Here’s why your RFP process won’t work for design projects and how to fix it

Today, almost every business or organization needs to hire creative talent — whether in-house or externally — to design their digital products.

When it comes to choosing the right agency or freelancer for your project, many organizations tend to rely on a familiar process: Requesting Proposals (or RFPs).

Unfortunately, an RFP is not the right approach for the design process. Why? Well, because it’s all about something that’s inherently intangible and subjective — the application of creativity.

In this blog post, we’re gonna dive into why using an RFP process just doesn’t cut it when it comes to getting fresh and awesome ideas for design projects. We’ll also show you how you can adapt your process to get the quality you are dreaming of.

What is the Request for Proposal (RFP) process

The Request for Proposal (RFP) process is a formal way that many companies use to purchase goods or services. It’s like a way to compare different vendors’ offerings and prices before making a final decision. This process is important to make sure a company is getting the best value for their money and that all vendors are evaluated fairly.

That’s at least the theory…

Why the RFP process is ineffective for design projects

When it comes to design projects, the Request For Proposal (RFP) process may seem like a logical starting point. However, there are several reasons why this approach can be ineffective.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1*B6GN9VeZhYfRw9M_mpz1AA.jpeg

Design work starts with discovery

At the beginning of a process, you often don’t know what you don’t know.- You might have a vision of what you want to achieve, and where you want to get to — but in most cases this vision is very focused on a shiny object that is related to lots of dollars (as in revenue, not spending).

But design is problem-solving. Before designers can even start creating logos, websites, or marketing campaigns, they need to take some time to explore the problem at hand.

Through research and analysis, designers can identify the target audience as well as the goals, challenges, and pain points. This discovery phase sets the groundwork for the entire design process, guiding the decisions that follow. Without this initial exploration, you risk losing a clear direction and getting design solutions that aren’t solving your real needs.

So, the next time you see a great design, remember that it all started with discovering the problem to be solved.

An RFP process restricts creativity

If design is problem-solving and you are looking for a great solution — then inherently you won’t know what the solution is yet. Or you have a solution in mind but can’t be certain that it is a great one.

Your goal here is to reach a realistic budget number using this RFP approach. So, you’ll need to describe the details of the solution you desire, like a proper design brief. But here’s the catch — you won’t know if that actually solves your problem without investing some time in exploration!

So you are at risk of running in the completely wrong direction.

Furthermore, the more descriptive you are about your ideal solution, the more restrictive you are for designers. You won’t get anything truly creative, let alone innovative.

An RFP process creates a sea of sameness

Imagine this: you’ve got your design brief ready and you’re all set to evaluate the responses. But here’s the thing — you want something “fresh”, “catchy”, and “different”. So, while you need to provide requirements, you don’t want to be too detailed. This creates a bit of a challenge because it keeps the scope of RFPs fuzzy and vague.

And what does that get you? Ill-informed guesses and ballpark fees from your respondents. How is that helping you in your approach?

The definition of done (or lack of flexibility)

In an RFP process, the requirements for completion are already set before the project begins or before aligning on the problem. Most project scopes change during the project: part of the design process is learning new things and being able to adapt to them.

Restricting the design process can result in mediocre solutions, at best. Plus, the outcome might not even fully address the underlying problem that you didn’t even realize existed in the first place.

In addition, trying to specify the requirements for completion gives you a false sense of “done”. Digital products are never really “done”. Despite ongoing maintenance, you also want to get feedback, learn from your audience, respond to market changes and keep improving your solution over time.

Good design requires teamwork — and partnership

Design work isn’t just a stencil or one-size-fits-all solution. Yeah, there’s a process, but the specific steps vary based on the design problem we gotta tackle.

So, you’re not just looking for a “vendor,” but more like a “partner.” A fantastic solution is only as good as the process that brings it to life. And that process is all about people coming together, collaborating, listening to one another, and working towards the same objective. So, it’s crucial to think about the design process as a collaborative process, not just a mere execution.

But you can’t find a good “partner” just by looking at their resume or having them fill out a questionnaire.

How to improve the RFP process for design projects

Let’s acknowledge that the RFP process is a big waste of time for your organization and the respondents pitching for your business. Consider the amount of time your organization invests in creating, sending out, and assessing RFPs and then hashing out the final selection.

So what are some new ways we can use to create a design process that works for everyone involved?

Start with research and be clear about what you’re looking for

Figure out what you want in a partner. What support do you need? What skills, input, and also work experience, are you looking for? What would an ideal design partnership look like to you? Then do some research, review your options (you can find case studies and design examples on every designer’s and agency’s website), and make a preliminary comparison.

Have a conversation

Similar to a job interview, both parties need to have a chance to get to know each other. Note down the questions you have and simply have a conversation. Your focus shouldn’t be to get a detailed project plan, but a high-level idea of the collaboration process, and you’ll get a feel for the personalities and shared values.

Start with a discovery process

Instead of diving into a full project, why not start with a small step? There’s no better way to test a partnership than by working together.

Take the time to get to know each other through a discovery project. In this phase, conduct thorough research on your market landscape, your audience and their needs. This is the groundwork you need for defining your problem statement and project objectives. It might use up 10% or 20% of your overall project budget, but it’ll push things forward much more effectively than wasting time with an RFP process.

Chunk your project into smaller pieces

Once you’re done with the discovery phase and have a clear project scope, break it down into manageable chunks that tackle specific components. This way, you can stay flexible and adjust the scope as needed.


Why go through the hassle of a full project when you can take a small step towards success?

Next time you are looking for design support, don’t jump right to a solution. Starting with a discovery project is an excellent way to test your partnership and see if it’s a good fit. Take time to truly understand the problem you are solving before investing a lot of time and effort into designing.