Lessons from the Web: How to write proposals

From time to time, I like looking for best practices for writing project proposals.  Especially when you’re finally breaking out of a corporate mold, you need to finally establish your offerings and services without the trappings of a large corporation — which is typically easier because there are existing templates, formats and corporate accomplishments that automatically add credibility through the sheer name of the company.

Online, you can find a gajillion cooking, crafting and music-playing how-to’s.  But what about document-writing?  Well, that’s what I needed to find.

So, what websites gave interesting advice about proposal writing?

1. A List Apart

Let’s Do It! What Are We Doing?

Like always, A List Apart introduces ideas with style:

Thrilling as it may be, your excitement quickly turns to anxiety as you realize that the next thing they want to know is “how much will it cost?”…

But accurately mapping out the scope of a project could take weeks of focused effort. That’s probably not something you can give away whenever you get a request for a quote. So what do you do?…

So instead of putting together their requested $100,000 proposal, what do I do? I put together a $20,000 one.

Well, it’s the first part of the bigger project, naturally. Depending on the nature of the project, it may require different tasks and deliverables. But we’ll likely include things like meetings, interviews, information architecture recommendations, branding analysis, a copywriting style guide, a content audit, wireframes, and style prototypes/style tiles. Whatever we end up doing, we’ll compile all of the research and conclusions we draw in the specification document, which is the central deliverable we provide at the end of the phase…


You know what’s scary? Handing a big wad of money to a stranger. That’s what a big initial contract is like for a potential client. A smaller introductory research project lets a new client wade in ankle-deep before the big plunge…

The pre-project project lets you assess the relationship in a low-risk environment…

…As this phase is nearing completion, you’ll be able to create a much more accurate budget for phase two. Because your research has generated a well-informed project definition, there will be much less guesswork, and a far greater understanding of the project’s requirements.

Designing Contracts for the XXI Century

it’s also the business card you hate handing out: a folder of legal gibberish with terrible formatting that reminds the client of everything that could possibly go wrong before the work has even started.

…defining what must be done, the deadline, the client’s approval, and the price.

AIGA’s standard agreement for design services uses a nifty solution to make sure all modifications are in writing and that there’s a limit to the number of modifications that can be requested…

For example, imagine you are an illustrator who creates a set of characters for a story. Your client picks the ones they like, and those are the deliverables they buy. Why shouldn’t you keep the rest, and “recycle” them for future projects? If you don’t specify this in the contract, the client will be assigned all the work in connection with the project, including unused sketches.

Same thing if you are delivering code. It’s common to incorporate snippets of code into multiple projects, but just because that code ends up in that project doesn’t mean that client owns it. These are usually called “design tools” in a contract—which means instead of giving something away, you’re simply giving your client permission to continue using the tools…

Standards don’t just come from lawyers or unions. Andy Clarke’s Contract Killer is extremely popular among freelance designers—in fact, a version of his contract is one of the most viewed and downloaded items at my company, Docracy, which provides an open collection of legal documents. This is likely due to Clarke’s strict no-legalese policy. He even dropped the classic impersonal language, transforming it into a natural dialogue with the client: “What both parties agree to do.”

You need to make sure you don’t sign anything you’ll regret, and spotting bad provisions is not a lawyers-only job. Scanning contracts is a necessity sometimes, so always look closely at the following parts:

  • Parties, particularly when companies are involved: Make sure the people you’re dealing with have the power to bind their companies.
  • IP provisions: Who owns copyright and when, and what the licensing limitations are.
  • Your representation and warranties—the fewer, the better: underpromise and overdeliver!
  • Termination: What happens if someone wants to get out of the deal early?
  • Dispute resolution: The clause no lawyer ever wants to give up. Watch this one, because you don’t want to let a client drag you to a court a thousand miles away. If you can agree to arbitration or mediation, even better.

The more contracts you read, the better you’ll get at spotting weird provisions. Trust your judgement: If something doesn’t seem quite right, it probably isn’t.

2. Docracy and the American Institute of Graphic Arts

Which houses AIGA’s standard agreement for design services.  I want to thank the group that made this site and made this contract.  This is the stuff you actually want to pay for.

Whether you want to give full license or a limited license to your work, there is an easily understandable contract on file.

3.  Stuff And Nonsense, by Andrew Clarke

Clarke’s contract, dubbed The Contract Killer, has been used for years, and is a non-legalese document that he created for himself and his design team, which he has seen to cover every element that his clients seem to be concerned about.

Like I said about AIGA and Docracy, this guy is a hero.

Your killer contract should cover:

  • A simple overview of who is hiring who, what they’re being hired to do, when and for how much
  • What both parties agree to do and what their respective responsibilities are
  • The specifics of the deal and what is or isn’t included in the scope
  • What happens when people change their minds (as they almost always do)
  • A simple overview of liabilities and other legal matters
  • You might even include a few jokes

To help you along, I’ll illustrate those bullet points by pointing both barrels at the contract that I wrote and have been using here at Stiffs & Nonsense for the past five years. My contract has been worth its weight in lead and you’re welcome to take all or any part of it to use for yourself. It’s packing a creative-commons attribution share-a-like license. That means you’re free to re-distribute it, translate it and otherwise re-use it in ways I never considered. In return I only ask you mention my name and link back to this article.

4. This website called Mindshare Consulting.

One Question to Ask Every Client

A good reminder.   And I’m a person who asks questions for a living. So I reeeeeeally appreciate this.

That question is how does the client know what the problem actually is?…

Second, if you and the client base the definition of the problem on shaky assumptions, everything you do going forward will be unreliable. Without a solid foundation, you can’t be sure if the proposed solution will be successful or miss the mark.

Finally, if your solution doesn’t resolve the problem, don’t look for clients to chalk it up to poor diagnosis on their part; they will hold you accountable.

How to Write a Killer Proposal

I needed to calm the cynic in me, after reading that title.  But, the post did share good advice.

It’s less costly to write a letter confirming your services than to prepare a formal document proposing your services. Consultants rarely ask clients to award them the business without a formal proposal, so distinguish yourself and ask whether you can start the work using a letter of confirmation. What do you have to lose?

A confirmation letter differs from a proposal in that it describes what you will do, rather than what you are proposing to do. The confirmation letter describes the project objective, scope, schedule, fees, and results, just like a proposal…

Many proposals begin with a long discussion of the consulting firm, its qualifications, and history. Focus your proposal on the client’s needs first, and then describe your firm’s capabilities. Remember, clients only care about how you’ll address their issues, so show them how you’ll do that…

Give clients a sense of the culture of your firm and your style of working. The traditional, stilted language of many consulting proposals doesn’t help clients answer the all-important question: what will it be like to work with these consultants?

5.  This is more of a question.  Why do many posts about writing consultancy proposals ask writers to keep the opening tone “warm”?

Inspiration: Craft out of Hometown love

I like this trend in creating and selling art out of place names and maps.

It reminds me of loyalty, and hometown comfort and pride. But in a simple, cute package.

All featured in The Bold Italic shop.

t Necklace - By Honey & Bloom
West Coast Necklace – By Honey & Bloom
San Francisco Map Scarf - by Jennifer Maravillas
San Francisco Map Scarf – by Jennifer Maravillas
Topography Letterpress Print - by  Western Editions and Melissa Small
Topography Letterpress Print – by Western Editions and Melissa Small

Not about space. But about color 🙂 Which, I love too.

Color Wheel Pendant - by Yellow Owl Workshop
Color Wheel Pendant – by Yellow Owl Workshop

And, another extra: CinqPoints’ designer  minimalist architectural toys.

home - by CInqPoints
home – by CinqPoints

Marketing Magazine: Things Marketers Can Learn From Candy Crush

Articles like these make me proud of being part of a Product Dev team, during my younger years at work.

With this article, I think Marketing Magazine is able to express how the older model of advertising needs to change.

People Like Us (by which I mean those who work in digital agencies) rarely congratulate Candy Crush developer King for this trick of turning a little puzzle into a massive load of money.

Making lines of four things isn’t new enough as a game idea to impress us. Which is not a problem for  King; its later launches use exactly the same “matching” gameplay. Indeed, King cites the repeatable nature of its game development as what makes the company’s value sustainable.

Perhaps it will one day spend its millions on a new game idea that People Like Us like, and it can enjoy the fleeting glory of our admiration….

This is what King has to teach us, if we will only put our critically acclaimed, animated adventures down and listen. It updates that game every two weeks. After the launch of your brilliant app or game or website or campaign idea, how often do you return to it to add more to it, really? It’s something the older folk in advertising may recognise in the development of long-running brand ideas…

Are there 73 episodes of your brand idea, app or content platform? And when you launch that innovative new ‘thing’, be it a campaign, a website or, perhaps, a small loveable wireless printer, have you committed yourself to 1075 levels of increasingly addictive interpretations and uses of it? Does it even momentarily cure low self-esteem, or might it inexorably distract someone’s attention wholly from whatever it is they are doing (and not just play in the background)?

In a world of thousands of ‘new things’, made by thousands of Imagineers and their ilk, we could probably stand for some ‘things’ to last a bit longer than their launch period. We could stand for some of them to hold our attention for longer than it takes to grasp the story the first time.

Christine Outram: What Starbucks Gets that Architects Don’t

Christine Outram is a former architect, MIT research fellow and currently a designer at a brand strategy agency.

She talks about how architecture has focused on form without listening to consumers, to the people inhabiting the spaces they design.

Love what she says because it applies to any job that is supposed to serve people, but has grown self-referent (i.e. marketing, Dribbble design).

Dear architects,

You’re outdated. I know this because I once was one of you. But now I’ve moved on. I moved on because despite your love of a great curve, and your experimentation with form, you don’t understand people.

I correct myself. You don’t listen to people.

In legal terms, an architect is the all seeing, all knowing, building professional….

…But the truth is, most of you don’t try. You rely on rules of thumb and pattern books, but you rarely do in-depth ethnographic research. You might sit at the building site for an hour and watch people “use space” but do you speak to them? Do you find out their motivations? Do your attempts really make their way into your design process?

This really hit home for me when I read a recent article on the design of Starbucks stores. Now you might hate Starbucks. You might believe they are a soulless commercial entity with no architectural merit at all, but do you know what they are good at? Responding to people’s needs and desires.

The article reads:

Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers, seeking what it was that they wanted out of a coffee shop. The overwhelming consensus actually had nothing to do with coffee; what consumers sought was a place of relaxation, a place of belonging.

My dear architects. This is why Starbucks designed round tables in their stores. They were strategically created “in an effort to protect self-esteem for those coffee drinkers flying solo”. They were not round because the architect felt it looked better that way, they were not round because they were cheaper, they were round because as the article concludes “there are no empty seats at a round table”.

No wonder architecture has become a niche vocation. You don’t connect with people any more.

The problem is that architects seem to pray at the feet of the latest hyped-up formal language. I dare you. Flip through an architectural magazine today. Find any people in the photographs? I didn’t think so. Find plenty of pictures that worship obscure angles and the place where two materials meet? You betcha.

Vintage all around: Magazines, Movie Posters and Playboy’s “Language of Legs”

I like websites that just list really good content for that day, every day.

Like this Sidebar.io link that I’ve been keeping open.

And Cool Material’s Sunday Hangover.

Which leads me to goodies such as:

19 First Covers of American Magazines

People Magazine – March 4, 1974


Playboy’s The Language of Legs, from The Selvedge Yard.


All of Saul Bass’s Movie Posters, from Film.com











Seriously.  It isn’t purely out of nostalgia.  Graphic design looked pretty good back then.



Thank you, Internet: An Agency Branded App, 10 Popular Algorithms and a Design Course That’s Helping the Philippines

These three articles mattered to me today.

1.  The 10 Algorithms that Dominate Our World

Would you have ever imagined the day where you would read an article like that?

Where you can list algorithms that pervade everyday life?  I’m so happy for mathematicians, data scientists and programmers all of a sudden.

This is a whole new level of relevance.  All the math geeks from elementary school can laugh in people’s faces.

Google PageRank; Facebook News feeds, “You may also enjoy…” – all math. Cool.

2.  How a Small Nashville Agency Used Creativity to Get Worldwide Recognition

I don’t fully forgive you for that clickbait-y article, Fast Company.


I just never thought an agency could make an app that would sell itself.

Continue reading “Thank you, Internet: An Agency Branded App, 10 Popular Algorithms and a Design Course That’s Helping the Philippines”