Page and Document Design

A proposal’s visual presentation is nearly as important as its content. Application of design principles, combined with clear production timelines, can help you create a compliant and consistent document.


The overall design and layout of your proposal documents is critical not just for communicating your information, but also for making an impression on reviewers and evaluators. Do your documents leave them interested and persuaded, or bored and unimpressed?

There are many important considerations to keep in mind when it comes to document design. For starters, documents must:

  • Follow instructions or guidelines from your customer, your company, and/or your writing outline
  • Be aesthetically appealing in an appropriate and professional way
  • Use design techniques to highlight specific text and information
  • Be produced efficiently using the tools and resources available

Stylistic choices must be made in consideration of any constraints and using a clear document template (defining elements such as color, font, page size, logo usage, and other details). This template should be established and communicated to your team so that all documents are compliant and consistent.

Your team must be empowered with the right tools and an understanding of appropriate metrics and milestones to effectively produce a professional document. They must also coordinate with writers and editors, graphic designers, and relevant physical production resources to ensure successful final completion.

Challenges with resources and technology will differ between small and large businesses as well as between co-located and dispersed teams. However, all teams benefit from being aware of emerging trends that can increase efficiency and change how reviewers interact with bid and proposal materials.

Best Practices

1. Understand the desktop publisher’s role.

A desktop publisher’s primary role includes creating and implementing a document template that is compliant with instructions and applied consistently over all pages or files of a proposal submission.

A desktop publisher may also be required to insert, label, and number graphics within a document (often sequentially or by section); implement a list of figures and tables; and coordinate with editors, writers, and graphic designers to ensure consistent style. The desktop publisher may also interface with any physical production, including printing and creation of electronic files.

2. Choose the right tools.

There are several options for document formatting software. Desktop publishers should be familiar with the tools that are most relevant in their industry and keep updated on new versions and new features of the software. Several software companies offer training for their products, as do third-party vendors. Many training resources are also available for free online.

3. Create a document template to ensure compliance and consistency.

A document template can be created in many software programs. For maximum efficiency, however, ensure all members of a team are using the same software and same version.

A document template must first be compliant: It must follow all customer guidelines as provided and any corporate branding or style guidelines, as relevant. For instance, the customer may specify the paper size, the margins of the paper, the maximum number of pages allowed, and the font to be used. Do not stray from these requirements. In lieu of any specific requirements, refer to corporate branding or style guidelines. If none exist, reflect the standards seen most commonly in your industry.

Second, a document must be consistent. Consistency not only ensures information is presented in a way that reflects stated requirements, but also communicates your company’s level of professionalism. Obvious changes in structure, color, font, imagery, layout, or other visual elements suggest a change in meaning. If those changes are unintentional and not clearly explained, the company bidding may appear unprofessional, unprepared, or lazy.

To achieve consistency and compliance, create a document template and provide it to all team members early in the proposal process. A document template includes (but is not limited to) the following items:

Final production information. Will the document be printed and bound or delivered electronically? This will inform the page size and orientation (such as American 8.5×11-inch portrait orientation or A3 landscape orientation), as well as potentially limit the amount or type of graphics or other design elements to be used.

Page margins. This includes margin width on all four sides of a document. Margins may differ depending on final production (such as having a larger interior margin to accommodate certain types of binding) or page orientation.

Column size and number. Pages can be separated into columns of text that exist between the margins. One column is the most common and easiest format to work with. However, to increase visual interest or to highlight different pieces of information, two or more columns may be used.

Formatting columns correctly and adding other visual elements (such as tables, callout boxes, or graphics) is typically a more advanced skill and may require additional training. Multiple columns can slightly increase the number of words included per page and can provide additional dynamic visual interest when successfully integrated with other elements.

Header and footer style. Headers and footers should be applied to the top and bottom, respectively, of every page in the document. These assist the evaluator in tracking the document, section, and page they are reviewing and may also include identifying markers such as company logo, name of proposal or bid, and submission date.

Font family or typeface. Specify font family or typeface using your software’s type-style functionality.

You should further define how to treat the following types of textual information:

  • Body or “normal” text – the majority of text-based information
  • Headings – used to break up large blocks of body text, may be a different font family, different color, numbered according to document outline, or otherwise different to attract emphasis
  • Bulleted lists – include the style of glyph used preceding every list, such as a small ball, square, or dash
  • Text you want to emphasize – on a typical page of proposal text, the best way to emphasize a short word or phrase is by using boldface; other options include underlining and italics
  • Callouts or testimonials – this may include design elements, such as a color or a box around text, to draw emphasis

Choose fonts based on instructions or style guides. When none are given, choose a common and legible font such as Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, or Cambria. Use type no smaller than 10 or 12 pt (outside of graphics or tables, which may be as small as 8 pt).

Colors. Colors can be used in conjunction with design elements in the header and footer (such as a line), in tables, in headings, or other textual information. Chosen colors should be reflective of the end customer, a bidder’s corporate branding, or a combination of the two.

Graphics styles. Specify how graphics are to be integrated with text. Generally, graphics are designed to physically fit within the margins or columns of the document, are sized for appropriate resolution (for print or online viewing), appear after they are referenced in the text, and are associated with an action caption.

Do not edit or resize graphics within the desktop publishing software if they are created in a separate program. If graphics are to be created within the desktop publishing software, other design elements may also need to be defined within the document template.

Special templates for individual sections. You may need special templates for sections such as Q&A sections, resumes, past performance/corporate experience, or the Executive Summary. Use tables to organize frequently referenced information (such as dates, project names, or staff titles). You can also use tables to provide an easy structure for concepts like question/answer, feature/benefit, and company/competitor, which can be used throughout documents in the bid or proposal.

Document templates should also be designed within the constraints of the desktop publisher’s skill level, the available software to be used, and the time available to successfully produce a compliant and consistent document.

The desktop publisher should apply consistent file structure and maintenance, including version control of documents. The process for receiving, formatting, and returning documents to other members of the team, as well as instructions on how to implement the document template, should also be clearly defined and disseminated to the team.

4. Schedule effectively using metrics.

Clearly schedule desktop publishing resources to ensure sufficient time to produce professional proposal or bid documents.

Documents may be formatted in parallel to writing/editing as long as they are separated by section or volume in a logical manner that does not impede progress or version/configuration control. For example, after Section 1 is written, it may be formatted while the writer turns his/her attention to Section 2. After Section 1 is formatted, it may be returned to the writer for final editing and then double-checked for formatting. This parallel system is ideal for large submissions. For smaller documents, formatting may be done in a serial fashion after all writing/editing is complete.

Formatting should align with major review cycles and may require reformatting or rechecking of formatting, particularly if electronic files are returned to writers/editors who may unintentionally introduce errors. Most desktop publishers, after creating a document template, can format roughly eight pages per hour.

Documents are often formatted several times throughout a proposal review cycle before final formatting, although some teams may prefer to only format once. Generally, the larger the document, the more times it should be reviewed and potentially formatted or reformatted. If you will be formatting more than once, include those iterations in your estimations to create an accurate understanding of how many hours are needed to complete the work.

Successful teams track productivity metrics over time and use those to develop tailored best practice timelines that can be included in their overall scheduling.

5. Prepare for production.

The desktop publisher may be required to create print-ready documents for physical production and/or create final files for various methods of electronic delivery.

The most common format for printing and for electronic delivery, outside of specific desktop publishing software formats (such as .doc or .docx format) is a portable document format (PDF) file.

Every major desktop publishing software contains an option to create a PDF file; some have more advanced settings that are relevant to commercial printing. Creating a PDF file is effectively the same as physically printing a document (the software uses the same coding language, PostScript, that all printers use) and can be used to save printing costs and resources. It also “locks” or renders text, graphics, tables, and other elements unable to be changed easily, so that others cannot manipulate your information. This is valuable to ensure your document appears exactly as you intended, without unintentional (and possibly non-compliant) page breaks, color errors, or font substitutions.

PDF files can also be manipulated to decrease overall file size without the need to update every included graphics file individually. This is useful for uploading, emailing, or other electronic sharing methods that have file size limitations.

PDF files, in their most advanced state, have additional functionality that may be relevant for some bid or proposals. These features include security settings, easy-to-use forms, multimedia options, and the ability to hyperlink within and between documents. You will need a full version of Adobe Acrobat software to implement these features. Acrobat Reader software, however, is free, and has made PDF a ubiquitous file format for transferring documents.

6. Use graphic elements to create emphasis and guide readers.

Beyond being consistent and compliant, proposals should be easy to understand and evaluate. Whether reviewing online or in a print format, all evaluators for languages that read left to right approach documents in a similar way. They begin interacting with a page at the top left and rapidly move down the page while scanning across. This top-down reading or viewing is interrupted by items that contrast with the rest of the page, including items that are colorful, are graphic or visual (like a table, callout box, or photo), are larger or smaller than the surrounding material, or are otherwise unusual to the layout.

These interruptions can be good. They draw attention to specific information and can be used to highlight points that readers might otherwise miss. Not including any elements that break up reading, on the other hand, can be detrimental. As in Sample B of Figure 1, all text-based information is given the same visual weight, regardless of level of importance. When this happens, key messages may be lost.

To increase the effectiveness of any page layout, put the most important item in the top left of the page and include at least one visual element.

Figure 1. Using Visual Elements in Proposals.

Figure 1. Using Visual Elements in Proposals. Use visual elements, as in Sample A, to highlight information, break up dense text, and to encourage the reviewer to read more so that they do not lose or miss concepts, as they might in Sample B.

7. Apply six design strategies to create effective layouts.

  • Contrast creates emphasis between visual items and can highlight or hide information. Create contrast with big and small elements, black and white text, squares and circles, and other binary/opposite pairings.
  • Proximity, or physical/visual closeness, establishes a bond between elements on a page and helps readers understand when two or more concepts are related.
  • White space gives pages breathing room and a “break” to readers. White space must be balanced with concerns regarding page limitations and may be decreased to include more text-based information or graphics.
  • Consistency in use of design elements, font, color, and graphic/table styles helps evaluators navigate information more efficiently. It can aid in comprehension and signal information levels.
  • Balance can be applied throughout the document layout and includes arranging elements on the page so that no one section is “heavier” than the other. Columns, graphics, tables, and other elements can be used to create balance. The placement of elements can also suggest a company’s sensibility. A more innovative company may have a more visually imbalanced/dynamic layout, while a more established company may choose a static and balanced layout to further support their claims of stability.
  • Alignment, or the relationships of parts of a page (text, headers, graphics, tables, etc.) to each other, can make a layout easier or more difficult to read and can influence readers’ perceptions of written content. Desktop publishers may use other design elements, such as proximity, white space, balance, or contrast, to achieve alignment.

Figure 2. Six Design Strategies.

Figure 2. Six Design Strategies. All six design elements can be used together to create a cohesive and engaging document.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Presumptions about staffing and resources

Some companies mistakenly assume that simply because a piece of software is present on employees’ computers, their staff understand the software well enough to use it proficiently. This misunderstanding can prevent companies from giving staff the training they need to use software most effectively.

In addition, companies can grossly underestimate the time, techniques, and budgets necessary to produce a finished document, particularly if it is required in hardcopy format or in multiple delivery methods.

Inconsistency in document formatting

Documents that are created inconsistently or without a template are far less likely to succeed. Templates should be created by referencing best practices, customer requirements or preferences, corporate styles, other limitations (such as physical production or electronic-file sizes), and be clearly communicated to the team. This communication may include training to ensure use and to clarify expectations.


  • Ensure your entire team understands that effective, consistent application of page design is critical for improving readability and understanding of information.
  • Always schedule appropriate time for formatting and desktop publishing using metrics and based around major reviews.
  • Develop a document template based on customer requirements and corporate brand standards with defined and repeatable processes/procedures early, and communicate templates clearly to your team.
  • Train your team and stay up to date on software/application trends; don’t expect teammates to understand how a piece of software works simply because it is on their computer.