How to “innovate” when you’re so damn busy

4 min read
Sean Blanda
  •  Nov 7, 2018
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Watching notable product designers talk about awesome conference-worthy innovative work can be frustrating and inspiring all at once.

On one hand, they let us know what good looks like; on the other, how the hell does anyone make time to work on those fun, quirky, innovative projects that we see on design blogs everywhere?

Earlier this month, InVision head of Design Education Aarron Walter asked two people who would know: Kim Williams, Senior Director of Design at Indeed and John Couch, Vice President of Experience Design at Hulu. Both have seen their companies grow by hundreds of people, while still managing to maintain a culture of shipping innovative new products.

So what advice do they have to product designers who still have to ship while thinking of the next big thing—especially with an ever-growing list of “must do” tasks? We’ve distilled down their best advice.

(Not into reading right now? Throw on some headphones and watch the entire conversation here.)

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Show, don’t tell

When he first arrived at Hulu, John Couch had trouble communicating where he saw the product going, but then his team had an idea: let’s make the product roadmap into a film of people using Hulu in their day-to-day life.

A chef can’t “test” a meal without getting the ingredients and cooking it, but a product designer can quickly use prototypes, mockups, and, yes, even a film to show where they want to go. One benefit of being a product designer is that your craft allows you to help others visualize the future. Use it.Twitter Logo

There are few things more exciting than the prospect of a shiny new design project. Whether it’s a branding, illustration, web, or product design project, it’s all about how you write your proposal—what you include in it and even what you choose to leave out will dictate whether you strike out swinging or hit a home run. The following recommendations come from over 16 years of attempting to perfect the proposal writing process—things I’ve learned from best-in-class freelancers and design agencies. Now, before we dive in, let’s tackle 2 of the best pieces of advice I’ve received over the years:


Your proposal should never surprise a clientTwitter Logo Before you send out a proposal, you’ve probably already communicated at-length with your potential client. During that interaction, you likely covered a lot of ground, including the needs of the project and a budget (or ballpark price) to complete it. So, when you send out a proposal, that document should sum up that conversation… and seal the deal. The proposal should not be the first time your client discovers something new about you or the project.

2. Use value-based pricing

In most cases, you’ll want to charge the highest price possible for your work. How? By reinforcing to the client that you’re not selling a commodity. You’re not selling a website, you’re not selling an app—you’re delivering value (great value!) to their business that can in turn increase their revenue and their value. You’re going to help transform their business, and that’s worth much more money than a website or specific deliverable. I mention that now, because it relates to the proposal building process, as well as how to price a project.

How to write a proposal: Length and structure

Let’s dip into the proposal itself. For this exercise, we’re aiming for a 1-page document with a simple 5-section structure. No one wants to read a 20-page proposal with a bunch of terms and conditions and long, drawn-out text. If you can say something with less words, then you probably should do that. From a design perspective, simplicity wins.

How to write a proposal: Overview

Typically, the first section in any proposal is an overview. The overview usually reinforces back to the client that you understand what their company and product is all about, and what they are asking you to do. Related: 7 difficult questions to ask your client up front Some people start the proposal with something like “I will design a website for your business.” I don't think this conveys the value you’re potentially bringing them. Instead, I may take a more conversation-like approach: "I understand that your business is about this and this, and your long-term goals are to do this and that, and that's the reason that you need a new website. This website will be important in reaching those goals." This information comes from the pre-proposal conversation—you asked relevant questions in that meeting and you’re communicating them back in the proposal as the value propositions. Preferably, you can even describe how the work will help them to achieve a monetary goal: “I'm going to help you hit $200 million in sales this year, because I will create a high-traffic, high-conversion website for you.” When you write a proposal this way, it's more obvious that your price is a great investment.

How to write a proposal: Why me?

Now on to section 2, which I sometimes refer to as the “Why me?” section. In general, I’ll include this section when I write a proposal, but I always include it when working with new clients. Many people think, consciously or not, that they have to sell their work and the desired outcome, more than they sell have to sell themselves. Always assume the client is considering other vendors, service providers, etc. In this section, you should try to communicate what makes you the best person for the job, without coming across as being too “salesy.” Attempt to speak from an honest place about why you’re excited about that particular project or industry (if money is the only thing that excites you about it, it may be best for you to pass on the project anyway!)

"Always assume the client is considering other vendors."

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If you can find intersecting relevant experience from your past (say, the same industry or project type) be sure to mention it explicitly here. Even if you tone it down and just include a short bio description, aim to highlight points from "your story" that you think may be relevant or interesting to that client in particular.

How to write a proposal: Pricing

Okay, the elephant in the room—the third section—is pricing. For me, there have been 2 big takeaways with how I structure pricing when writing my proposals. For some reason, designers and creative pros seem to like pricing tables: Homepage: $2,000. About Page: $500. I think that frames you as a commodity, and again, that’s not what I advocate doing. You should position yourself as valuable. If I do a website design, I‘ll likely give a flat rate: Website: $20,000. Don’t put a price on each little component of a website or design project. This second tip I actually got from my partner Lior (historically I hadn’t done this): include 3 packages in your proposal. This gives your client options and it empowers them to have more power over that buying decision. It’s also a good way to hedge your bets and differentiate you from the competition. Related: How to price your freelance design work I personally believe that any project can be achieved on any budget, but the results will be different. By creating tiered packaging (1 is limited, 2 is more expansive, 3 is the premier package, etc.), you’re adding an upsell opportunity in your offering. You can now offer your client additional services they may not have even considered previously.

How to write a proposal: What’s next?

The fourth section is essentially a call to action. You want to lead your client down the path of next desired actions: what steps do you want them to take now? I typically just write a bulleted list of things, like:
  1. Sign the proposal
  2. Transfer 50% up-front payment
  3. Project starts
  4. Etc.
This makes your client comfortable with the near-term plan while also giving them a little push to get the ball rolling. I think this section is super important.

How to write a proposal: Terms and conditions

Terms and conditions is the fifth and final section. By the sound of it, it has the potential to be the most daunting. That doesn’t have to be the case. Some people write proposals that include a lengthy lawyer-type contract. Again, my mantra is simple is better. I think I can really cover myself well by just writing a list of no more than 10 points that essentially all lead back to how I get paid. For example, I’ll include “I must receive 50% up-front payment before I get started.”

"A proposal should never surprise the client."

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Anything that covers intellectual property should also be included, like “I hold all intellectual property until the project has been paid for, and then intellectual property moves to you. Fonts not included.” I don't think that you need more than 10 of these bullet points to cover yourself well, while still keeping things simple. If you’re up against a competitor who ends up sending a 20-page terms and conditions document, this is an easy win for you. These are the core proposal writing fundamentals that have been working well for me over the last few years. Hopefully you can apply a few of these points in your own approach to writing design proposals and hit it out of the park. Check out a sample branding design proposal here.

What about writing case studies?

Raed our recent post on how to write a case study that wins you clients.' align='alignnone' width='1849' caption='Watch the full conversation between Aarron, John, and Kim here']

The result? “When we showed that to the whole company they said ‘Oh that’s what we’re doing!'” he says. After that becoming clear on how to get there (and knowing what innovative intermediate steps needed to happen) got easy.

“It may not be your favorite thing, but when it comes to doing innovative things you have to sell the concept of design as much as you have to sell your idea”

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It’s your job to sell your design internally

It may not be your favorite thing, but when it comes to doing innovative things you have to sell the concept of design as much as you have to sell your idea.

Picture your product knowledge on a scale. You know what good looks like; you’re starting at an 8 out of 10. Your counterparts in marketing or engineering? They’re at a 2 out of 10.

You have to do a lot of design education to get them ready to hear your idea, especially if you work for an older organization. What should they care about design? How does it help their goals?

“Innovation becomes a thing you can do,” says Couch. “It’s not pixie dust.”

“Innovation becomes a thing you can do. It’s not pixie dust.”

John Couch, VP Experience Design at Hulu
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Make it easy for your coworkers to participate

“Lower the stakes,” says Williams. Especially if you’ve worked for clients as a freelancer or as part of an agency in a past life, you may be used to always having the perfect presentation of your new innovative idea.

“You may be conditioned to polish everything before presenting,” she says. “Tell them this is a working session. You want feedback. There are no bad ideas.”

Another idea? Involve someone from every relevant department whenever you kick something off.

“Engineers usually feel like they are just being given something and told what to do,” says Couch.

cut to every product designer nodding in solidarity

So bring them into the fold. Over-communicate. Invite marketing, branding, engineering to your ideation and kickoff sessions. “They may not have something to contribute, but they’ll have skin in the game,” says Couch—and that means fewer messy surprises when you pass things off between teams and a more trust in what you and your team are doing.

When presenting a product, Hulu teammates will actually pass the microphone (or Zoom call) between team members from different departments. It’s more than just symbolism: it lets everyone watching know that you and your department are open to collaborating.

And that’s how you get buy-in for your fun new idea the next time around.

Ask your manager for better success metrics

If you’re held to unforgiving metrics like subscribers, downloads, and pageviews, you’ll find it hard to spend time experimenting and innovatingTwitter Logo. Couch and Williams agree: how you’re measured is how you’ll be managed.

Come to your next review with more process-based metrics, rather than outcome-based metrics. Things like:

  • How many experiments have you led?
  • How many initiatives have you kick-started?
  • How have you ingrained space for innovation in our day-to-day processes?

Creative thinking doesn’t come from nowhere: you need things to remix, reuse, and reapply.

You’re not optimizing for hitting 100% of your metrics; you’re optimizing for learning quickly.

I know, I know — easy to say but hard to do. That’s why your metrics can help you set your day-to-day measurements to help facilitate this. Getting a manager to respect that may take you showing a few (very rough) prototypes. But as soon as they see the light, bake it into how you’re measured.

“Sometimes innovation isn’t a multi-year strategy. Sometimes it’s about winning at the table stakes,” says Williams.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard