Proposal Design: Setting the Right Tone For the Film

A big part of my job is designing proposals for films my company hopes to produce. They might be aimed at potential investors, production partners or networks that might want to air an already completed documentary, but the goal is always the same: proposals should be more than just basic reading material. Their design should give a sense of the overall look and feel of the project, draw attention to the elements that their audience will find most interesting, as well as simply convey the idea that we’re professionals and know what we’re doing.

Sometimes it takes a couple tries to get it right.

We have a fairly substantial library of short educational films that we’d like to repurpose into a television series. They’re a bit unconventional, as civics films go — informative, but with an edge — and I think they’re actually entertaining enough to attract a wide audience. But before we recut for TV, we have to convince someone to air them.


I must admit, I’m not terribly proud of this one. It looks like a social studies textbook for kids, not something befitting a show with a witty, grown-up approach to civics. There are a few elements I like, though — particularly the emphasis on the “glorious mess of freedom” line and using the Constitution as a graphic. I can also see some vague hope for the use of star shapes, even though they aren’t really working here. On the whole, though, it manages to come across as both cartoonish and too formal. Birra is a cute typeface, and it reads well both large and small, but it’s completely wrong here — as are the super-bright colors.


We decided the proposal needed to feel more adult, more fun, and a great deal edgier — we want people to get the idea that these aren’t your typical educational films. Democracy is messy, after all!

We also decided to switch to a formal cover and facing pages interior (the original was intended to be single sheets). I kept the red-blue scheme (hard not to), but toned it down a LOT. No more cheery happy yellow Constitution.

I also roughed things up a great deal, and used Rosewood for the display text to give it a more uneven look.

The cover may have a lot more drama, but it’s the interior pages that really have an edge to them — definitely no more kids show. Leading, alignment and type sizing are uneven, and instead of formal text over smooth squares it now looks as if someone’s spilled correction fluid on the Constitution and printed over it.

Even the very-simply-designed episode descriptions have been given a bit of texture. The stars look like they’ve been stamped onto the page, which makes them much more interesting.

Overall, I really like this look. The colors feel right and I think it actually fits both the show and its intended audience. The sense of humor and realistic approach the shows take both come through. But have I gone too far in the other direction?


I get my feedback: that second version was edgy, yes, but it’s not terribly elegant. My boss thinks the font choices evoke the old west, which is inappropriate for the focus of the series. So we decide to tone things down a bit.

The cover stays roughly the same, but we’ve switched to a much more formal typeface, giving it a cleaner feel that matches the smoothness of the imagery.

The opening lines are allowed to push the margins, giving them a little more prominence, but the “mess of freedom” pull quote has been reduced in scale so as not to draw attention away from them. It no longer juts out at random, either — even though the leading and scaling are uneven, it fits within the body copy, keeping it in context. The spattery background has gone back to being a giant square again, giving the page the more formal appearance of the front cover and allowing us to seem, well, a bit kinder to our national documents.

The episode pages remain virtually the same, yet a simple font change actually gives them quite a different look. Everything seems more tied together now, too.

So there you have it. A bit of how this sort of thing comes about. The usual process seems to be “initial idea -> strong push in another direction -> find a happy medium.” There’s a delicate balance one needs to strike, and I think the final version of this proposal pulls it off for the most part. Had I more time, I might churn through my font collection (which has grown unmanageably huge) and see if I could find a typeface that was just a teensy bit more fun than Futura. But this design definitely says “engaging, intelligent US history show for grown-ups,” and that’s what matters.

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