Graphics and Action Captions

Graphics and action captions make complex content easier to understand and remember. When used effectively, they can increase your proposal’s persuasive power—and your win rates.


Clear, compelling, audience-focused graphics (including covers) and action captions improve win rates. A 3M-sponsored study at the University of Minnesota School of Management found that presentations that use visual aids are 43 percent more persuasive than those that do not. Graphics also improve recollection up to 86 percent and communicate faster than text alone. For example, in Figure 1, which approach makes it easier to understand and remember the concept of “a circle”?

Figure 1. Graphics versus Text.

Figure 1. Graphics versus Text. Graphics are often more understandable and memorable than text alone.

Research shows:

  • Graphics lead to a more profound and accurate understanding of presented material.
  • Graphics grab our attention and may influence how (and whether) we attend to the rest of a story.
  • Graphics enhance or affect emotions and attitudes and emotions influence the very mechanisms of rational thinking.

It is important to note that graphics are not better than text. As Mike Parkinson explains in Do-It-Yourself Billion Dollar Graphics, “The combination of graphics and words has a communicative power that neither singularly possesses. Without graphics, an idea may be lost in a sea of words. Without words, a graphic may be lost to ambiguity.”

Similarly, J.R. Levin points out that “Pictures interact with text to produce levels of comprehension and memory that can exceed what is produced by text alone.”

For this reason, action captions also play a critical role in evaluating and winning proposals. Understanding how to effectively use a combination of graphics and text can make the difference between winning and losing a contract.

Best Practices

1. Know when, where, and why to use graphics and action captions.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, it’s best to create graphics and action captions before you write a proposal. Begin with an action caption, then create supporting graphics—macro to micro. Then, use the graphics and captions as a roadmap for writing. Making graphics first ensures the team is on the same page, the solution is complete, and the proposal tells a coherent story.

Develop content in the following order:

  • First, write action captions that express the messages you want to communicate to readers.
  • Next, use action captions to develop graphics that convey these messages visually.
  • Finally, use conceptualized graphics and action captions to write your proposal content.

There are three situations in which proposal graphics are especially important:

  • Your information is too complex for words alone. Often a graphic can communicate complex concepts more succinctly than text alone. Consider network diagrams, quantitative charts, dashboard graphics, Gantt charts, organizational charts, and process diagrams. All communicate complex information better than text only.
  • The information is a critical success factor. If the presented information is missed or misunderstood, you increase your chances of scoring low or being perceived as deficient. On the other hand, if the information is clear and compelling, you increase your chances of maximizing your scores and winning a bid.
  • You want to influence emotions. The professionalism of your graphics impacts the perceived quality of your solution and helps build the trust that is required to win. Like it or not, decisionmakers and evaluators are influenced by the quality of the graphics used in your proposal. In fact, in a large U.S. federal government RFP, the first paragraph in boldface type under the “Instructions to Offerors” reads:

“Offerors are cautioned that the Government considers the overall form and substance of their proposal to represent the general quality of work expected to be performed under this contract. Accordingly, it will be considered throughout the review and scoring/evaluation process.”

Graphic dimensions should be driven by RFP requirements, your content, and your message, not rules of thumb like the “rule of thirds.” Use as much or as little of the page as needed to communicate your message. Foldouts (e.g., a dashboard graphic) are recommended when the additional information is needed to clearly communicate.

To improve your likelihood of winning, make your proposal easy to review and evaluate. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Avoid graphics that require the reader to rotate the document, transitioning from portrait to landscape.
  • Always include an action caption below your graphic.
  • Introduce your graphics with a unique identifier (e.g., Figure 1, Exhibit 1, Table 1) in the body of your proposal for easy reference and tracking.
  • Avoid referring to graphics elsewhere in your proposal.
  • To ensure internal version control during graphic development, use a file naming and logging system that identifies the proposal, the graphic number, and the version number (e.g., XYZprop_001_v2). Place the log number within the graphic in a discrete location for future identification.

2. Write action captions and conceptualize graphics before rendering.

Your action caption should be the message you want your graphic to convey and should be no longer than one sentence. The simpler you can make an action caption, the better. Actions captions are composed of three parts:

  • Figure number
  • Informative heading
  • Complete sentence(s) explaining the relevance of the graphic to the evaluator, linking benefits to features

If your goal is to influence, motivate, or persuade, your action caption should include a benefit and explain how this benefit is achieved. Avoid listing more than three benefits in a single action caption. Succinct, customer-focused action captions result in better graphics. When applicable, include proof and a discriminator in your caption. Figure 2 is an example of a benefit-driven action caption.

Figure 2. Graphics Supported by Action Captions.

Figure 2. Graphics Supported by Action Captions. Customer-focused, benefit-driven action captions improve the persuasive power of your graphics and proposal.

Use your action caption to conceptualize your graphic. Avoid graphic reuse unless an existing graphic is consistent with (or can be easily modified to be consistent with) your audience and message. Never render a graphic before the action caption is written.

Seek validation at every milestone. For example, once an action caption is written, decide whether the caption meets the RFP’s requirements and is customer-focused. After a graphic is conceptualized (i.e., sketched or prototyped), confirm that the graphic clearly communicates the intended message.

Figure 3 illustrates the recommended steps to follow to develop a successful proposal graphic.

Figure 3. The Four Steps for Developing Successful Proposal Graphics.

Figure 3. The Four Steps for Developing Successful Proposal Graphics. To develop a successful proposal graphic, begin with an action caption, create a concept, render it, and finally, implement it.

3. Understand and use basic design principles.

Every aesthetic decision should have a purpose. Avoid design choices that are inconsistent with your audience, message, or subject matter. Design choices should guide readers through your graphics, improve comprehension, and build trust.

Key design principles are:

  • Color. Color has meaning and affects mood; therefore, all color choices should be deliberate and have a purpose. For example, if your goal is to brand your company, use your company’s colors. If you goal is to build trust, you may choose to use your customer’s colors. Choose a color palette before rendering graphics and avoid deviation. A change in color may cause readers to interpret a change in meaning. If meaning is unclear, readers may be confused.
  • Style. The style of your graphics affects understanding and communicates volumes about your company and solution. Figure 4 shows the same subject matter designed in two different styles. Style B is simplified and is easier to understand.

Figure 4. Understanding Graphic Style.

Figure 4. Understanding Graphic Style. Aesthetic style affects perception and understanding. (Bonneville Generator graphic developed by U.S. Amy Corps of Engineers) (

The style of your graphics communicates your company culture and approach to customer service, problemsolving, and other duties. For example, modern design sends unspoken messages that your company is cutting edge, young, and innovative. Aesthetically unappealing or unprofessional graphics could communicate that you, your solution, and your company are inferior and unprofessional.

  • Consistency. Aesthetic consistency (through colors, style, lines, and fonts) communicates that your team is on the same page. Because consistency requires additional planning and effort, it shows that you place a high value on your proposal, the solution, and the customer. It demonstrates your company’s commitment and professionalism.
  • Grid. Most successful graphics use an invisible grid. Use a grid to ensure graphic elements are evenly spaced, orderly, and easy to follow. Figure 5 shows the difference between a graphic that uses a grid and a graphic that does not.

Figure 5. Designing Graphics Using a Grid.

Figure 5. Designing Graphics Using a Grid. Using a grid improves comprehension and understanding.

  • Balance. Balanced graphics convey stability and harmony. Unbalanced graphics result in feelings of unease. Graphics achieve aesthetic balance when their left and right sides and, to a lesser extent, top and bottom visually “weigh” similar amounts, giving a sense of equilibrium. Figure 6 illustrates visual balance.

Figure 6. Designing Balanced Graphics.

Figure 6. Designing Balanced Graphics. Visual balance impacts mood and perception.

  • Shapes. Shapes and lines affect readers’ perception and understanding. Diagonal shapes and lines are more dynamic and energetic. But when used in excess, they may evoke feelings of unease or agitation.

Too many diagonal lines, for example, result in a graphic that appears disorganized and disheveled. The graphic is usually difficult to follow. Horizontal and vertical shapes and lines provide a sense of stability. Using a horizontal and vertical layout communicates that the presented information is organized and controlled. Curved shapes and lines (circles, ovals, etc.) are soothing and calming and can help pacify your target audience. Curved, horizontal, and vertical shapes and lines often create a positive impression. Figure 7 illustrates the impact of shapes on mood and perception.

Figure 7. Using Shapes in Graphics.

Figure 7. Using Shapes in Graphics. Shapes and lines impact mood and perception.

Use your action caption to conceptualize your graphic. Avoid graphic reuse unless an existing graphic is consistent with (or can be easily modified to be consistent with) your audience and message. Never render a graphic before the action caption is written.

Seek validation at every milestone. For example, once an action caption is written, decide whether the caption meets the RFP’s requirements and is customer-focused. After a graphic is conceptualized (i.e., sketched or prototyped), confirm that the graphic clearly communicates the intended message.

4. Use templates.

A graphic template is a key ingredient to quickly developing quality graphics. A template helps ensure consistency. A template also eliminates the need for reformatting. When working with a team, your template ensures that all graphics look as if one person or company created them. The resulting graphics demonstrate that the solution provider is acting as a team with one consistent vision.

To follow your template, choose a color palette, graphic style, arrow style, font, line spacing, and capitalization scheme—and stick with it.

It is imperative that your proposal graphics are understandable. Your template should take into consideration the following variables:

  • The size of the graphic presented
  • The medium on which it will be presented (e.g., printed page, projected)
  • How you wish to be perceived. (e.g., emotions you wish to elicit)
  • Branding your company versus selling your solution. Which is the most important in your company’s short- and long-term strategies with this customer?
  • Special considerations (e.g., vision-impaired audience, graphics duplicated in black and white for review)

5. Objectively validate your graphics.

There are two variables to consider when validating that your graphic is successful:

  • Content: If you were to remove your action caption, could the audience quickly (within 10 seconds) deduce the message? Is all content within the graphic germane to the action caption? If the answer is no to either of these questions, your graphic is likely to misinform, misdirect, or miss altogether. Figure 8 compares an unsuccessful proposal graphic and a successful one based on these criteria.

Figure 8. The Importance of Content.

Figure 8. The Importance of Content. Graphic content must be clear even in the absence of an action caption. The graphic on the right shows benefits more clearly than the one on the left.

  • Aesthetics: Does every aesthetic decision have a purpose? What message does the style of the graphic communicate? If the answers to these questions are inconsistent with your goals, then your graphic may lower your chances of success.

To ensure your graphics will be clear to readers unfamiliar with your solution, ask someone not on the graphics creation team to review your graphics for content and aesthetics.

6. Understand copyright law.

If you do not have permission from the owner of an image, you cannot legally use that image in your proposal. All images are immediately protected under copyright law in almost every country. Copyright is normally valid with or without a copyright notice. Copyright law stipulates that once an image is created, the owner holds the rights to that image.

Excluding situations where an image is deemed in the public domain or is used in accordance with fair-use laws, reuse permission must be obtained from the owner (for free or for fee). For example, it is illegal to use a photograph or graphic from the Internet (e.g., a photograph found during an Internet search) if the rights of use have not been granted to you. It is legal to use photographs and graphics acquired from stock image websites and websites that grant the right of reuse for commercial use (i.e., for profit).

7. Know the differences between graphic file formats.

Proposal graphics are usually embedded into page layout or presentation programs in a flat, uneditable file format (e.g., JPG, PNG, TIF) at a print resolution of 150 to 300 dots per inch, or DPI. This is referred to as a raster graphic (e.g., photograph). These files are resolution dependent, which means the final dimensions and presentation medium must be known to ensure image integrity, legibility, and quality.

Some file formats allow image compression (e.g., JPG). Compression decreases file size by lowering image quality. Avoid heavy compression when possible.

To avoid font and file size issues, create graphics at the same dimensions as they will appear in your proposal. For example, if your proposal graphic will be 6.5 inches (16.51 centimeters) in your proposal document, be sure that the original graphic has the same dimensions. To improve consistency and ensure compliance, when applicable, never scale the graphic after it is placed into your proposal.

Some proposals use vector graphics (e.g., most native presentation software and data graphics software). Vector graphics are resolution independent, which means all elements can be scaled without sacrificing image quality. File size is typically smaller and graphics remain editable.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Using more detail than needed

A visual becomes too complicated when the author attempts to convey too many messages in one graphic or includes too much detail. This typically results from a poorly written or missing action caption.

Failing to explain yourself

An unclear graphic, due to lack of identification and/or explanation, happens when the author erroneously assumes that the customer understands the subject matter on the same level that he or she does.

Making design mistakes

Poorly rendered graphics result from a lack of design skill. These graphics are homogeneous at best and unprofessional at worst.


  • Write customer-focused action captions before conceptualizing and rendering graphics.
  • Create graphics before writing your proposal.
  • Start with a graphic that summarizes your entire proposal (e.g., executive summary) and use it as a roadmap during proposal development.
  • Use an objective, repeatable process and graphic templates to ensure consistency, lower cost, and improve win rates.
  • Know when and when not to use graphics.
  • Ensure that all aesthetic decisions have a clear purpose that is consistent with the RFP, audience, and message.
  • Track graphics development to effectively schedule and staff graphics support for future proposals.
  • Understand that the style and professionalism of your graphics reflects your company culture, the professionalism of your company, and the quality of your solution.

Terms to Know