Out of all of my clients, I only know of one who consistently produces proposal graphics well. They happen to have an in-house graphic designer. That's not why they're good at it though, and I want to help others learn from my experience with them to understand how you can develop quality graphics as well. These quick tips will be more than enough to get you started.
1. Plan for graphics from day one
This is a message for my proposal managers out there. As you start building your proposal calendar, drop in time to work on proposal graphics. This means setting regular check-ins to discuss graphic development, including initial brainstorming, reviews of designs, and final approvals. Ensure that your timelines align to draft reviews, so that reviewers can get a full picture of the draft with graphics.
2. Allocate resource appropriately
At the same time, make sure your team has resources in place to support this. Whether that means an experienced designer in-house or on contract or just an intern who understands how to make Microsoft Word produce a nicely formatted figure, make sure your team has someone in place to support this area of work. Good proposal graphics don't require incredibly sophisticated design skills, so don't limit your capacity by thinking this is an all or nothing exercise.
3. Set aside space up front
After the proposal team has had a bit of time to get their sea legs, sit down with the technical writer and design lead and a copy of the proposal outline. Identify all areas that could possibly use a graphic to support - you don't have to have everything fully thought through, but a rough idea of where you'll need space for graphics. Note how much space you'll need for each one. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Background or Context sections typically benefit from a map (1/4 page to 1/2 page)
Technical Approach sections sometimes require or benefit from a visual theory of change (1/3 to 1/2 page)
Outcome areas may need visual explanations to make approaches more understandable (1/4 to 1/2 page)
Stakeholder descriptions can use a map or table to provide more context (1/3 to 1/2 page)
Staffing sections often require an organizational chart (1/2 page to 1 page)
Setting aside the space up front mean that you technical writer is aware that they need to conserve space in a particular section. That means less likelihood of having to severely cut back on written content later on in the process.
4. Don't overcomplicate the concept
Graphics should add value to your proposal. Often, what I see is a proposal team attempting to use one graphic to explain all facets of an extremely complicated concept. Instead of trying to make one graphic your end all, be all focus on whether it communicates the key messages you're needing to explain. Just because you have a map doesn't mean that the map has to show eight different pieces of information - focus on the most compelling one or two tidbits to highlight and you'll deliver much more.
5. Mirror your branding
I've written before on the importance of a proposal style guide, but you can move in the direction of a clearly branded proposal without too much effort. Mirror your brand colors in graphics is step one. Have a table? Make the header line your corporate color. Have an organizational chart? Make the color of the boxes align to your color schemes. These simply changes will pull your entire proposal together and make it more graphically appealing.
6. Get feedback
But not too much. Including a small review panel of two or three in assessing whether graphics are communicating what you want them to is just about enough. You'll catch any errors, but not bring in too many cooks to unintentionally dilute the design with too many ideas. Including the graphics in standard reviews of technical drafts can be an excellent way to collect just enough feedback.
Building great proposal graphics doesn't have to be a mystery.
It means dedicating the time, planning for success, and ensuring that your messages are communicated clearly. These are all areas where business development folks know exactly what to do. So do it! I challenge you to make your next proposal include at least one graphic you can be proud of.