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The Shortlist Episode 59: Design Strategies for A3 Proposals

We can thank Toyota for many innovations including honing LEAN process and establishing the "A3" approach to problem-solving. A3's structured way of presenting information concisely now shows up across all industries -- including AEC. Over the last two decades, the A3 proposal format has grown in popularity and quickly became a hot design challenge for marketing and pursuit teams. How do you fit a 20-, 50-, or 80-page proposal on just one or two sides of an 11x17 sheet of paper? The answer: you don't. Instead, you have to be ultra-strategic, selective, and creative to communicate your differentiators effectively.

In Episode 59 of The Shortlist, Middle of Six Senior Creative Strategists join Wendy Simmons as they share their tips and tricks for getting the most out of the A3 format. From tackling the eternal question of, "Which comes first, graphics or narrative?" to maximizing every square inch while preserving white space, Becky Ellison and Lauren Jane Peterson discuss their approach to working within the parameters of the A3 proposal format.

CPSM CEU Credits: .5 | Domain: 4

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to The Shortlist.

We're exploring all things AEC marketing to help your firm win The Shortlist.

I'm your host, Wendy Simmons, and each episode, I'll be joined by one of my team members for Middle of Six to answer your questions.

Today, we're pulling out the big guns with two graphic designers on the pod.

We've got Lauren Jane Pearson and Becky Ellison to discuss all things A3 proposals.

Hey, Becky, hey, Lauren Jane.

Hey, hey.

Have you two been on a podcast together?

Just one.

I thought this was like earth-shattering day.

We're getting the senior creative strategist on the podcast together, but it's already been done.

So whatever, won't want.

Anyway, here we go into the discussion of, it's not really A3 proposals, but that's what I call it for short.

It's the format of presenting a proposal content on an A3 sheet of paper, that size piece of paper.

And we'll get into the nitty gritty of what that actually is as we kick this off, but we like to start off with a little warmup question here.

So this is a new one.

Have not asked this question yet, but I'm just curious if either of you want to share a favorite work from home productivity hack or anything that makes your remote life better.

So I like to implement sprints into my work periods if I can, especially if I have an hour or two hours of dedicated work time uninterrupted with meetings.

And for the sprints, I have an app that I use, but essentially there is a built-in timer and I can press play when the sprint starts and there's a countdown timer on my phone that displays and shows how much time I have.

And that helps me stay focused and not get sidetracked and look at, all right, I have 20 minutes left.

I have 15 minutes left for this task.

And then I get a reward, which is like three to five minute break, and then I can jump back in to the sprint.

Yeah, sprints work for a lot of creative people.

That's such a common thing, a common tool to talk about, but then actually using it might be a different thing.

It's almost like creating some discipline in your schedule and focus and feeling like you are ready to be creative at that level and dig in and shut everything else out, where sometimes that's not what you want to do.

So I'm glad that that works well for you.

And have you been using that tool forever?

Does it go way back to college, or is it something you've established in your recent working career, or work from home working career?

Yeah, mostly work from home working career.

It was a little bit harder for me to do sprints when I was in office, unless I had a meeting room that I could shut the door, because as a marketing staff person, there were lots of needs placed on me, and going over to somebody's desk and asking for help was pretty common in my workplace, which I didn't mind at all, but it was a little bit harder for me to get uninterrupted time unless I booked a room.

But I actually started doing sprints outside of my work life, just for productivity, like cleaning the house and getting ready for work and stuff in the morning, and that worked really well for me.

So I transitioned to implementing it into my work process.

I didn't, yeah, that's a total surprise that it would go from your home life productivity to your work life.

That's great.

And I know you've mentioned before, you have had a desk near the kitchen, which can be a blessing and a curse when you're in the office, because it's such a fun social area.

You get to see everyone who's in the office.

Oh, you don't even have to track down that person that you were trying to get, because they're going to walk by and get their coffee.

But the curse part of it is like constant interruptions.


I'm sure they're always interested in, what's the designer working on?

Peeking over your shoulder.


Yep, love-hate relationship with sitting so close to the kitchen.

Becky, any work from home productivity hacks you want to share?

I think working from home, what you really want to try to do is break up your day as much as you can, because if you feel like you're just sitting in one place doing one thing the entire day, like that can really get to you.

So I would say, I mean, obviously take breaks, but take an actual go outside break, if you possibly can.

For me, I go for like a 20, 30 minute walk every day outside, unless it's totally raining or whatever.

But I mean, getting that daylight and getting out of your space is so important to do.

Another way you can kind of break up the day, we're really getting into it here, but for me, I listen to music all day long, every day, all the time.

I can't function without it.

So I sometimes will have different kinds of music for different tasks, and I will even associate certain playlists or albums or whole genres of music with certain things.

So then I feel like I'm segmenting.

So right now, I'm doing this kind of work, so I'm listening to that music.

And then it's just, I don't know, breaking things up into chunks just makes it feel like I'm not just doing the same thing all day long, all the time.

Music helps with that.

Well, you're not listening to music now, I hope.

Yeah, it would be tough to hear you as well as music, yeah.

So all the other times.

Well, that's cool.

That's breaking your day up into chunks.

You know, the work days, it's a third of our day, right?

I mean, we work eight-hour work days, plus or minus whatever that looks like.

It's a third of your day, and that sounds really long, but it can also just fly by.

I mean, that happens to me all the time.

I'll sit down, and then all of a sudden, I'm like, what are you talking about?

It's two o'clock?

You know, it's almost time to kind of like do your last task of the day and get ready for the next day.

So having it in chunks so that you feel like you're actually accomplishing something and programming in those breaks and walks wherever possible.

Sometimes you have to reserve, we live and die by our calendars.

It feels like at Middle of Six, because you can easily get pulled into something if your calendar doesn't say, no, I'm walking.

I'm breathing fresh air.

Well, those are good tips.

Those are really great.

I know some people just cannot fathom working at home.

They need the energy of an office.

They want to be able to grab someone figuratively in the moment, and that is really good.

I do appreciate that environment, but where we're at now, these days, it's actually just much more efficient for us to be working with clients in this remote setting, and we're kind of forced into that, but try to make the best out of it.

And part of that is just keeping yourself sane going through day after day.


Yes, I do my best work in my pajamas too, so this is a good set.

You're like, I'm not going back to the office because I don't want to put pants on.

That's the answer.



Okay, cool.

Well, thanks for sharing some tips.

I always like to hear and learn a little bit more myself.

I picked up one of Melissa's tips last time and have implemented it, so thanks for that.

Let's do our little trivia question here.

Again, I was wondering, I was like, what is the trivia gonna be for A3 proposals?

But it didn't take me very long to just go into a deep dive on paper.

That was pretty fun.

There are many websites entitled Fun Facts About Paper.

So if anyone's bored or a paper file, they want to go and look into it.

There's a lot.

Trouble sleeping.

I know.

In fact, I had to start checking the dates on some of this content because it was like 2013.

We were probably using more paper in 2013 than we are 11 years later.

So I had to weed out some interesting fun facts that I felt like were maybe not accurate anymore.

But here's one.

Here's a fun, easy one that you can, you guys can take a guess at.

If you recycle one ton of paper, I don't know if it's a short ton or not.

They didn't say, but if you recycle one ton of paper, how many trees are saved?

How big are the trees?

They didn't say that either.

Average size of a tree.

Birch trees, bonsai trees, those are quite small.


I hear a lot of flack about recycling in terms of people thinking that it's better for the environment than it is.

And people saying that all the infrastructure that it takes to do the recycling is actually generating more pollution and waste.

But that's not to say we shouldn't keep trying to reuse and reduce and all that sort of thing.

How many trees are we saving?

Oh, my God.

How many trees go into a single sheet of paper?

Hopefully less than one.

I bet you I actually have that answer in all of my fun talks about paper and trees.

Okay, we've recycled a ton of paper.

That's a lot of paper.

That's like six proposals.

I'll say that sounds like 50 trees.

That's exactly what I was going to say.

50 trees.

All right.

You two are in alignment.

The guess is 50 trees.


We'll revisit that at the end of the podcast and share the answer and a few more tidbits from all those fun facts.


Yeah, that's good.

Maybe a question in our listeners' minds, like, why did Wendy ask a trivia question about paper?

Well, that gets us back to the A3.

I mean, I think that proposals take a lot of paper.

In the olden days, I'm just going to just go back, whatever, 15 years?

Is that in the old enough of days where you'd be producing 12 hard copies and there's, I don't know, 100 pages and tabs and covers and all this stuff.

And I think a lot of agencies were feeling like, wow, we're just creating a lot of garbage here and or recyclable material.

In fact, there's that whole stint, and you still see this.

It feels like maybe I don't see it as much because we've moved into so much digital proposal submittals, but they'll, I don't know, a state agency would say, this proposal needs to be 100% recyclable.

They maybe staple it in the corner.

They didn't want plastic bindings and covers that had coatings and all that stuff.

And that's probably not 100% of the reason why going to the A3 format, but a nice outcome is smaller proposals that you're putting together.

But do either one of you want to share a little bit more of like the history?

Like, what is an A3?

Why are we using that?


Go for it.

So an A3 is a size of paper.

The A series of document sizing, which is what they call it, is commonly used in Europe and other parts of the world to standardize paper sizes.

We're getting real nerdy, but this dates all the way back to the French Revolution where they decided that paper sizes needed to match for printing and publishing purposes and also that wealth inequality was whack.

So perhaps that's why we still refer to a paper chopper as a guillotine.

I don't know.

But yeah, A3 is the name that is given to a size of paper that is not exactly, but basically equivalent to 11 by 17 sheet of paper.

That's what we typically call it in America.

11 by 17, you hear that a lot.

It's usually more commonly 17 by 11 if we're being very nerdy about it because you do the width dimension first and if you've got that in a landscape, we're going way too into the weeds.

But yeah, A3 is just another name for that 11 by 17 sheet of paper, which honestly these days is becoming less and less of a physical sheet of paper and more of just a size of a rectangle on your screen.


I did not know that we were going to get into the European history and that in the podcast.

That's a good little tidbit.

We also have to mention that the A3 format got adopted in the lean philosophy of laying out a problem mapping solution in an A3 format, so had columns.

Gosh, I should have pulled one of these up for my reference before I started talking about it because I do not have it memorized.

But when agencies, it's usually kind of on the public side of work, they started issuing their requests for proposals and asking that the responses were in this A3 format, so it's a way of mapping out the answers to the solution in this format.

Makes a lot of sense.

A lot of that has gone away.

I really haven't seen anyone asking for it literally in the A3 lean format, but it's like, please keep it on this 11 by 17 or 17 by 11 sheet of paper that can be z-folded and stuck into a binder, and it's just kind of making everything nice and tight and concise, and they're looking for that.

So there's the other definition, I guess, of an A3.

Do we know what a z-fold is for anyone who's listening and isn't quite sure what that hot jargon technological term means?

A z-fold, kids who have never printed paper in your lives, is when you take that 11 by 17 sheet of paper and you've printed it, and then you fold it in half horizontally, like a taco, and then you fold that half in half again, like a skinnier taco.

It was a taco, and it's now become like a hot dog, so we're blowing your mind here.

But basically, once you've folded that up, it now fits in line in the stack with the 8.5 by 11 so that when you have the booklet, you just unfold it and fold it back out.

And it makes the shape of a Z, hence the Z-fold.

Thank you.

An excellent description.

Paper facts.

And maybe if you've seen a schedule, schedules, multiple pages, Z-folded together, so you can have the big thing and it all fits back into the binder.

So for those kids, as Becky said, out there listening, go dig around in your office and find some schedules, but that's where you'll see the Z-fold.

And it's Andy.

It's nice because, yeah, we want our binders, our proposals to sit on the shelf, easy access.

You don't want these things flopping around or you don't have to turn the proposal in that weird way.

But now we live in this world, and I think it's a wonderful world where people are asking for the responses on A3.

Love it or hate it.

We could have done a love or hate thing here.

I think it's great.

It's tricky.

Becky, Lauren, Jane, you've probably worked on a bunch of A3 formats.

Love it or hate it?


Something I really appreciate about the A3 is that the aspect ratio is a little bit closer to that of most screens that we use.

So instead of having an 8.5 by 11, or rather an 11 by 8.5, so a standard size sheet of paper in the landscape format, so turned longways, sideways, when we have that aspect ratio, if we put it fit to our screen, we still have room on the sides.

So you have opportunity to have more visible.

And when you use an 11 by 17, it fills up a more similar shape to the screens that we use and monitors that we use.

So you're not losing, you don't have dead space there.

So that's a benefit, in my opinion.

I also both love and hate it, because it's good because there's no way it's going to turn into 80 pages.

That's not possible.

It has to be one page.

You have a very defined sandbox that you can put the content in, and that is all you get.

However, I feel like we've all noticed that this is what's supposed to be lean.

We want less content, but I feel like RFPs are asking for the same amount of content.

They're asking the same amount of questions, and they want a whole proposal worth of information crammed into an A3 size sheet of paper, which presents a heck of a challenge for the designers, as well as the people writing the content.

So, I mean, you're kind of...

It's a good exercise, I will say, to sort of force yourself to be very, very short and succinct and to get to the point without going on for 80 pages.

So, I'm torn.


I really appreciate it when the RFP or RFQ comes out and it is on an A3.

And I think maybe I see that about half of the time.

I don't know, I might be a bit skewed because I work with a couple universities that they do that, so I might be seeing it more often.

I don't think I've ever seen one of those, nor have I.

Oh, okay.

Well, then, it might be the exception here, but it's refreshing because I feel like they see how challenging it is to tell the complete story, to give all of the relevant information in that small space.

And I like to believe that as they're preparing the questions, they have to make some hard decisions themselves.

So, not that it's all about feeling what the marketer feels here.

That's not it at all, but just realizing you can't say everything that's important to say in that small of a space, whether you have one side of an 11 by 17, or you have four sides, or I don't think I've seen one bigger, but there's no limit to what the client could ask for in that way.

I'm just being realistic.

If you can't ask the questions in that space, it's impossible to answer them in that space.

And then the podcast is done, right?

We're done.

There's nothing else to say.


Okay, well, then let's talk about dealing with or, oh, that was a super negative way of saying that.

Let's talk about how we, how do we leverage the format?

And what are some tips for telling that story in that small space?

What are you dealing with?

And since you both are on the design side, how do you work graphics, which take up a huge amount of space or can, into that limited area?

I would say use graphic elements to your advantage, when and wherever you can.

So for me, that looks like utilizing a grid system, which could set you up for or include columns, right?

Because the A3 is pretty big.

So you have a big, you have a big amount of space thinking about, you know, all the different corners of the layout to use and how is that reader's eye going to bounce around the page?

So utilizing that grid system, setting up lines, columns, callouts to help you bounce around and call attention to things that, though everything is important that's included in the A3, using the graphic elements to point out the most important items of what you include.

The most important thing to keep in mind when you're putting your content together and getting your team working on their parts of the puzzle is that your answers have to be short.

Only the most important information can go into this document.

Like, however much content you think you need to answer a question, cut that in half.

And then cut it in half again.

Like, you have to think of an A3 as like an outline.

It's a sampler platter, it's charcuterie, and we're back to being French again.

It's not a main dish, you know what I mean?

Like, you're not gonna be able to go into depth on like any one topic.

You're just, you're giving them the highlight for each thing.

It's the written version of an elevator pitch, right?

Like, the clients are doing this because they just want you to get to the point.

Like, get to the main, you know, get right to the jokes, you know?

So the implied understanding there is that, you know, if they want to hear more about this question or that question, they'll ask.

I mean, that's why they're doing this.

If they wanted you to write a book on everything, they would have asked for an 80 page, you know, regular proposal.

So when you get your team together and you're handing out assignments and you're talking about what are we gonna do for these questions, it's absolutely imperative that everyone understands that like, this needs to be answered in like one or two sentences is kind of thing.

And if not, then what are you even saying?

To build on that, if you can answer the question in graphic format instead of even a sentence, even better, and then think, can I answer multiple questions with a graphic, whether that's an infographic or a couple icons with a sentence, how can you make the whole bigger than the sum of the parts?

Something that popped into my mind as you were describing these techniques for getting a lot of information in a small amount of space was that, well, of course, we need to be pre-positioned well for the project because if you are trying to introduce all the qualities of a project manager or the full team or describe everything, all the value points that your group brings to the project, because the client you're proposing to doesn't know anything about you, like you have quite a battle.

So you can't, you know, Becky, you were saying, can you say it in one sentence?

Well, no, you can't if you have not already been saying some of that in other ways, whether it's through a tour of your past projects or, you know, attending functions where you get to talk and hear, you know, all of the ways that we pre-position a, literally, actually the team, not just the company, but, you know, the people, this is going to help you out so that when you are putting this proposal together, you can write one or two sentences that lead into a beautiful graphic that helps tell the story.

So, I don't know, that was, just feels like it's worth saying.

You cannot say everything up at the top.

Since your roles are probably at that phase where you know an A3 proposal is incoming, do you start by setting up the template or do you wait for that outline of content to come?

Or both?

I don't know, there's probably both, but like...

That's the greatest, biggest question of all time.


I'm laughing because I, with my entire being, prefer to not do the layout until I have the content because then we are speculating and I do not like to speculate.

But if you have a team that doesn't fully understand the space requirements that we're dealing with, it may very well help to just, even if you just kind of get on the page and lay out the questions and then block out, here's what three sentences for each answer would look like, then they can say, oh my God, we have way too much content here.

Or like, okay, we really need to be brief.

So like, this is one instance where I would very grudgingly and just under duress, probably want to do a little design before I get the content.

And just for that purpose.

So that you don't get 50 pages on constructability.

Lauren Jane, what do you think?

Yeah, in this instance, I would challenge myself to, again, hear the sprint comes back into play, but give myself 15 minutes, maybe 20 minutes and lay something out, throw something on the page that will help the project team visualize how much space they have, like Becky said, but not spend too much time on it.

And something that won't likely get changed much is the header, setting up your margins, setting up your grade or your columns.

And that's not lost work, right?

That's not wasted work, but don't spend too much time laying things out because it will likely change.

I can appreciate that you both would be willing to give a little bit of a storyboard outline because as someone who's probably writing content or corralling content, having those buckets and knowing that the designer feels like this is a good starting point and I would like this amount of space for an org chart and having that, the design stuff not just come last, it makes my job a little easier.

I really appreciate that.

But I hear you don't want to just be reworking things.

And so let's talk a little bit about, Lauren Jane, I think you're probably ready to go there.

But like tips for those early setup, the early stuff, and then maybe how you progress on kind of building that out even more.

When I'm storyboarding a proposal for a client that we've already done work for, typically I go back and see, okay, are there call out boxes?

What's the, you know, what are the styles?

What can I pull to help be a great placeholder until we know exactly what the content is gonna look like?

Well, keep in mind, when you are doing an A3, the document size is much bigger.

So be aware if you are pulling in content from standard size proposals, 8.5 by 11 proposals, when you pull content over into that A3, your type size is going to be very small.

So that is something to watch out for and set up and keep in mind before you show the project team, because if you pull content directly over and your type is really small and you show the project team, and later on you realize, oh, dang, this type is too small, you actually have a lot less room than you thought.

So keep that in mind, and I would actually pull in your standard paragraph styling that you have set up in other InDesign documents and actually just change those styles for that document.

And then anytime you do an A3 moving forward, you can just have your A3 styling set up.

Yeah, one thing that can definitely help you save space because the good thing to know here is working with an A3, you've just got the one page.

So when you have a multi-page proposal, obviously you want to standardize things as much as you can.

You want the reader to kind of expect where things are going to go and help them navigate.

With an A3, there's no navigation.

It's just one page.

So I would say definitely do not go wild on the header and footer.

You don't need a great big header with lots of stuff and a footer with all this information.

The client knows what the project is.

They don't need to see your logo three times on one page.

Like just keep it simple and small.

In fact, maybe only stick to just a header.

I mean, because it's just one single page, like you don't really need any footer information.

So like take up as little space with that header as you possibly can.

Just get the project name in there, keep it really short.

Maybe get your logo.

That's really all you need.

It doesn't even need to take up the whole width of the page, and then you can get creative with stretching some content up and out.

And like it gives you a little more space.

Also with margins, unless the RFP specifies how big they want their margins to be, which I've never seen on an A3 RFP, you can adjust those to be a little bit smaller than you normally would maybe.

And again, like you have that safety because it's just the one page.

So you can kind of use your best judgment to fill that page with content without exhausting, you know, their eyes with tons of stuff, rather than having to like, you know, stick to that rigid geometry of like preset margins.

You do get a little bit of flexibility in that way, especially towards the end.

As you go, you're constantly like cramming more and sanding down and like, how can we make miracles happen, you know?

So there is that freedom.

Yeah, you start to say, if you want to add this line, tell me which line we're going to cut, because that's where we're at.


Oh, yeah.

I like that you both referenced the difference between working in our traditional format, printed or not, but, you know, an 8.5 by 11, who knows how many pages between sometimes as few as 10 or whatever to could be hundreds of pages.

And you can't just use the same stuff.

You can't just move it over to A3.

It's a disaster.

It's almost like better to start from scratch and think of this as a unique, special sandbox, as Becky said, to play and because the things like font sizes and headers and footers just don't apply in the same way.

From kind of middle of six best practices, we usually say we want 25 to 50% of the page to be graphics or graphically-oriented content.

However, that looks...

Do those same percentages apply on the A3 format?

I would say more, if possible.

More than 50%!

If possible, sometimes it's simply not, but with infographics, often we are forced to strip down exactly what we want to convey.

And, kind of like I was saying earlier, we can potentially convey multiple concepts, multiple things with one infographic.

So it allows...

If you're doing your graphics right, it allows for you to say more with less space.

I would argue more.

Up to 70%, maybe, if we could.


We're going rogue.

I feel like I wouldn't suggest necessarily those percentages in terms of area that the imagery is taking up.

I think you want smaller visuals so that you can cram more text, but I definitely would say in terms of how much content are we answering via imagery rather than text?


The more content you can answer with an image, an infographic, whatever, rather than just straight text, the better because then you're drawing the reader's eye right to your content because it's very visual, it's easy to see, it's delineated from the other content, and that way you're not just giving them a wall of text that they have to sift through because they're still looking through to make sure you've answered the questions.

And the more you can break that up with imagery and have somebody, because again, they're doing this because they want quick hitter information and there's nothing, there's no quicker hitter than a visual, a good infographic or a chart or whatever.

You just want to make sure you're not being redundant.

I mean, you don't want to have a chart that explains something and then also have it in text form.

You're wasting space with that.

Everything on that page should be a single idea that is not repeated anywhere else in the content.

And don't go crazy with photos.

Like, I mean, photos are a total waste.

Maybe one photo if it's small and really, really pertinent to what you're doing, but honestly, like, you almost don't even need photos at all.

It better to do something that conveys information, like an infographic.

Along the same lines of stripping things down, how can you make something a bulleted list?

How can you put a bulleted list with a few icons, right?

And that gets into this almost infographic territory.

But if you don't quite have enough to make a full infographic, how can you make it graphically appealing and shorter?


And how can you, this is a question for both of you, how can you do all of this balancing the, probably getting too much text and wanting to have these wonderful graphics that are legible, that you can read the labels and the details, you know, as they're working really hard to communicate, and preserve white space?

White space is the first place in an A3 that people are like, can't we just cram in this over there?

And you still need it, you know, resting space, but any tips for that?

Definitely give your content writing team word counts, if you possibly can.

I've noticed that math people really respond to that.

They want to know how many words they have for each section.

And then if you sort of build in like white space around the sections and give them their word count, they think that's very scientific and like that's a hard deadline.

They're not going to go over their word count, you know.

But you know in your mind that you're saving white space.

I think like this is one of those times where you have to just kind of eyeball it and use your judgment and like massage this document to fit the best that you can.

And that appeals to me.

Like I don't, that's one of my areas of strength.

So like when we're getting down to the wire and it's like, how can we cram all this content and make it fit and still have a little bit of space?

Like, and you're just doing brain surgery at the last second and everybody's like sweating and shaking.

And like, I mean, I'm into that.

I think a lot of us in this role tend to be that kind of designer.

So I, yeah, I don't know that there's any like hard and fast rules other than like, it's important that the person doing the hands-on layout of this document is very much in the driver's seat because again, you do have to cram all this content into one sheet of paper, metaphorically or physically.

And you know, the team has got to understand that that's not magic, you know?

Like you have to work hard to be able to make that happen.

Something else to keep in mind with White Space is the concept of essentially density and relief.

So it's okay to have a lot of stuff, I don't like the word crammed, but like a lot of very dense information, a lot of data in one section, as long as you have a little bit of relief.

So every single item that's on the page doesn't have to have a big border or a lot of white space around it, but how can you provide a little bit of relief, a little bit of breath in between those dense items?

Yes, you know it when you see it where it has that balance, and it may not look like on a traditional page where there's just breathing, lots of breathing room around a quote or a graphic or something like that.

It just all has to work together in one picture frame.

And yeah, having a real professional designer on the job is gonna make that a lot easier.

Just some ways to kind of cheat to break up your document.

If you don't have a lot of white space, you can use various visual elements to sort of delineate the content and the various sections from each other.

You can use color.

You could have one section kind of be themed with one color, another section with another.

You could use icons within the text content to show a different section, a different idea.

And those take up very little space.

Lines, lines are good.

Sometimes you are adding kind of twice the amount of white space if you are putting in lines.

But if you use them carefully, you can kind of box things out and separate sections, which sort of creates in the mind of the viewer some separation between the sections so that they kind of know where they are jumping to and they don't feel like it's just one long sheet of text you know, with various headers.

Anytime you can use something visual to separate it, it's going to be good for readability.

Those are all really good tips, very useful.

I think that this would be an episode if I were, you know, jumping into a new A3 or whatever, I might need to take a few notes, practice it, and then listen again and look at where my draft is because there's just so many, it really is an art to making it all work together, fit.

We barely touched on the words.

We talked about how every word has to really have impact and mean something, so no fluff.

And, you know, just kind of re-evaluating that at every stage, at every draft review.

And probably a really good project to have a team brainstorm or design, you know, crit or whatever to figure out, like, what other ways can we make this information shine in this small amount of space?

Any other tips that you want to share?

Because this is all, this is like a tip podcast, you know, anything else that we, that didn't fit into a perfect bucket and that you want to go over with the team.

Going back to the content length issue, I just want to kind of reiterate that like, it can be a little bit scary for the people who are writing the content to provide a short, succinct answer, because I think it gets really ingrained in all of us, like since elementary school, that like in order to, you know, really get full credit, you have to provide a whole lot of information.

You got to write that whole five paragraph essay.

And I think I've seen a lot of very good content writers get kind of hung up on feeling like, well, I didn't write enough, I didn't say enough, and wanting to just add sentences just to add them.

But especially in this case, you know, you don't want that.

I mean, a one to three sentence answer is like not only okay, it's encouraged.

I mean, the shorter you can make this, the better.

I mean, attention spans have been decreasing, you know, recently with like the advances in technology.

I mean, look at TikTok, we can't watch a video that's longer than, you know, a minute and a half anymore.

So like, the more you can just kind of get right to the point and answer the question, the better.

So like, maybe if you want to have a talk with your content writers and say, hey, like, I know it's going to feel like you're not saying enough and you're going to want to add things.

Don't, like, just answer the question in one or two sentences.

And I promise, like, just give them that safety to know that like, you know, you don't have to write a book.

Like we want this to be really short that that may go a long way towards some of those math people not getting, you know, wrapped up on worrying that they haven't said enough.

You have to be their partner in that.

Sometimes just give them a little therapy that it's gonna be okay.

And this, you know, let's go back to the strategy.

This is what is most important to the client.

And there will be other places, other times to say more about the story.

You know, maybe there's a tease for the interview that's coming up after that.

I love the line.

I mean, maybe you have a cover letter or not, but it's like, we cannot wait to expand on these ideas in the interview and carry that energy throughout the proposal.

I have a rogue question, and I could see this potentially not getting included, but I feel like this is interesting.

So sometimes the client says, how about we just include a QR code?

Or how about we include links to this stuff?

What are your thoughts about that?

Does that feel scary?

Does that break the rules?

Is that a smart solution?

Well, I think that's a really good question, Lauren Jane, thanks for bringing it up.

And if you don't mind, let me just start from the proposal manager seat, right?

And then we can talk from the designer seat.

I think there's a limit.

I think they can be QR codes and links can be used very strategically.

I've recently came across an RFP.

It was not A3 format, but they said you can include one outside link, but they wanted it a short response.

But I think maybe they were getting too many proposals where you had to click everywhere to get more information about the team or the projects.

And they were like, there's a limit.

So that was my first time seeing that from the client side of it.

And I would expect that that's a signal that you can overdo it.

Now, in this format, what are some things that might qualify?

Like, I don't know.

Have you created an incredibly detailed schedule or some phasing thing that would just be cannot fit, but is so critical to the way this project will be managed?

That could be something.

Or I don't know, is there the school that you just built that was just like this win an award and you have this beautiful tour or students talking about the school that you feel like should be included?

That could be really great.

But just linking to everyone's resumes or every project and that kind of thing where it's just additional content, I don't think selection committees are going to be interested in that.

I would say be ready for them to not look at it.

Whatever you put under that link or that QR code, assume that the selection committee will not look at it and know that your proposal will be okay without whatever that is.

If you can say, we don't need this to win the job, then fine.

I personally have never seen it specified in the RFP, whether you can or can't provide links to content.

That's not something I've ever seen, but I have definitely seen and done a lot of click here and watch the 3D tour or whatever.

But yeah, as long as you're not hanging your, whether you get shortlisted or not on whatever that content is, I mean, I guess why not, as long as it fits?

It's a great creative way to add extra that some project teams like to push the buttons on, in my experience.

So yeah, that one's always a puzzle, and it seems very content dependent and proposal dependent.

Right, and you have to confirm that they haven't said that you should or shouldn't do that, right?

You don't want to have any disqualifying issues.

But that goes, that's like the baseline for everything the marketing team will be doing.

Like, are we allowed to?

What font size did they require?

We've seen on social media, someone measuring the ruler that the margin was just slightly under one inch, and that was disqualifying.

That's, you know, the thing that nightmares are made of for AEC marketers.

Like, that's so sad.

Not a good reason to not select a team.

But I guess maybe someone would argue that if you can't follow the rules, then how are you going to work on a project?

But yeah, I'm glad you brought that up, Lauren Jane, because that can be a sneaky way or sneaky in a good way to get in some more content or just expand on an idea, possibly tease something that you could go into later at different stages.

So, you know, use them, use them selectively.

Make sure it's not something that you have to submit to win.

All right, well, I feel like we are really at our time for this podcast.

I think we'll have to explore this more as we see the A3 format evolve and as things continue changing in our digital world and maybe video and links becomes like a hotter item that need to be included.

But for today, I think this is a good starting point on the A3 topic, and I hope people find that useful or just to get some other designer's perspectives on how they tackle those challenges.

Before we wrap up, I want to go back to our trivia question about the trees, or the trees.

Recycling one ton of paper, drum roll, saves, according to, so I mean, they probably know what they're talking about, saves 17 trees.

Oh, it's not a lot of trees.

It's underwhelming.

I know.

Didn't specify, but let me say that says that one pine tree can produce 80,000 sheets of paper.

So, I don't know.

Someone else do the math on that.

That's a lot of paper.

One tree can make a lot of paper, and we want to not cut down for us to have just filling up the landfills.

And speaking of landfills, 73% of every landfill is paper and cardboard boxes.

Get out.

It kills me when I get something delivered and it's a box in a box, wrapped in paper stuffing, or whatever it's wrapped in.

But that is a shocking statistic, again, from

And in our lifetimes, one American citizen uses about 465 trees of paper.


There's your tree trivia for today.

Go paperless and save the planet.

More electronic submissions now.

I know, as I was reading these, I couldn't help but think of like the Dunder Mifflin, whatever marketing campaign.

Limitless paper in a paperless world.

That's the world we live in.

Anyway, okay, well, thank you for playing along, everyone.

And Becky, Lauren, Jane, thank you for sharing your tips with our listeners about the A3 proposal format and how to handle graphics and the whole thing.

Appreciate you both.

Thanks for having us.

Thanks for having us.

Because when push comes to shove...

We all deserve a second chance...

to score.

Dunder Mifflin, Limitless Paper in a Paperless World.

The Shortlist is presented by Middle of Six and hosted by me, Wendy Simmons, Principal Marketing Strategist.

Our producer is Kyle Davis, with digital marketing and graphic design by the team at Middle of Six.

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Until next time, keep on hustling.


And away.

I'm ripping that off.

If I can't, I can't steal that.

Well, it's been tough.

The Geniuses of Corporate rejected my commercial, and tonight they are airing the Brain Dead version.

So, welcome one and all to the world premiere of Corporate Crapfest.

The Shortlist is a podcast that explores all things AEC marketing. Hosted by Middle of Six Principal, Wendy Simmons, each episode features members of the MOS team, where we take a deep dive on a wide range of topics related to AEC marketing including: proposal development, strategy, team building, business development, branding, digital marketing, and more. You can listen to our full archive of episodes here.


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