Cooking Up Proposals: How Design Agencies Create Project Plans & Estimates

Mar 29 · 8 min read

Let’s say your organization is planning to redesign its website. You do your research, craft a thoughtful RFP, send it to a short-list of impressive agencies, and have a few promising conversations. After follow-up discussions with those agencies, proposals start landing in your inbox. Exciting stuff! Now it’s time to start reviewing them. But what distinguishes a good proposal from a great one? And how do agencies assess your project and whip up a plan and budget without really knowing you all that well?

The reality is that even after having a few conversations with you, agencies still have limited insight into your organization and project needs at this point. It’s why we often ask so many questions before developing a proposal! With strategic brand and design work in particular, the variations in how a project could play out and what the outcomes need to be are pretty massive.

Our job when making a proposal is to mold our limited insights about your project into a document that articulates how we’ll meet your goals and what working with us will be like. This is no small task considering we’ve only just met!

The Bread and Butter of a Great Proposal

So how do we grapple with this uncertainty and create a proposal that really resonates? Well, if you’re anything like me — which is to say, a mediocre yet overconfident home cook whose culinary education came entirely from Chopped — you might best understand the elements of a proposal the same way I’ve come to: in terms of food.

As with any good recipe, there are a few key ingredients that make a proposal successful. These elements add specificity and depth to an agency’s understanding of your project; without them, we risk pitching a project based on assumptions. Would you make guacamole without limes, salt, or cilantro? You could try…but you’d basically just have mushy avocado. Still edible, but not quite what your dinner guests were expecting.

Craving tacos now? Me too, all the time. But before you ditch this article for your nearest taco joint, let’s talk about the key ingredients that make up a thoughtful proposal. While every agency might have a bit of a different recipe, we find that having an understanding of your goals and your project’s working rhythms, process, scope, and budget lead to a more robust and accurate proposal. This is no secret recipe, either. In fact, we’re eager to share it in the hopes that doing so will help you develop more detailed RFPs, better prepare for calls with agencies, and evaluate proposals with a clearer understanding of the process that goes into creating them.
Four Essential Ingredients

Four Essential Ingredients

Ingredient #1: Your Goals

Before we open up InDesign to start working on your proposal, we want to have a good understanding of what’s going on at your organization, the main drivers of this work, and your overall goals for the engagement. (Luckily, InDesign often takes so long to load that we can afford to be quite reflective while we wait!)

If you read our insights often, you’ll know that we’re big believers in the power of brand and design to help organizations advance their impact and improve internal cohesion. So it follows that the success of your project can play a critical role in helping advance your larger organizational goals too.

Understanding these top-level goals and how your project relates to them helps us contextualize your project in our proposal and make the case for the approach we’re presenting. It also helps you make the case for this work to other stakeholders by demonstrating its connection to larger internal and/or programmatic ambitions.

Guaranteeing a Great Proposal:

  • Before you reach out to any agencies, take time with your wider team to reflect on what’s driving this project, why your current brand or website isn’t working for you, and what you’re hoping a new one will do. It can be tempting to start listing out specific details like features on a new site, but trust us when we say it’s a better use of your time at this point to focus primarily, though not exclusively, on organizational goals — even if they’re vague.
  • When you’re reviewing proposals, be on the lookout for alignment with your expressed goals. In our opinion, it’s a great marker that an agency understands the broader context of the project.

Ingredient #2: Working Rhythms

Next, we’ll want to know what you’re expecting a partnership to look like. A slightly corny question we ask to get at this when we’re chatting with organizations is “What are you looking for in a partner?” It typically takes folks by surprise — maybe because it sounds more like an eHarmony question than one about a creative project — but since brand and design work is highly collaborative, understanding your expectations goes a long way in beginning to build a relationship of trust.

Answers to this question shed light on how our relationship will play out over the course of the project and allow us to dig a bit deeper into the dynamics of a potential partnership. By gaining an understanding of your project team, key decision-makers, and deliberation styles, we can start to gauge how long different phases of the project might take and how involved in creative deliberations your team will be — this will be important for determining the scope of our work with you. And like your goals, this information helps us contextualize details about our process, outlining one that best fits your working style.

Guaranteeing a Great Proposal:

  • Think about what you’re looking for in a partner as you begin to have conversations with agencies. Do you need a partner who takes a strong lead to move the project along quickly? Or are you looking for more collaboration and patience because you know your team is quite deliberative when it comes to making decisions? In any case, knowing this in advance will help you get a sense for which agencies would be the best fit.
  • Establish a project team with defined roles and a process for making decisions. This should include key decision-makers and anyone else at your organization who needs to be consulted about this work. Not only will this help us tailor our process to your unique situation; it also gives you a great question to ask potential partners — do they have experience working in a context similar to yours?

Ingredient #3: Project Process

The project process pages are the meat of any proposal (and you thought I forgot about the food metaphor!) This is the part of the proposal where things start taking shape; where we take what we’ve learned about your goals and working style and adjust our process to best set the project up for success. And while we have a pretty refined process for brand, design, and digital projects, no one engagement is the same. So, knowing that your organization might need ample time to deliver feedback on a new logo, for example, allows us to build additional rounds of revision into the design phase of the project.

Guaranteeing a Great Proposal:

  • Try to focus your attention on process as you speak with different agencies and make sure you have time to ask questions about it. An agency is always happy to talk to you about their unique approach, and while we can never tell you exactly what project success will look like, we can tell you how we’ll get you there.
  • Despite the fact that proposals look like quite official and formal documents, none of the information within them is set in stone. A proposal should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one, so if you feel as though parts of a suggested process won’t work for you, speak up! An agency should be happy to either incorporate changes or explain their thinking to you.

Ingredient #4: Scope of Work & Budget

Who else agrees I’ve left the best part for last?! No one? Hm…how strange. Not.

It’s no secret that one of the most important (and for agencies, challenging) aspects of a proposal are the scope of our work and the budget. The reality is that when it comes to scope — the clearly defined boundaries of your project — agencies never know exactly what we’ll be creating until we actually start the work. That means that when we put together proposals, we have to rely on past experience with similar projects to understand what makes the most sense to prioritize.

That’s not to say, however, that we can’t make a proposal in cases where the scope is unclear. In fact, in those cases, we’ll propose a Strategic Discovery Engagement as a first step toward clarifying goals and more clearly outlining the details of future work.

A project’s proposed scope is intrinsically connected to its budget because, well, how can we know how much something costs if we don’t have a decent sense of what it’s going to include? Budget is a design consideration like anything else, so being upfront about your expectations and limitations helps us adjust our process to meet your needs. Candid conversations about budget also help ensure that the number we put in front of you in our estimate is in line with expectations.

Guaranteeing a Great Proposal:

  • If there are any specific elements you want your project to include — a robust analytics assessment, for example — tell agencies about them so we can make sure we’re not missing anything as we think through the scope. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to tell us if your priorities are unclear. Good agencies should have an approach for tackling such situations and can develop a proposal that articulates how they’ll help you define goals and priorities.
  • Research the costs of brand and design work as you start to think about your budget, then be transparent with agencies about that number as soon as you start talking with them. If you don’t have a budget, giving us a sense of your expectations still helps agencies avoid delivering an unrealistic estimate in our proposal.
  • Ask questions! Like I mentioned above, we’re happy to justify or clarify different items or make adjustments if necessary, especially with something as important as the budget.

Summing Up

Long story short, it can take a lot of information-gathering for agencies to feel prepared enough to develop a proposal. Like a chef needs access to certain ingredients to make a dish worthy of a 5-star Yelp review, agencies need an understanding of your organization’s unique context to craft a proposal that makes an impact. Using your top-level goals, working rhythms, process, scope, and budget as our guiding lights, agencies can begin to add specificity to your project needs and outline an approach that sets our potential project up for success.

Alright, it’s finally time to get those tacos! Just think how much better they’ll taste now that you’re fully equipped to distinguish between good proposals and great proposals — or, if you’ll indulge me one last time, Guy Fieri proposals and Julia Child proposals.


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