Proposal Couture – Dressed for Success


For sales proposals, looks count.

The visual design of proposals can say as much about your firm’s offer as Parisian haute couture does about its designer.

And for proposals, choosing the right design style can increase your chances of winning. But only if you know what your choices are.

So, here are four design styles that will help your proposals dress for all customers’ Requests for Proposal (RFPs).

  • Fashion Magazine style
  • Corporate Report style
  • Business Contract style
  • Text Only style

Learn these four. Choose the right one and optimize it. And your customers will not only select you more  often, they’ll also thank you for not irritating them with inappropriate RFP responses. And that’ll make you feel as good as a runway model looks.

Fashion Magazine style sales proposal

Proposal Couture Fashion Magazine Style

How to Identify:

Like it sounds, this proposal style looks more like a high-end fashion magazine than sales proposal. Easily identified due to:

  • Heavy use of images — less text, more images, some large & flashy
  • Full page bleeds — images or colors run off the page’s edge
  • Stylized colorful fonts — mixing font styles & complementary colors for attention
  • Multiple columns — breaks monotony of wide paragraphs
  • Pull quotes — quote focusing on key points or customer takeaways
  • Printed book fold — for hard copy printing only, not digital submissions
    • Margins are closer along spine side than at the page’s edge
    • Printed both sides on thick paper that won’t show content printed on the other side
  • Unusual page sizes — legal, tabloid, A4, A5, etc. in addition to letter size
  • Alternate page orientation —  landscape as well as portrait

NOTE: This style needs desktop publishing capabilities such as those in InDesign, or Microsoft Word. That means you’ll need power users in your production staff.

When To Use:

Consider using the Fashion Magazine style if both these considerations are present:

1) When you want to make a splash

You believe your proposal’s eye-catching design will differentiate you from competitors by communicating your brand as more:

  • Forward thinking & advanced
  • Unconventional
  • Elegant & stylish

2) For customers with informal business cultures

You believe the customer receiving your proposal has a somewhat informal business or work culture, and this visual style of proposal would be acceptable within their culture.

To find customers’ culture look for those with “business casual” dress codes, or corporate values that include a sense of fun, humor, or play.

When Not To Use:

You won’t be able to use the Fashion Magazine style when customers’ Requests for Proposal (RFP) restrict your response style. For example, when customers use:

  • An online tool (e.g., Ariba), or
  • Text-only file (e.g., forms in Excel, Word, PDF), or
  • RFPs  explicitly state their defined format, i.e. Arial 10 pt., double spaced, 1 inch margins all around

Consider not using the Fashion Magazine style when the product/service being offered is related to, touches on, or supports areas regarding life/death or ethics/morality. In that instance, the fashion look may not convey a serious enough approach. And you don’t want to be seen as taking the topic too lightly.

Corporate Report style sales proposal

Proposal Couture Corporate Report Style

How to Identify:

Sales proposals in the Corporate Report style share many elements of the Fashion Magazine style. However, the Corporate Report style presents more data and numbers; not typical fashion fare.

You’ll identify the Corporate Report style for sales proposals by:

  • Data tables  — to present numbers using colorful tables
  • Flowcharts & graphs  — to show how things work & time-based results
  • Balancing text with images — to show they mean “business”
  • More brand-based design elements — to echo the corporate logo in shapes & color
  • Small number of stylized fonts — to show consistency & control
  • Typically letter size paper in portrait orientation — though can be changed

NOTE: This style benefits by desktop publishing capabilities such as those in InDesign, but can easily be done in Microsoft Word by power users in your production staff.

When To Use:

You’ll want to use the Corporate Report style to present a reader-friendly, visually attractive, business look. This style helps readers skim content quickly while holding their attention; an important consideration in our attention deficit times.

The Corporate Report style is the most widely used proposal design because it’s appropriate for most commercial RFP as well as many public agency RFPs.

When Not To Use:

You won’t be able to use the Corporate Report  style when customers’ RFPs restrict your response style in:

  • An online tool (e.g., Ariba), or
  • Text-only file (e.g., forms in Excel, Word, PDF), or
  • Explicitly stated format, i.e. Arial 10 pt., double spaced, 1 inch margins all around

Business Contract style sales proposal

Proposal Couture Business Contract Style

How to Identify?

You’ll know this style because it’s boring to look at; dense text in long, single spaced paragraphs, using numbered outline levels (1, 1.1, 1.1.1, etc.).

I imagine most Corporate Tax Law text books look like this style.

When To Use:

Only when absolutely required to, on pain of death if you don’t because customers demanded it in their hyper-explicit RFP instructions .

When Not To Use:

If there’s a snowball’s chance in July you can get away with submitting your proposal in the Corporate Report style, do it.

Text Only style sales proposal

Proposal Couture Text Only Style

How to Identify:

You guessed it; text without formatting. That’d be:

  • Sans serif fonts (Arial, Courier, etc.)
  • Black fonts only
  • No colors
  • No tables, graphics, charts, images
  • No formatted line spacing or indents

Sometimes there are character or word limits for responses to each RFP question. This in addition to no formatting for text. A visual desert.

When To Use:

You’ll have to use it when customers require responses in an online tool (e.g., Ariba), or text-only file (e.g., forms in Excel, Word, PDF).

Sometimes RFPs and online tools  will allow you to attach formatted files (think PDFs in the Fashion Magazine or Corporate Report style). Take advantage of that because it may be your only opportunity to add a little visual life into your submission.

When Not To Use:

Whenever possible, it’s the last choice for proposal design styles.


Submitting a sales proposal, and your choice of design style, is largely dependent on your customer and their:

  • RFP instructions
  • Business culture
  • Product or service they’re buying

However, making smart design style choices can increase your chances of winning. And the larger the proposal, the more important little details become, such as the proposal’s design style. Looks count.

IMAGE: Stop Looking! Fashion Runway 2011

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