We do lots of design work for federal proposals here at Dragonfly, but most of our design work is in other areas: technical, financial, medical, and more. Through our varied experience, we’ve found that the formatting guidelines for government proposals are unique. They are especially, well, rigid.
Strict guidelines are OK. Creatives are used to working within limits (open-ended projects with no direction or constraints can actually be harder to tackle). But federal formatting rules are so inflexible that they can actually hinder readability.
Designers typically face a perfect storm of rules that include:
1. Font choice. We’re almost always restricted to one font. Again, that can be OK—designers regularly work with the specified fonts of our clients’ brand standards. However, in proposals, that font is either Times New Roman or Arial. Period. And neither of these is optimal: The reasons are numerous and could fill volumes.
2. Font size. Proposal guidelines are often inflexible on font sizes and stipulate minimum 10-point type. This is done to ensure readability and to keep all bids at about the same word count. Five double-spaced pages of 12-point type contain about 1,350 words. The same document single-spaced with eight-point type has 5,500 words (and will likely be illegible to a lot of readers).
3. Limited space. Proposals have strict page limits and lots of copy. On top of that, document margins are set in stone, normally at one inch.
Faced with these limitations, it can feel impossible to produce a visually appealing document. But there are strategies you can employ, with some help from your writers.
White space. Try to leave breathing room on the page. Just because the margins are one inch doesn’t mean you have to fill every other square inch with text. You’d be amazed how much more people are willing to read when their eyes have a place to rest.
Typography. There’s not much you can do about the font choice. But you can make your document more reader friendly just by creating contrast: Vary the size of your font with larger headings and subheads wherever possible, and don’t be afraid to make key words and phrases bold.
Micro-white space: If you can’t negotiate larger areas of white space, encourage your writers to chunk up the copy into smaller paragraphs and use lots of bulleted and numbered lists. They should cut copy as much as possible, using plain language and readability tools. And don’t forget to increase the leading as much as you can—this is an oft-overlooked way to introduce some white space.
These techniques may seem minor, but they’re effective. Use them all and your document will end up much more visually dynamic, interesting, and easy to absorb.