Why you should never provide free design in an RFP response

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We all occasionally get asked to provide “initial designs” as part of a proposal for a website design project. I can understand how that seems like a useful request. However, it doesn’t help the client pick the best vendor to build the website, and it doesn’t help the vendor make the case that they’re the best choice to develop the site.

Design isn’t an isolated task. It’s one step of a complex and multifaceted discovery and architecture process that we go through with clients. A typical discovery and design process will include:

  • Kickoff meeting
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Content and site audits
  • Market/competitive research
  • Analysis and recommendations presentation
  • Project design (IA/sitemap/wireframes/,mockups)
  • Final project plan
“Good design shops simply don’t design for free.”
Photo by #WOCinTech. Creative Commons Attribution.

Photo by #WOCinTech. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

That all happens before we write the first line of code. Design is an answer to many inter-related questions that generally haven’t even been asked yet at the RFP stage. The process from kickoff to client-approved mockups can easily take 50 to 100 or more hours of work (for a larger enterprise type of site with hundreds or more pages).

But even for a small business website, the designer is going to want to spend a few hours getting to know your business before starting to design a website that will speak to your target audience.

A homepage mockup that’s put together for an RFP (usually in a couple of hours) has no relation at all to the design that will ultimately be the website. Frankly, we don’t want to be judged on a 3-hour mockup, because we’d never actually design for a client that way. (Roughly speaking, I’ve seen 2 days to 2 weeks be estimated per-page template in various places throughout my career.)

“Design isn’t an isolated task.”

Likewise, the client really isn’t learning anything useful from the design comp. Odds are, any design work provided in a proposal isn’t actually work designed for that client. It’s probably leftover design work from another client, quickly reworked to look like it was done for that project.

Providing “free” design in a proposal is a lose-lose scenario. Good design shops simply don’t do it. Even when it’s done, the customer isn’t gaining any insight that will help lead them to a good decision.

We should help our clients (and prospective clients) make good decisions. And if they aren’t interested, maybe we should question whether they should be our clients.

Header photo by #WOCinTech. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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