Are Your Proposal Graphics All Bark and No Bite?

Three Tips for Designing Winning Proposal Graphics

Graphic design takes many forms, and I happen to specialize in a highly niche and little-known space — proposal graphics within the government contracting industry. For the past eight years, I have designed a variety of visual communications, including complex information architecture diagrams and process flows for multimillion dollar proposal responses. I normally stray away from explaining my area of expertise because the government contracting industry is complex to navigate and is often considered very mundane. However, after the recent motion picture, War Dogs, I have a newfound appreciation for my craft.

War Dogs is based on the true story of two stoner friends in their early 20s who won a $300 million Department of Defense (DoD) contract to supply America’s allies in Afghanistan with guns and ammunition. While the movie was highly dramatized and included fictional events, the pair do get in over their heads and make the government contracting industry seem anything but boring. Even though they exploited small business regulations to beat out industry giants like Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman, proposal development is a key part of the government procurement process.

Winning proposals leverage a combination of narrative and visual communications to transform ideas into compelling solutions. Based on my years of experience navigating complex Request for Proposals (RFPs) and knowledge gained in grad school thus far, here are three tips for developing compelling and effective proposal graphics:

  1. Pay Attention to the Details. In the government contracting world, that means read Section C, L, and M, paying especially close attention to Section L — Instructions. If the RFP states use 10-pt Times New Roman font for graphics, that does not mean 9-pt Arial. It means do exactly as they say, unless they clarify otherwise in Q&As. It may seem nit-picky, but the government often conducts initial compliance reviews to weed out companies. The last thing you want to be disqualified for is not following font requirements — save that for the price.
  2. Match the Fidelity of your Design to the Maturity of your Idea. I stole this from the UX STRAT conference because it applies to proposal graphics just the same. The proposal development process is often subject to strict deadlines. Before giving the graphic designer a sketch to render, make sure the idea and solution are fully conceptualized. There is no time for wasted effort in the development process. Hold joint white-boarding sessions with subject matter experts, proposal authors, and the graphic designer. And do not be afraid to use hand-drawn sketches in Blue or Pink team color reviews. Reviewers are more likely to focus on the overall meaning of the graphic and provide valuable feedback as opposed to a graphic that is fully rendered.
  3. Include the Approach, Features, and Benefits. A compelling proposal graphic includes three main parts — your approach, features of that approach, and expected benefits and results. Leverage these three parts to illustrate your solution, and weave in discriminators and proof points to provide credibility. Be sure that the narrative and graphic complement each other and work together to tell your story.

While proposal graphics will not win you the contract alone, they are a key part of the puzzle that you should give two shih tzu about (I apologize for the lame pun, I wanted to keep the dog theme going…)