Why I don’t Respond to RFPs (Requests for Proposals)

A Request for Proposal looks like a reasonable thing at first glance. It seems most RFPs are put together by a group of people, typically belonging to non-profit organizations, trying to hire a designer for their project, be it a total branding package or a website. After the committee has forged their RFP, they send it out to designers in their area, asking for a proposal to work on their project.

What’s wrong with that?

Removing the Professional

When someone needs legal advice, they ask around for a trustworthy lawyer, do some research, then find an attorney and consult with them directly about what they should do about their situation. An RFP does the opposite: it removes the professional from the drafting of the project outlines and instead dictates what the project entails and tells the professional how to do their job. When a client comes to me directly asking for a service, I can help them understand what they need and what they don’t need, educate them on the process of design, and get them started. A client coming to me directly enables me to help them the best way I know how. An RFP, not so much.

Asking for Free Ideas

Ideas are a designer’s sustenance. As such, a good designer will not give his or her ideas away for free in hopes of winning the project outlined in an RFP. Reputable designers keep their good ideas close and only share with the client once those dotted lines have been inscribed upon, and a downpayment check has been securely deposited. Only when there has been established trust between the client and designer are ideas shared. Good designers do not pimp their ideas.

Casting a Wide Net

RFPs are sent out to a lot of designers, some great, some not. Great designers hold their ideas close and work with clients who come to them directly, because that client thinks that designer is the best for the job. So who responds to RFPs? Usually it’s the desperate, who will give out their ideas (usually not good ones) and will gladly undercut their competitors in hopes of winning the project.

Entering the Arena

RFPs typically outline when the “winner” of the project will be chosen. So designers are asked to enter the competitive arena to try and win the project. Here’s a sneaky little secret, though. Well-qualified designers are too busy, or are keeping their time open, to work with clients who’ve come to them directly, and will not respond to an RFP (see above). That leaves designers who are new to the field, and typically respond to RFPs with very low prices and subpar skill sets in hopes of making money.

Undervaluing the Field of Graphic Design

Graphic design is a business tool, and a designer performs a service for their client. There seems to be a lot of confusion about design and its purpose, mainly because it’s visual. Just because it’s visual doesn’t mean it’s subjective. Design is a tool, it is not art. More on that here. Therefore a graphic designer is part of a business or organization’s team, as is an accountant, an attorney, and any contractor or consultant hired. To my knowledge, RFPs are not sent to accountants or attorneys. Rather, accountants and attorneys are chosen based on any number of qualifications already established by the professional. He or she is not asked to compete with his peers for the job to work on the project.

Handicapping the Designer

As already stated, RFPs will dictate how the proposal should be drafted and how the job will be performed. A designer is not the employee of those requesting the proposal. He or she is a professional and knows how to do their job to best suit their client. Most designers want to do their absolute best for their clients, because our names and reputations are on all of our projects. It does not help the designer for a non-designer client to tell him or her how to do their job, and it certainly does not help the client either.

Portfolios for a Reason

Designers have online web portfolios to show our work to prospective clients. Our work, as well as our reputation, and also recommendations from past and current clients, are how good designers continue to receive work. Most of us want to work with clients who come to us directly, after sorting through other designers and their portfolios, and determining that we are the best fit for their project.

So…How do I Know?

A few years ago I responded to an RFP and was interviewed by the client. A few years ago I was still a bit green to the business world, but knew my web design stuff, knew what methods were best for the grand world wide web, and was eager to land a new client. The client eventually used a designer who offered a lower price and…ancient web development standards! I learned that most RFPs are really seeking a cheap price, and often the client is also stuck with cheap service. I’m naturally thrifty, so I understand where a client is coming from when they want to save their money, but using ancient web development standards (this designer built the website with tables, which was done in the 90s, but no more!) to cut costs is like buying an old music record and record-player at a yard sale, rather than taking the time to download iTunes. My clients get new designs and new methods.

You can see my portfolio here.


About the author

Courtney: Courtney Kirchoff is a published novelist and web designer. She lives and works in the greater Seattle area.


5 Comments

  1. RemiNo Gravatar

    April 4, 2012
    / Reply

    Some good points, some not. Sometimes RFP's are a mandated process. While I agree that RFP's are not ideal, especially if there is a client-vendor relationship already in place, sometimes it's part of the game, up to you to bid or pass ;)

    • CourtneyNo Gravatar

      April 4, 2012
      / Reply

      What points do you disagree with?

      I suppose my biggest problem with RFPs is how they originate: from a committee. I shy away from groupthink in general, and see RFPs as a warning that a project will have to be approved by committee, which prolongs the process and waters down the original idea. In a way, an RFP is a signal that the committee couldn't agree on one designer to work with, so they're casting a net, hoping to catch the lowest price, and inadvertently the lowest quality. Not all RFPs are created equal, but I'm talking about the rule here, not the exception.

      Also, how do you pronounce your name? Is it REM-ee, or REE-mee, re-MEE? It's a cool name!

  2. JohnNo Gravatar

    May 24, 2012
    / Reply

    Well written post. I've been responding to RFP's off and on over the last 15 years, and its a real love-hate thing. What cracks me up is the RFP's that are cobbled together by people who are simply fishing for cool techy sounding language, and beyond being completely inappropriate they would simply not be compatible. Its a soup of acronyms out there people... its not a contest to use them all. Unrelated, love your sailing blog!

  3. AndyNo Gravatar

    July 25, 2012
    / Reply

    Good points, however, you may want to think of it from a slightly different perspective. I have bid on a number of different jobs as a consultant, and bid strictly to the RFP. There is not much if any profit in that.

    However, my profit comes from the change orders and add-ons. And there are always change orders and add-ons. The contract gets extended... that also is extra. Now there is no competition, and I am 'the expert'. I've taken a 6 week contract and had it extended for 14 months. If I did not respond to the RFP, I would not had a chance of getting that.

    I will not, however, respond to RFP's that I do not see the possibility of change orders or add-ons. For those, I absolutely agree with you.

    • CourtneyNo Gravatar

      August 7, 2012
      / Reply

      Not all RFPs are created equally, to be sure. I'm not a fan of those asking for ideas for free, that's my biggest issue with them.


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