Written by David Whitemyer
Since the mid-1990s, working in the museum field, I’ve read and responded to hundreds of RFPs (Request for Proposals) where cultural institutions or government departments are seeking the services of an exhibit design professional. I’ve assisted dozens of museums and potential clients in writing clear, concise RFPs. I also teach two courses for Johns Hopkins University’s Museum Studies program – one on exhibition design and one on project management – where we spend a week each semester learning to read and write good quality RFPs.
There are a few basic bits of information that all RFPs tend to have, such as a brief description of the project, the services needed, and the proposal due date. In addition to allowing time for interviewing a shortlist of proposing teams – to see if there’s any chemistry – a good museum RFP process should also include an opportunity for prospective bidders to submit written questions, and for the museum to respond in writing to all firms. Firms ask questions to ensure that their pricing is based on accurate information, and so that their proposals comply with all of the submittal requirements. If a number of exhibit design teams are asking similar questions, then it’s a good indication that the information probably should’ve been included in the RFP.
Over the course of more than twenty-five years reading and responding to RFPs, these are the most common, frequently asked questions I’ve seen. And so, I strongly recommend including this information in your RFPs. It will strengthen the proposals you receive.
1) “How Many Firms Were Invited To Submit Proposals?”
If it’s a public solicitation, another way this question is sometimes phrased is, “How many firms requested the RFP?” If you’re in any kind of competition – a race, a college scholarship application, an award submission – it’s extremely helpful to know how many people you’re competing against. Knowing how many firms are looking at an RFP helps exhibit designers determine if they should pursue the project, and if so, how aggressively.
It’s recommended that lists of invited RFP recipients be limited to five-to-seven. Exhibit designers spend a lot of time and money crafting proposals, hoping to win exciting projects or be invited to an interview. Inviting fifteen or twenty firms may, in fact, do the museum a disservice because some very good, highly qualified teams may decide to walk away, thinking the percentage likelihood of a win is just too low. If you’re unsure of who to send your RFP to, and need help with a small vetted list of qualified firms, send out an RFQ (Request for Qualifications) first, soliciting basic information from teams about their background, sample projects, key personnel, and typical project approach.
2) “What Is Your Project Budget?”
It kind of makes sense that museums are apprehensive about showing their cards and telling bidders how much money they have. But on the flip side, part of an exhibit designer’s responsibility – and what we do well – is to help museums develop the most stunning, engaging exhibitions within an established budget. Letting firms know how much money you’re comfortable spending will encourage them to develop thoughtful proposals that provide great services and strategies within that constraint.
Put another way, if you’re about to start a kitchen remodeling project and reach out to an architect, interior designer, or the cabinet guy at Home Depot, the very first question they’ll ask you is, “What is your project budget?” And if your response is, “I don’t want to tell you that,” then they’re not really going to be able to help you or give you good direction.
3) “What Is Your Project Schedule?”
If a timeline is indicated in the RFP, a similar question might be, Is there any flexibility in your project schedule? – trying to discern if your grand opening date is etched in stone, or if there’s some wiggle room. It’s surprising how many RFPs fail to provide even the most basic schedule information: project kickoff dates and completion dates.
The project schedule affects the project cost. A large, complicated exhibit that needs to be designed and fabricated within a short timeframe is probably going to be expensive because more resources are needed. A small, simple exhibition with a long schedule could also be expensive because it provides too much time, where decisions are likely to be second-guessed and changed. Everyone in the museum and exhibit design industry should be familiar with the famous Good-Fast-Cheap Venn diagram. The premise is that only two of those are possible on any given project. In putting together a proposal and project work plan, bidders are striving to work within that sweet spot that will allow for high quality, reasonable cost, and adequate time.
4) “What Are the Project Deliverables?”
If you ask ten different museum professionals what “Schematic Design” means, you’re likely to get ten different answers. By providing only project phase names – i.e. Concept Design, Design Development, etc. – and brief descriptions of the scope of work, museum RFPs are leaving open for interpretation the list of project deliverables. This, in turn, means that the fees you’re comparing in different proposals are probably not pricing the same thing.
Be sure to include a detailed list of the required deliverables for each phase of work. At the end of Concept Design, do you require a preliminary floor plan, or is a bubble diagram sufficient? Are the design firms supposed to provide realistic-looking computer-rendered renderings, or are hand-drawn sketches acceptable? If you’re unsure of what deliverables are typical for each phase, ask someone in an exhibit design firm. We’re happy to help you map this out before you release the RFP.
5) “Who Are The Project Stakeholders?”
When exhibit design firms read your RFPs, they are, in a sense, interviewing the museum as well, trying to gauge who you are, what your organization is like, and what it might be like to work with you. They’re eager to tailor their proposals to the group who will be reviewing them, and to craft a detailed work plan around the team with whom they’ll be working.
In your RFPs, tell the bidders who your project stakeholders are. Who is in your core internal project team? – the folks that will be working closely with the exhibit design firm. What’s the makeup of your institutional leadership? – those who will be involved in decision making and project presentations. And are there other internal or external players with whom the selected design firm will have to engage? – including local educators, subject matter experts, donors, etc.
6) “How Many INSERT ALMOST ANYTHING HERE?”
In RFPs, specificity is everyone’s best friend. Clarifying not just WHAT you expect from your exhibit designer, but HOW MANY will ensure that the fee proposals you receive are accurate and can be reasonably compared apples-to-apples. So, prospective bidders commonly ask museums to quantify requirements of both the project and the proposals.
How many in-person meetings during the project? This information is necessary to accurately calculate travel costs. How many formal deliverables are required? Printing, binding, and shipping multiple hardcopy design packages is significantly more expensive than submitting a single PDF via email. How many renderings are required during the Concept Design phase? How many project examples do you want bidders to include in their proposals? The list goes on and on.
Providing the answers, in your RFP, to these six frequently asked questions will make everyone’s life easier, both yours and the potential exhibit design vendors.
It’s also a great idea, when writing an exhibit design RFP, to run a draft version by someone in the industry who won’t be submitting a proposal, but who is experienced and can share their input on what you might be missing or can make more clear. If this isn’t possible, run it by someone in your own institution who knows nothing about the project or needed services. This will put the RFP in the hands of someone with fresh eyes, who can evaluate it as a prospective bidder, checking to see that it includes all of the necessary details to put together an accurate, thoughtful, and fair proposal.