Thursday, November 15th, 2007


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As a studio matures, one of the nicest benefits is in the luxury of actively “choosing” which projects to engage in and which ones to pass on. In our first years of business, I would have scoffed at such a notion, but after some experience, we’ve learned that some business isn’t worth having.

The worst kind of business, in my humble opinion, is that which beckons in the form of an RFP. For those who aren’t familiar with RFPs – I can’t imagine many who aren’t – the acronym is derived from “Request For Proposals”. Talk to most experienced design managers and they’ll feel similarly: RFPs simply don’t work when it comes to purchasing design services.

Why RFPs are bad for designers

For many who have just started their design studios, RFPs may seem like a viable way of landing new business. At smashLAB, we once spent our share of time on these; when you are just starting out, it often seems that there is little choice but to do so. We were even lucky enough to “win” a few projects this way.

The problems with RFPs are many-fold. First of all, the batting-average on them is typically quite poor, as many organizations take the “spaghetti” method, and toss the RFP document out to everyone and anyone. Given how many responses organizations receive to such documents, they often make the process as capricious and time-consuming as a grade-school essay. If you miss filling-in a box you’ll find yourself “out of the running”; likewise, if you have an idea that doesn’t fit the format there’s generally no provision (or interest) for such insights.

I once read that if you want to sell suits, find people who buy suits. Avoid trying to convert those who don’t want them, no matter how badly they might need one. Organizations who utilize RFPs to solicit the interest of design firms often don’t understand purchasing creative services. As such, you’ll find yourself “going bonkers” responding to inconsequential questions and requirements. Think I’m exaggerating? We recently received an RFP that requested a breakout cost for creating each individual link on a website project. I kid you not.

Some will argue that these groups simply need designers to take time and explain important issues in the design process. This is reasonable. Unfortunately, with RFPs you are rarely able to speak with a person directly, and are often forced to send inquiries formally, via email or fax. This limits the ability to engage in a more complex discussion.

Of course, you are free to bid on RFPs should you choose; however, I’d ask why you would want to. There’s plenty of work out there. Wouldn’t you rather work with those who want your specific offering, instead of spending your days struggling to earn those projects aimed at the lowest bidder?

Why RFPs are terrible for design buyers

RFPs aren’t inherently bad things. In purchasing hard goods like fleet vehicles, fixtures, or bridges with detailed specifications, they make a great deal of sense. The challenge with creative work, however, is that the solution is often informed by the process, and as such is difficult to postulate prior to beginning. Consider a client who requests a website, but in fact would be better served by a low-cost brochure. Boilerplate RFPs don’t generally allow flexibility for such opportunities.

But it doesn’t end there; the RFP process results in mountains of additional work for the purchaser. In sending out the lengthy, detailed documents, the purchaser is left with loads of lengthy, detailed responses to review. Departments are forced to sort the materials and build matrices for evaluation while committees are mobilized to read through the seas of paperwork.

And what is found as they review these materials? Misunderstanding about their needs; countless forms; platitudes and rhetoric aiming to impress or bamboozle; and ultimately very little that really addresses the more complex challenges. What else could one expect? There was no discussion or exchange of ideas, just a document with large boxes to fill, and hungry bidders left to guess the “right” response, in hopes of earning a little work.

RFPs are endemic of an oppositional structure that rewards those who fill boxes, but not those who look for deeper awareness or insights that might result in a more effective solution. In our experience, organizations that use the RFP process to purchase creative services often find that their expectations are not met.

As it happens, those compelled to respond to RFPs are often at the bottom of the barrel. Design firms that are in demand typically don’t waste their time with the process.

Better ways to hire designers

I can hear what some are asking already, “Okay, so RFPs are bad, but we still need a process for purchasing design. What should we do?” I have some thoughts on this topic and would like to provide a few suggestions.

First of all, determine what the goals of a project are, and pre-select a few firms that would meet your needs. Doing so puts the initial onus on you, as you have to do some leg-work, but it will prove worthwhile in the long-run. Research design portals like those of the GDC in Canada, or the AIGA in the United States, to see which firms have a good track record. Call peers and ask who they work with, and what the relationship is like. Relationships aren’t a big deal when you are buying cement, but when it comes to design, they are paramount to achieving effective results (and foregoing ulcers).

Pre-select a group of three proponents, and bring them in for a general discussion. Ask them to clearly articulate past efforts and their working process. Look at each studio’s work and see if they have the capability to solve the messaging challenges you are facing. Feel free to ask hard questions and look for someone who both fits your needs and “feels” right. Of course, one is equally prudent to check with their current clients and see if their promises hold water.

Talk about budgets, expectations and timelines; there’s no point in engaging a high-cost firm for weeks of discussion to later find that your budget wouldn’t work with their size of operation. I also suggest keeping things open and informal until you narrow down your choice, upon which time all of the details and legalities can be addressed.

A design team can serve as an excellent partner, and any good one will look for ways to help you accomplish your goals in a cost-effective manner. When you reduce design to a line-item, however, you miss out on ever having such a relationship with your provider.

Special bonus: the smashLAB boilerplate response to RFPs

This past week we’ve had some potential clients get in touch; as such, I’ve been engaged in ongoing discussions with these groups. At the same time, we’ve oddly received a number of RFPs that we’ve had to find a method of quickly (and politely) responding to.

As a result, I’ve drafted a standard response to the stock RFPs, which saves me from having to rewrite it each time. It is included below for you to utilize should you too decide to let the RFP “rest in peace”.


Thanks for the email and interest in (INSERT STUDIO NAME). We’d love to help you with your upcoming project; unfortunately, we don’t respond to open RFPs any longer.

In the past we’ve found responses to RFPs to be very time consuming, which is difficult given the demand we’ve had for our work in recent years. Committing time to respond thoughtfully to all of the criteria set forth in these documents is simply not a good use of our resources.

Additionally, we find that RFPs don’t allow us build a good understanding of the client’s goals and how we can work to help them most effectively. We find that our current clients are coming to us looking to build more of a partnership, as they have already done some leg work and feel that we are the right fit for them.

I apologize for not being able to take part; that being said, I wish you the best with this project. :-)



Until next time

I suspect that many of the parties who issue RFPs do so less than willingly. Some are limited by policy that mandates their use in the interest of fairness and transparency. Government organizations and those who may represent the public interest would likely fall into this category.

That being acknowledged, such policies are anachronistic, and hardly in the interest of the parties they were intended to protect. Business continues to evolve and I suggest that policy should do the same. Perhaps we have to loosen our grip on the “rules” and instead look at what’s most practical, efficient and beneficial for all involved.

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