress.
And then, of course they also need to know that you UNDERSTAND the assignment in the first place.
Here you need to use their vocabulary: the words and phrases that they used to describe things.
This will show that you understand their problems, and it will assure them that you’re on the same page.
So don’t offer here no solutions, just list their goals and objectives or talk about their problems.
And lastly, they also need to know that you’re a pro—that can actually help them succeed.
Here you can obviously talk a bit about your experience and list some credentials.
And of course, you need to show some case studies or just relevant work in general—so that they feel comfortable hiring you.
For example, if they operate in a cannabis space, and you’ve designed a logo for a cannabis brand before—Then they might feel more comfortable working with you, since you already know the space.
But on the other hand, you can also use it to your advantage and address their objections.
For example, if you’ve never worked with a cannabis brand before, but they asked about this, well then you can say something like:
“We haven’t worked with a cannabis brand before, but we’re quick learners and we have a proven process that we follow and we also believe that we can be actually more creative—approaching it from a new angle.“
Ok, so that’s basically it — that’s what clients search for in every design proposal.
Now, let’s talk about how to put this all together.
5. How to build a proposal?
You can have more or less pages, or you can structure your proposal a bit differently as long as you include everything that your client needs to see.
Here’s the structure that I use—I created a template that I’m able to reuse to save me some time.
Otherwise it would be really time consuming having to create proposals from scratch each and every single time.
You can basically use any kind of software to create your proposals, it could be a Keynote, or using some online tools like Qwilr etc.
I like to build my proposals in InDesign, and then I published them to the cloud and then I send them the link.
That way the client can view it online in the browser or they can download that PDF and print it out if they want to (it’s letterhead format as well)
It’s a good practice in general to send a link rather that an attachment so that things don’t get lost in the inbox.
I use my master template and then I change a few things like:
The company name, the contact name, information about the project, scope of work and of course I include custom pricing and timeline that is based on their needs and so on.
Starting with the Cover Page—here we’ve got the company name, the contact name and the date.
Next, on the first page inside I like to have an introduction in the form of a short letter.
Basically I just address the person i spoke with before and I thank them for the opportunity and then I shortly describe what’s inside this proposal.
Next, in the first actual section I like to include information about their project.
Remember when we were talking about assuring client that you understand them?
That’s why I like to have a couple of sentences here—talking about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.
“You’re looking to design a logo and identity for Company Name In order to XXX“.
This is where you list their major goal or business objective.
On the next page you can also break it down into smaller pieces as well.
The next section is About Us—this is where you re-introduce yourself.
You have the right to brag about yourself here, your capabilities, and your experience.
You can also list your services, any recognition, awards you might have won etc.
You should include a picture of yourself here as well, even if it’s the same small photo that you’re using on social media.
If you have a nice office, you can include a photo of you and your team working together as well.
I like to also talk about my design process and my unique approach here.
In the next step we have the investment & timeline section where I basically break-down the pricing into smaller segments as I already mentioned before.
The way you structure your pricing will pretty much define your relationship with the client.
For example: besides the logo design, you also list other items like: brand strategy that precedes logo design, and also stationery design or a style guide that follows logo design etc.
A good practice is to give the client either a price range (if you charge a flat rate) or you can estimate hours (if you charge per hour).
I personally like to either give a price range options for bigger projects or I charge a weekly retainer, if this is a smaller client.
However, I always want to give the client more than 1 option to choose from—I usually present them with 3 different incremental options e.g. base, plus and pro.
I simply list what I can do to help move the needle at that particular price point.
For example: the option one would be exactly what they wanted e.g. a new logo and identity design.
Then Incrementally, option two would include some extra things that would give them more benefit.
For example, apart from logo design, we can also do a style guide.
And option three would give them even more benefit than the previous two options.
For example: we can also redesign your website to match that new branding.
The goal of doing this, is to give your client MORE options (and you can upsell here as well).
Basically, you’re doing this so that instead of it being a “yes” or “no” answer—it becomes more of a “which option do we go for?”.
Finally, in this section as well I like to include a page titled “why me”—where you can address some of the client objections again, based on the sales conversation.
Here you can list some things that make you special.
For example: If they were concerned about working with someone who doesn’t have an experience designing logos for cannabis brands, then you can bring it up here and address that issues.
“We have no experience working with your industry and that’s why we believe we can be more creative”
You can also talk about other reasons that make you unique or a good fit for this project.
After that I include estimated project timeline for each option.
This section is just to simply help the client visualize of how long each option could take.
It’s an opportunity for you to schedule the meetings or deliverables that are linked to the payments and so on.
At the end I also include a section with some case studies.
To keep it simple, you may just as well add a few images of your work that link to your Behance project pages, or your portfolio website, so that they can click to learn more.
You should also include a testimonial or two from your past clients as well (social proof).
If you don‘t have testimonials yet, then write them for yourself, and then ask your past clients if it’s ok to use it, or if they'd describe working with you in other words.
Usually they will say “yes” if you’ve done a good job.
Finally, at the very end I will call them to action—I give them clear steps on how to start the project.
If this is a small client, then I just usually embed PayPal buttons in that proposal, so that they can click and pay a deposit to start the project.
For bigger projects, the next step would be naturally to sign a contract.
That's really it!—it's been very successful for me over the years.
It doesn't have to be a giant proposal for even a bigger project, nobody wants to read dozens of pages of text.
Keep it simple and make sure you double check everything, especially the numbers and the typos, before you actually send it to your client.
Remember that your proposal is just a formality, it’s the tangible representation of the deal you’re making with your client.
Therefore, proposals are NOT there to substitute for making that deal, the deal you make during your sales call.
That's why you shouldn’t send proposals to clients if you haven’t talked to them first.
Don't waste time on proposals before getting that verbal agreement to your overall pricing and your timeline.