How to Protect Your Interests When Reading a Design Proposal

by: | February 14, 2012

When you’re shopping for something, you don’t just buy the first product you see. You’ll likely also consider different brands, the benefits and features, and price, to name a few differentiators. The same logic goes with hiring a designer or agency. Just like with shopping, you want to see what each designer or agency has to offer and how much their costs will be, so you can determine their value.

(For more insights on working with an agency, read John Prinzo’s column Why Use an Agency?)

In the project proposal, the designer (or the agency) will detail what to expect for the project and give you an idea of the value you’ll get for your money. Remember, you don’t want to simply choose the lowest price.

Here’s how to read a proposal, with specific instructions on what to look for when you’re going through it to protect your project, your interests, and your business.

Important Sections of a Design Proposal

In our industry, there’s no set template of how a proposal should look or read. That said, every proposal should have the same components describing your project.

When reading a proposal, look for these sections:

  • Schedule – A timeline for deliverables. It should clearly describe how long each phase of the project should take.
  • Rounds of changes – This will change for every studio, but they should make clear how many rounds of changes are included. (More on this later.)
  • Cost breakdown – You should understand what each part of the project will cost.
  • Flat project rate or hourly rate? – The project will either be one price for the whole project or a charge per hour.
  • Scope of work - Make sure all pieces of the project are included in the proposal.
  • Payments – How much is the initial deposit and how do they split up payment?

Warning Signs of a Bad Design Proposal

Now that you know which sections should be in your proposal, you can keep an eye out for warning signs. Designers and agencies that look good on the outside can turn out to be a nightmare to work with if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Look for these warning signs to make sure your project doesn’t go awry:

  • No cost breakdown – If they simply give you a flat cost and no breakdown of the phases and estimates, they might be pulling a number out of thin air.
  • Hourly rate, but no estimated hours – If you see an hourly rate but have no idea how many hours they’re expecting to spend, expect to spend a lot more than you think. Make sure you know how much the phases should cost.
  • No schedule – Without a set schedule, your project could end up taking twice as long as you expect. Not knowing when phases will be completed, you can’t plan the launch or any other marketing.
  • No contract – A contract protects you and the designer or agency. You need to be clear where you and the designer stand in case things should go wrong or the project gets cancelled.
  • No clear scope of work – A clear scope of work lets you know the designer understands your needs and can complete your project to your satisfaction. Without it, it’s a shot in the dark.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Some proposals are estimates, especially when you’re dealing with an hourly rate. The true cost of the project might be more or less than what you read in the proposal, depending on their hourly estimates. A good agency will be able to accurately estimate the hours they need to complete the phases and tasks. You, the client, can affect the timeline dramatically with things like additional rounds of changes or not giving your agency or designer the materials and information they need on time.

If the proposal you’re reading is for a flat project rate, make sure every aspect you need for the project is included in the proposal. Things like additional pages and sections, new marketing campaigns, or additional functionality on your site are what we in the industry call “scope creep.” Be aware that additional work outside of the proposal will most likely result in additional costs.

Did I miss anything in here? Have an experience you want to share? Let me know in the comments!Marketing Zeus

Miss an earlier post? Don’t forget to read part 1 and part 2 of this series.

Posted in: B2B, Branding, Content, Engage!, Professional Services, Usability

About the Writer:

Born in England and raised in the U.S., Charles Forster is the marketing director and partner at Vine & Grain, a company that creates management technologies for bars and restaurants. Prior to that position, he ran a graphic design company, Call Me Chaz, in Philadelphia, PA and Orlando, FL. He focused on branding, websites, print, video and marketing for small business clients up and down the east coast. He's a self-prescribed car nut and foodie. He's also the curator for This Is Visceral, a site devoted to poster art.

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