How to Write a Design Proposal: The Ultimate Guide

You’ve got a new lead! Congrats. Before this person or company officially signs on the dotted line and becomes your client, you have to persuade them to do so. How do you go about this?

The perfectly prepared and written design proposal is the difference between getting new clients and watching opportunity after opportunity leave you behind. Unless you’re working as a full-time designer at an agency or company, you’re likely in business for yourself as a freelancer — which means that you’ll have to write a number of proposals over your career to constantly get new clients.

Learning how to perfect this art form means more clients, business, revenue, and successful projects in your portfolio. In time, you should become so adept at prepping proposals that it’ll be almost like second nature to you — as seamless as choosing the right color palette for a project or invoicing your client for a job well done.

With all of that in mind, let’s get cracking.

After reading this guide, you’ll be ready to take on new projects with greater confidence than ever, assured by your ability to prepare the right proposal to snag even the most challenging client.

Step 1: Talk to Your Prospective Client to Find Out What They Want

Going into any possible collaboration or project, you don’t know what to expect. Sitting down and talking to your lead is always the first step because you need to understand what’s going on with your client. You have to figure out what the client’s problem is and, therefore, what your design expertise and services can do for them to solve their problem.

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Thanks to the power of web interconnectivity, sitting down with any prospect can take place virtually, just as it can still take place in your local coffee shop or at the client’s offices if they’re local. But if not, don’t fret: simply make arrangements to talk to your client over Skype, the video-chat messaging service that most everyone already uses. The beauty of Skype is that it features both a video and voice-only call option, so if you’re not looking your best (or simply haven’t combed your hair yet), you can always just do a voice call with your prospect.

Don’t like Skype or can’t use it for whatever reason? No sweat. Here are some equally awesome and free communication and messaging services:

When you talk to your client in whatever format, that’s your big chance to first understand the client’s problem intimately. Let them talk for as long as it takes; be a great listener because you’re collecting as much intelligence as possible to determine how you can best help your prospect. Ask relevant questions, and don’t be afraid to ask as much as you think is necessary. After all, a prospect who realizes you ask a lot of questions is a prospect who realizes that you’re doing everything in your power to understand their predicament, and that’s impressive to prospects.

Step 2: Do a Lot of Research

Hopefully, your first meeting with your prospect went well enough that they wanted you to go ahead and draft a proposal. Now, the heavy lifting on your part really begins.

At this stage, you’ll need to conduct a lot of research to understand your client’s brand, product, or service inside and out. Ask if you prospect has any proprietary documents or materials to help you understand their situation any better. You want to arm yourself with as much info as possible to empower yourself to put together a proposal that addresses all of your prospect’s pain points in a relevant way.

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To that end, use the Internet to research your prospect further. Figure out:

  • What their competition is doing (use an SEO tool like SpyFu to get an exhaustive SEO profile of your prospect’s competition, including keywords they’ve bought through paid search, keywords they’ve ranked for, and ad variations
  • How many people are talking about them online (use social listening tools like Hootsuite to get a better idea)
  • How highly their website currently ranks (use Alexa to give you a fair indication of that)

This information is invaluable because it helps you understand how much work you’ll have to do to help your would-be client gain a threshold in their industry. In turn, that helps you assemble a much more accurate design proposal, one in which you don’t lowball yourself for the great services you’ll provide.

Step 3: Use the Right Software or Tool

Rejoice: In the 21st century, proposal writing isn’t the handwritten chore it used to be even just a couple of decades ago. Thanks to many good companies offering great tools, the web is replete with proposal creation software to make the process a cinch.

You heard that right: proposal writing can be extremely easy and efficient when you choose the right tool.

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There are several stellar options that offer paid, monthly plans. Note that these are feature-heavy and work particularly well if you’re working with teams or just enjoy looking at the analytics of your proposal. Some also have free trial periods, which is really a no-harm situation for you:

Honorable mention goes to Better Proposals, which is a proposal-writing tool that designers can start using for free, but with some limitations and not as many features as the above, paid alternatives.

The greatest benefit for designers using tools like this is the huge timesaver that they are. You’ll be able to prepare an extremely professional-looking proposal to send to your clients by email. When they read it, they simply have to click on your link, and your proposal beautifully opens up in a URL, seamlessly rendered across all devices for maximum convenience for your prospect.

Using this software is easy, as you get to create the chronology of the parts of your proposal from start to finish in a sensible way.

More on that in the next step.

Step 4: Structure Your Proposal Sensibly by Starting With the Problem

You’re ready to write the actual proposal! The whole point of your design proposal is to solve your prospect’s problem, so it follows that your first section ought to be about their main issue.

Remember that your would-be client doesn’t really care about you or your brand: they care about their business problem and how you can come on board to solve it quickly and painlessly for them. The purpose of your proposal, therefore, is to persuade them that you’re precisely the designer for this ambitious job.

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Impress your client right off the bat by using the first section of your proposal to clearly lay out the problem they’re facing. This should be a cinch because you’ve already had a meeting with your client, during which time you would’ve kept notes when they were explaining their problem to you.

In this section, recap what the problem is that the prospect told you about during the meeting. Be extremely specific, and use any relevant stats, figures, and data to buttress the gravitas of the prospect’s problem. Using specifics like this shows your prospect that you not only understand their problem, but that you take it seriously.

Here are some ideal resources to empower you to write the problem statement in your proposal that your prospect is facing:

Note the common bond among these tutorials on how to write the ideal problem statement: all problem statements have to be specific, home in on the exact problem, and demonstrate thorough understanding of the issue(s) being faced. Only when your problem statement hits these benchmarks does your proposal captivate your prospect, which is the intended goal.

For some powerful inspiration on how to structure your design proposal, see our marketplace’s proposal templates for a myriad of impactful documents:

Now that you’ve successfully outlined the problem your prospect is facing, it’s safe to say that you have them on the edge of their seat — as they’re reading with great interest. After all, they realize you really understand what they’re going through. Now, they’re looking to you more than ever for the presentation of a solution! Don’t disappoint them.

Here’s how to structure the solution.

Step 5: Explain Your Solution

This is where you have to make it count. Your prospect has read this far because they know that you’re the right designer for their project. Now, all that’s left is to confirm their suspicion by presenting them with a solution to the aforementioned pain point.

A good solution should include all of the following particulars:

  • A specific course of action to outline individual steps to achieve the solution
  • Hard stats and data to support the course of action being proposed
  • An explanation of how your strategy will help your prospect and solve their problem
  • Opportunities to review the strategy at consistent and specific intervals

A well-written solution is the heart of your design proposal, the section that has a huge impact on whether or not your prospect will take you up on your proposal or not. From personal experience, I can say that my own clients spend the most time glancing at my proposals’ solution section, which I know from looking at the data-tracking analytics of the proposal software I use.

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For some great approaches to writing an excellent solution in your proposal, see the following resources:

For the solution to be effective, it has to demonstrate to your prospect not only that you have a plan to tackle their problem, but that it also has a reasonable chance of being successful. That’s why it also helps to include hard data and stats in the solution-strategy section: numbers can be quite persuasive to the audience reading your proposal.

In terms of marketing, look at this solution section as the conversion-getter in your entire proposal. This is the point where you can make the prospect sign on the dotted line and choose you as the designer to solve their business problem. If you’ve done a good job, your prospect will usually go to the final section of the proposal, which we’ll get to in the next section.

To help you see the possible structure of a winning proposal, here are some more proposal templates from our marketplace:

Step 6: Clarify the Next Steps

If the prospect is reading up to this point, congrats! It’s usually a really good sign that they’re going to convert and sign on the dotted line. Before they do, however, they’ve got to get through the next steps.

This last section is where you basically outline what the prospect has to do to finalize a working relationship with you. This includes payment terms, general terms and conditions, and when your working relationship begins in earnest.

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When deciding on the payment terms, there are a number of factors to consider, with your guiding principle being that you shouldn’t shortchange yourself by asking for too little! With that said, here are the factors to consider in your estimate:

  • The complexity and length of the project
  • The number of hours you expect to put in
  • The urgency of the project
  • Your experience
  • How your portfolio looks (how many projects you’ve already completed)

The terms and conditions can include anything from how many revisions you’re offering to how freely you make yourself available to your prospect to get another round of feedback. This is entirely up to you.

It’s also extremely helpful to spell out in no uncertain terms when your working relationship will begin. Though your prospect might sign your proposal right after reading it, it’s always a smart plan to declare that your work on the project will only begin in a few days’ or even weeks’ time. This way, you can prepare yourself for the new project and tie up any loose ends on any current projects and clients with whom you’re dealing.

In this final section, you should also include motivational persuaders, such as excitement at the reality of working with your prospect or enthusiasm about the fact that you can’t wait to solve your client’s problem and verify to them that they’ve made the right decision in choosing you for your design services. Such final persuaders can go a long way in pushing your prospect to convert by finally signing your proposal.

After all, when you’re confident in your presentation, your prospect immediately senses it, feels they’ve made the right choice, and then is more likely to choose you. This can set off a sort of positive reinforcement loop that’s just the right touch with which to end your design proposal.

A Project in and of Itself

The reality with writing a design proposal is that it can take a lot of time and work. This can’t be any truer than when you’re still new to charging for your design work and haven’t written one yet or only have put together a handful. It’s not just the actual drafting stage that can be time-consuming: it’s also the preparatory steps, such as first meeting with your prospect and then researching their brand to empower you to fully understand what they need.

Sure, you’ll get better with practice. The more design proposals you create, the easier and more efficient you’ll eventually become. And don’t forget about the great software and tools on the web that can help you create a proposal in just a few steps. Even so, you should look at preparing a proposal as a real commitment that will take time to do right.

It’s not just that writing the perfect proposal can lead to a lot of work, money, and even a recurring and long-term client. While that’s certainly the goal of every designer, there’s more to writing a proposal than just the monetary possibilities. It’s about the pride in being professional.

When you sell your services as a designer, you’re telling the world that you’re a professional and deserve to make good money for your expertise and work. The more you hone your skills at proposal writing, the more professional you’ll make yourself look, and the more you’ll eventually land bigger and better design clients, which can make your portfolio truly stand out.


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