If you design proposals in your company, and spend a lot of time doing so, you know that producing the best proposal template requires patience, and there’s seldom time to marvel at your work because there’s always another to get to. That’s just the way it is. Or is it?
We create our own proposal and RFP templates in Word, using our proposal software solution. Over the years, we've worked out some "hacks" for creating templates that look as good as those designed in InDesign, but are much easier to work with.
We work with Visual Content Specialist, Anton Linstrom, who has been kind enough to share his top tips for creating winning proposal templates with us. We hope these will be as helpful to you as they were to us.
Stick to design fundamentals
Having a good grasp of design fundamentals helps designers create more visually appealing work. When it comes to proposals, the more appealing your content, the better. Here are design fundamentals to be aware of:
Designs look more appealing when two elements contrast with each other. You can achieve contrast in a number of ways using color, size, shapes, and positioning.
Color. Using a color wheel is the easiest way to determine which colors will work best for your proposal template. Contrast can be achieved by using colors close to each other, giving the viewer a sense of harmony and continuity. Colors further apart introduce a sense of tension.
Size. Introducing one element that is distinguishably larger than anything else creates contrast. Larger elements indicate that they are also important to the reader.
Shapes. Different shapes are used to lead your reader’s eye or organize information. For example, squares represent honesty, stability, uniformity, and rigidity. Because squares represent uniformity to the eye, most text is often presented in block format. By introducing a different shape, say a circle which represents peace, protection, and infinity, you achieve contrast.
Position. Contrast can be achieved by making one element appear out of alignment with everything else on a page.
Using repetition creates a feeling of harmony and balance, which is due to the consistency of certain design elements. You can achieve repetition using a particular background, consistent typography, or solid blocks of colors when introducing new sections of content.
As you design your proposal, aim to align your text in a uniform fashion throughout your document. This creates a sense of harmony with the reader.
Proximity relates to the placement of elements in relation to each other. For example, the closer a heading is to the paragraph below, the more it communicates to the reader that the heading and paragraph directly relate to each other. A good use of proximity also makes the reading experience more pleasurable.
There’s always a lot of important information to add to a proposal, but remember to use a generous amount of white space to create balance.
Working in Word 2016
Different versions of Word use similar settings for customizing documents, however not all features are found in the same tabs. In the interest of simplicity, the instructions and tips that follow all apply to Word 2016.
Set up your document styles
Use the Styles to set up your proposal template's font size, color, character spacing, line height, and text indentation. These updates can be applied to titles, headings, paragraphs, and lists. If the style gallery doesn’t include a format that you like, you can create your own or modify an existing style.
Pro tip: Most documents designed to be viewed online use San Serif fonts because they are easier to read on computer screens.
The style gallery is found on the Home tab. From there you’ll be able to modify and create the style you need.
Bullet point selection
Bullets are helpful when listing important information and also create balance by breaking up larger chunks of text into easier to read pieces. Be sure to select your bullet design throughout your proposal to create uniformity, and also pay attention to the indentation of text. Misaligned bullets and text make the best proposals look unprofessional.
To set your bullets, select the bullet symbol, then right-click to choose Adjust List Indents. In the Adjust List Indents dialog box, change the indentation. When done, click OK and then use the Styles pane (Ctrl+Shift+Alt+S) to update the style by right-clicking on the style name and choosing Update List Bullet to Match Selection.
Word and PowerPoint come with set table styles. Like all other style elements, it is possible to modify them. As you customize your tables, remember to set text to vertical and horizontal alignment, background colors, and border designs and colors.
How to style your tables:
- Go to the Table Tools tab and select the Design Tab. Once there, you’ll be able to select or modify existing tables.
- After you’ve designed your new table style, save it for use by clicking on the down arrow next to Table Styles
- Click on New Table Style, give your table a name, and change the "Style based on" option to "New documents based on this template" so the table style will be available in future documents.
If your proposal has more than one page (excluding the cover page), it’s a good idea to add page numbers as a reference guide for readers. If you have more than one page, ensure that your page numbers start from the first page of content and not the cover page.
Page numbering also allows you to restart your page count for different sections of your proposal.
How to set up page numbering from the first page of content:
- To begin, navigate to the Insert tab, then click the Page Number You'll find
different options designed to help you with different types of documents.
- To add page numbers to an existing header or footer, use the Current Position Otherwise, choose one of the three options presented to create page numbers from scratch. No matter what you select, you’ll have several numbering styles to choose from. All you have to do is click the one you want and it will be added to your document.
- The Design tab appears any time your header or footer is open, making it easy to customize your page numbers. To remove the page number from your cover page, check the box next to Different First Page.
- Close your header or footer, click Close Header and Footer, or press Esc on your keyboard.
To open it again, simply double-click the margin to unlock it.
How to restart page numbering for a new section
Insert a section break first. Place your cursor at the beginning of the section and then go to the Layout tab. Click the Breaks command. You'll see a few different types of section breaks. Click on Next Page.
Next, adjust your page numbering by following these steps:
- Double-click the header or footer to unlock it.
- Then click the Page Number command and choose Format Page Numbers from the menu.
- A dialog box will appear where you can change the number format, add chapters to your page numbering, and much more. To restart your numbering, select the field which says “Start at”.
By default, Word will set it to restart at 1, but you can enter any number here, depending
on what you need.
When you're done, click OK and you'll see the change immediately.
Headers and footers
Headers and footers are relatively easy to insert. Simply double-click on the header of the page you’re working on and enter the text you’d like to appear there. You can also use the design tab for different header and footer styles.
As with page numbers, it’s a good idea to not have your header appear on the cover page of your proposal.
- Create a section break, selecting the “Next Page” section break.
- Double-click on the first page of content. You’ll note that the Design Tab is selected; click on “Link to Previous” to deselect the button. This will ensure that your header only appears from the first page of content. Do the same for footers.
Using page breaks
Page breaks are great ways to separate different types of information, but can make documents look unstructured if used incorrectly. Here are a few tips on when and when not to use them:
When to use them:
- Introducing a new section
- Introducing a new idea with a heading on a new page
When not to use them:
- Separating two paragraphs and starting a new section with a header directly below
- Separating a sentence over two pages and introducing a new section with a header directly below
- Spreading tables over two pages
- Using an image that relates to text on an earlier page and introducing a section with a header directly below
Managing your proposal file size
Most proposals designed with high-quality images tend to increase in file size. As a rule of thumb, try to keep your proposal file size to less than 1.5 MB. Here are three ways that Anton recommends:
- Swap out high-quality images for compressed JPEGs.
- You can also compress image files using a free online tool called io. It’s powerful and supports JPEG, PNG, and SVG files. Stick to JPEGs as they are typically smaller in file size.
- Use solid colors as background instead of images.
Designing proposal templates in Word takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of how to use Word’s styling features, you’ll be able to save time and turn over more proposals faster.
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