In the long, often arduous, process of crafting a proposal, design is frequently relegated to the lowest priority. It’s understandable; as a business owner, or the person in charge of getting proposals out the door, your chief concern is with the content, rather than the proposal layout.
A concise cover letter, content that will sweep your sales lead off their feet, competitive pricing options, and, hopefully, a captivating case study or two that show off your expertise with real-world examples. That’s the stuff that sells your business, so why does it matter if the proposal is pretty looking or not? You’re trying to close this deal, not win a beauty pageant, right?
Poorly designed proposals can be confusing, hard to read, cumbersome, and fail to effectively communicate with your client. Your proposal design has to be functional as well as beautiful, or else all that good stuff you’ve put into your proposal can go to waste. And that’s a cryin’ shame.
Laying out a proposal is not just about how it looks (although it’s certainly a factor); it’s how the information in your proposal is communicated. If your proposal looks unfocused, you look unfocused.
If the proposal doesn’t clearly show your deliverables or process, your potential client will take one look and hit the road. Taking the time to focus on your proposal format (and getting a sober, second set of eyes to look it over) can ensure your offer stands out in an overfull inbox.
The layout, typography, images, and aesthetic of your proposal design all work together to give the reader a sense of who you are, what you can do for them, and why they should hire you.
Bad proposal design can make your clients feel underwhelmed by what they see, or worse, overwhelmed and confused by a messy layout. If your competition is delivering sharp-looking and well-designed proposals, your chances of closing the deal are going to take a significant hit right out of the gate.
Good proposal design makes you stand out from your competition and communicates your company’s services and differentiation efficiently and clearly. People remember things that stand out from their peers more when they’re distinct, and a rocking proposal design is a surefire way to put you top of mind.
Creating well-designed proposals is an investment, but it’s one many companies may not have experience in. So where do you begin?
Saving you time and energy creating proposals is near and dear to our hearts (it’s why we created Proposify!), so my design colleague Lindsey Ward and I prepared some tips and resources you can use to help kick-start your proposal design revolution.
And, as a bonus, we reached out to some of our Proposify customers to see if they would share their best proposal design examples. We picked our five faves to give you an idea of just how powerful good proposal design can be.
Powerful proposal design elements
We won’t go too deep into the principles of design in this article (here’s a handy cheat sheet if you’re curious though). Instead, we’ll focus on some practical takeaways you can use right away to improve your proposal design and wow clients.
Follow your brand guidelines
Keep in mind that your brand is more than just your logo. Your brand is your identity as a company and your promise of quality to your clients represented through factors like graphics, imagery, and tone of voice.
If you’re a design or marketing agency, you probably have brand guidelines established already. But for other businesses, creating brand guidelines might not be something you have or have considered investing in. MailChimp has a simple example of their brand guidelines, as well as an idea of how their brand is used.
Without getting too far into the weeds on how to build a successful brand, consistency is key. Your colours, imagery, typefaces, and tone of voice should reflect who you are, and how you want to be perceived by your target audience.
Your brand is more than your logo, but the logo is still the flagship of your fleet, so it’s gotta look good. Make sure you have large, high-resolution .png files of your logo and/or wordmark that work on white, dark, and coloured backgrounds, so they aren’t blurry.
Again, if you have an in-house design team you’ll have this already, but if you outsourced to an agency or a freelancer and are missing anything, contact them to get what you need.
A good logo makes a good first impression, so it should appear on the cover of your proposal, and, in most cases, be a repeating element on your other pages without taking over.
If you have an established brand, you probably have a colour palette already. Those are your colours, so use ‘em! Adding colour to your proposal text headings, page numbers, and any repeated elements is a quick, simple way to establish a consistent feeling of your brand throughout your proposal. We’ll look at some examples later in this post.
If you’re looking for a new colour palette or you don’t already have one, there are lots of free resources online to help you out, and our favourite here at Proposify is Coolors. With Coolors you can quickly generate a random colour palette, customize everything, and save and export your palette in a bunch of formats.
Or, if you’re really strapped for time, you can pick from the thousands of palettes other people have created. Don’t be afraid to be bold and creative with your colours – just make sure that everything remains legible.
Photography and Graphics
There’s no golden rule that your proposal must use photos; if you’re sending something like a contract or a quick revision to a long-standing client, you can get away with just copy. But by and large, proposals with great images that reinforce your brand’s message and show off your work are more impressive and impactful than those without.
Once again the internet comes to the rescue for those of us who lack the time or skill to source great proposal images. There are many free stock image websites featuring photos from professional and amateur photographers alike that give you free reign to download, modify, and use their photos however you need. Our king of the castle, in this case, is Unsplash.
All the photos on Unsplash are curated by their team so you can expect incredible quality, and there are over 300,000 images to choose from. They’re also large and high-resolution so they’ll look sharp wherever they’re used.
The only real drawback with a site like Unsplash is that the types of photos are determined by what photographers upload. If you need beautiful photos of nature, hands holding things, or well dressed young people having non-specific types of adventure, you’re in luck. However, depending on your business, you might not be able to find the specific image you need on a free site like this.
Traditional stock image sites like iStock and Shutterstock might be a better option in that case. Their photos cost money, but good quality photography that you can reuse in multiple proposals is worth it.
And there’s no need to stop at photos; graphics are another great way to add some extra flavour to your design. Free Design Resources and GraphicBurger are two great sites where you can nab free icon packages. The best part? You only need to gather them once for your design toolkit.
So, whether you use a free image site or a traditional stock site, taking a couple of hours out of your day to gather a small collection of great photos for your brand is an investment that will pay off in the future.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that great copy lends itself to great proposal design. If you have someone on staff with a silver tongue, use those talents. If you don’t have someone who can write compelling, clear, and persuasive proposal content, consider outsourcing to a freelance copywriter.
Again, it’s a valuable investment to develop copy you can use over and over again. Is your brand quirky? Cool and edgy? Professional and direct? Whatever it is, find your tone of voice and stick to it.
Sometimes we spend so much time concentrating on the words in our proposal, it’s easy to overlook the typeface they come delivered in. Once again, if you have brand guidelines or a designer working with you, the question of which typeface to use should already be answered.
Google Fonts is a great resource for completely free fonts (currently 846 families) that are web and print friendly. You can sort the fonts by font category (serif, sans-serif, etc.), width, and thickness, then simply scan for the fonts, and download them. (Did we mention Proposify has access to the entire library of Google Fonts?)
Find one or two fonts that are easy to read and work with your brand. Keep your headings bold, and make sure you have a comfortable line-height (which is the space between your lines of text), so your body text is highly readable. The easier it is for your clients to read your proposal content, the easier it will be to convince them that your company is the best choice.
With your brand guidelines solidified, some amazing photos added, and copy that will knock the socks off your client, how should you actually lay out your proposal?
Here are a couple of quick and handy proposal layout rules:
Reading long paragraphs of text is taxing on the eyes, so keep your line length (the width of your paragraphs) to somewhere in the 50-75 characters per line range
Break up long passages of text with images to give your client a little break from reading.
Keep everything aligned in a way that doesn’t confuse the reader’s eye. Typically, left aligning text is your best bet. This practice creates a consistent line for the reader's eye to travel down, making it easy to consume a large amount of text in one go. The more evenly things line up, the easier it is for the eye to move around the page.
Use white space. Give the elements on your page room to breathe, and they’ll have much more impact.
Seeing is believing, so let's look at some real proposal layout examples from our amazing Proposify customers!
Meet your proposal design all-stars
These companies were gracious enough to let us show off their rocking proposal designs to the world, and they were all created using Proposify. Let’s see what makes them so good!
Note: These proposal designs aren’t ranked or in any particular order. If we had to pick a favourite, we’d pick all of them! Who cares if that’s cheating.
Who they are: Chillisauce is an event agency that creates tailored events for stag parties, corporate outings, and adventure-filled weekends.
Their Proposal Design:
Why it works: You know that feeling when a coworker or friend shows up with a great haircut or spiffy new clothes, and you just can’t help but compliment them on it? Well, that’s the way you want your clients to react to your cover page. A good cover page immediately makes your sales lead engaged and interested to dive into your business proposal.
Right off the bat, we see that that Chillisauce’s branding is featured creatively, working their logo into a descriptive graphic that highlights the Big Brother theme. This is a great example of taking that extra bit of time to really drive home your product. The cover is simple, informative, and impactful.
Leading with a page detailing your understanding of your client’s needs is a great way to begin your proposal. This section reinforces that Chillisauce has done their due diligence while at the same time welcomes the client into the experience of the event by referencing their needs and providing a sample of the forthcoming fun with clever photography.
The proposal sections are separated by simple cover pages. This is a great way to organize your content and break up the flow for a better reading experience. They used simple but effective graphics which are on brand in both style and colour.
Chillisauce makes great use of graphics and photos that keep their copy concise and focused. This proposal is easy to read, thanks to a clean layout (an image covering a third of the space, followed by text), large headings, colourful subheadings, and organized body copy.
Their pricing table is super clean and readable, and they close their proposal with a perfectly placed pun and a simple contact page. Overall, their proposal is to the point, colourful, and you get a sense of who they are as a company. Well done, lads! (That’s how people talk in the UK, right?)
Typefaces used: Montserrat, Open Sans
Section cover pages
Well designed send off which clearly displays their contact information.
Who they are: Vendic is a full-service Magento partner in the field of web hosting, support and marketing.
Why it works: A minimal cover like Vendic uses in their proposal design can be risky, but if you follow it up as they do with a page containing all the vital introductory information of the proposal, you can get away with it.
Their second page lists the person delivering the proposal and the recipient, the title of the project, and a quick cover letter/message detailing the project. Our Dutch is a little rusty (Oh, we’re like about 0% fluent) but we can tell what’s on the page.
Social media button links at the bottom of this page is a nifty idea as well. This saves time explaining that you’re active socially while giving your client the option to knock on your door through other avenues.
A simple watermark repeating element that sits behind the text is a great way to add a little texture to your page. The well shot, embedded video efficiently communicates what your company’s about without a lot of descriptive text. Even if your video production skills aren’t quite Spielberg-esque, shooting a quick one-minute, targeted video speaking directly to your client and including it in your proposal can effectively communicate your message.
Typefaces used: Droid Sans, Montserrat
Soft, on-brand watermark repeating element adds texture to the page
Clean and simple layout with great use of their brand colour
Inclusion of well shot and descriptive video
Who they are: Threesixtyeight is a company of designers and communicators whose specialities include marketing, website and web design, branding and brand strategy.
Why it works: ThreeSixtyEight has created a seamlessly on-brand proposal template that references their product in both design and text. From beginning to end, the target audience is addressed and the company's mission clear.
“We are still learning and improving, but our overall philosophy is that simplicity is key. Proposals that are heavy-handed are less likely to close because in trying to say everything, the proposal says nothing.” Jeremy Beyt, Chief Strategy Officer
The minimalist cover is really striking, it’s sort of reminiscent of a book on Swiss Design. You would expect a web design agency to have a well-designed proposal so ThreeSixtyEight’s clean layout, demonstrated by consistent text alignment, and in this case, minimal photography is a great sign right away.
“Much like the work we produce, we’ve chosen to adopt a visual, simplistic style that is human-friendly. Ultimately, the person on the other end is busy and doesn’t have time to read three paragraphs about our design philosophy. I think one of the best things we’ve done is adopt an executive summary page as part of the proposal. If we do include detailed content, it always follows an executive summary page, which condenses the proposal into a one-page summary with critical information like price and timeline.” Jeremy Beyt, Chief Strategy Officer
Notice that they’ve used their square logo element in multiple places, from the Project Summary section to the creative way they’ve framed their team members. This is another proposal that uses simple internal cover pages for each section of the project summary successfully, so you know exactly where you are in the flow of the document.
This proposal design is a good example of one that doesn’t necessarily need a lot of images because the content is spaced out well and given room to breathe. ThreeSixtyEight’s proposal design might not look the flashiest, but the elegant and professional design makes it stands out.
Typefaces used: Montserrat, Open Sans and Lusitana
Design follows the identity and branding of ThreeSixtyEight well and is highly consistent
Good typeface hierarchy – the headings, subheadings, body copy, and quotes are all distinct from each other
Pull quotes that reiterate the success of the project. All done in a format that can be repeated throughout proposals.
Apples & Arrows
Who they are: Apples & Arrows is a branding agency who help their clients discover and celebrate who they are and what makes them remarkable.
Why it works: Apples & Arrows makes it clear that they are taking their client on a journey. This is demonstrated through beautiful photography, clearly displaying adventure. At the same time, concise headings help the client follow that journey, with no fear of getting lost in text or misadventure.
Their header images help the proposal stand out in this way, like a beautiful, bold trail of breadcrumbs. Apples & Arrows noted that they feel this is a simple design element, but by using the reversed text on the bright backgrounds, it makes the headings look quite distinct when compared to their previous, mostly generic design.
Almost opposite from ThreeSixtyEight, Apples and Arrows’ proposal design is a great example of using images to describe their purpose. Discovery, adventure, and a new beginning are all communicated through their imagery.
“We’re in a creative industry, so we need to maximize every opportunity we have to communicate our thinking, processes, and abilities. For some of our leads, the proposal is one of the first points of contact they may have with us, so having a non-standard, visually interesting proposal is a critical component of our new business efforts.” Todd Ramsey, Founder & Chief Strategist
The cover letter describes their company and abilities, and the imagery remains clear and on-message.
Apples & Arrows’ proposal has a simple layout, and because they have a good catalogue of high-resolution images, their design can remain in whole the same, without looking dull or long.
Engaging and varied photos
Consistency in typography, headings, page numbers
Who they are: Ice Nine Studios is a Squarespace Authorized Trainer that designs websites and inbound marketing systems for businesses.
Why it works: Ice Nine’s proposal is in sync with the web development market, and highly focused on messaging. The professionally-created graphics demonstrate the quality of work in store for Ice Nine’s clients.
This proposal is quite different from most we’ve seen in that you really get the sense that each page has a clear, targeted objective or message. Ice Nine has clearly put a lot of thought into their understanding their target audience and how to communicate with them. This is shown in their strong use of graphics. They elevate the proposal to take on a web page feel rather than a document.
They’ve done a good job keeping the page limit down, something that can be challenging when you have a lot of information to get across but don’t want to overwhelm your client. While sometimes this means that the pages can verge on being cluttered, Ice Nine’s good use of icons and graphics help segment the information to make it easier to read.
This proposal is a great example of carefully-crafted copy. Throughout the proposal, Ice Nine references how they can help their client. Not by just saying so, but by demonstrating why in their design and text.
“The page that talks about Squarespace with the white iPhone — one of our top challenges when courting a website client is that they often have a firm opinion that a good website is one that is custom coded or running Wordpress. This page serves the purpose of establishing the reliability of using Squarespace by providing examples from Tony Hawk, Lyft, and Pixar, and the imagery of a full inbox communicates that having a Squarespace website will lead to more website leads.” Collin Belt, Founder
This is reinforced by the headings, where the text is presented as concise and clear. The client can understand each stage of the web design process and that leaves them feeling confident that they are taken care of.
Another solid tip is to re-use any graphics you might already be using on your website or other marketing materials. You don’t necessarily need to recreate everything for your proposal from scratch.
Finally, a great idea from Ice Nine is that they don’t put their terms of service into their proposal, but instead have them on their website. This significantly shortens the length of the proposal and reinforces their brand’s impression on their clients by having them visit the site.
“Something more specific to Proposify is giving people the option of making choices using checkboxes. By making a part of the proposal interactive, it really gets clients thinking through the care package that’s the best fit for them. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was offloading the terms of service to our website. It gives us massive flexibility to always keep it up to date, and it means that our proposals are about 14 pages shorter — reducing the friction between reading the proposal and signing it.” Collin Belt, Founder
Typefaces used: Lato, Montserrat
Copy and messaging that understands the target audience
Use of graphics provides a lot of energy
Design is communication
Way back in design school, the message that we received over and over from instructors was that design is communication. Your goal with design is to transmit a message to the person viewing the end product, whatever that message may be. The choices you make in your determine how effectively your message is received. And having no design? That’s a choice too –one you don’t want to make.
Well-designed proposals that effectively, clearly, and engagingly communicate their content immediately have a competitive edge. Putting in a few extra hours of time and or hiring some outside help to improve the design of your proposals will pay dividends for you in the future.
The tips in this article are meant to help you design better business proposals, but there’s nothing wrong with outsourcing to a talented freelancer if you’re strapped for time or lack the skills. Whatever your route, we hope this helps to transform your proposals into beautifully designed gems that give your clients no choice but to sign on the dotted line.
Thanks to everyone who submitted their proposal designs to us. We had an overwhelming amount of responses and can safely say that it was hard to only choose five.
Do you have any design tips that give your proposals an advantage? Think we overlooked something? We’d love to hear from you so give us a shout in the comments!
To all the Proposifiers out there: If you think your proposal design takes the cake, let us know. If we get a big enough response, we might do another installation of this with more smart, deal-closing designs!