5 essential tips for drafting your next design contract

Alex Bigman

If you enjoyed drafting contracts and negotiating terms, you probably would have gone to law school instead of becoming a designer. Little did you know you would end up having to play both parts. There’s no getting around it: If you want to protect yourself and your product in your freelance design work, you had better learn to understand and even write a contract.

But it’s not as hard as it sounds, particularly if you ditch the legalese for plain language. With platforms like 1-to-1 projects allowing you to work with clients across the globe, it’s more important than ever to be able to set and explain your terms in an easy-to-understand manner – and we’re here to help.

There are plenty of contract templates and how-to guides out there (AIGA, Smashing Magazine), so we’re not about to add another. Rather, this guide is an overview of the most important things to consider when reviewing or writing any form of design contract. Let’s start from the beginning.

1. Do you really need a contract?

design contract handshake

A contract is the only surefire way to protect your interests during a design job. But is it always a good decision to take this precaution? One solution is to have contracts of varying lengths – longer, more comprehensive ones for more in-depth projects, shorter and less formal ones for quicker projects. Avoid bringing in an actual lawyer unless it’s a big corporate client or you’re looking to set extremely complex licensing terms.

Beyond that, consider the laws of human decency. If your longtime neighbor asks for a quick design fix, don’t serve her a stack of papers to sign. But remember, if you choose not to provide a contract, your client may present one to you and you can bet that the terms will not be as designer-friendly.

2. How many contract templates do you actually need?

design contract files

Drafting contracts can be a pain, so it’s tempting to create one catch-all template to use for every project you undertake. Some designers do this, but it’s not advisable – each design contract requires different considerations.

For example, a logo design would probably not involve licensing; the client is going to want all rights to the unique image so no one else can use it. But with a website mock-up or a set of icons, that probably isn’t the case; you may be able to set terms that would allow you to re-use all or part of those products again. The possible issues are endless.

So if you’re only going to have one contract, it’s going to be incredibly thick to cover all possible scenarios or inadequate for certain projects—neither are good situations. AIGA’s master agreement offers three different templates—print, web and 3D designs – and gets more specific from there. You should consider doing the same.

3. What should your design contract look like?

design contract template

We’re not talking about the content of the clauses, but the actual format of the document you present. There are certain professional expectations about how such a document should look (like what you should put in the header) and if you don’t include the expected information, you’re going to look unprofessional. The above image is one possible example, although the hot pink is a pretty bold choice.

Beyond that, just make it legible. Choose a simple, dignified font (please, no comic sans) and make it a good size. Contracts may be known for their “fine print,” but this is actually something to avoid. Once a client sees tiny letters, they’ll be suspicious that you’re trying to pull something dishonest.

4. What should your contract checklist include?

design contract thinking

There is key information that every design contract should include. This is the meat of the contract, ensuring that you and your client begin with clear expectations. When drafting or reading through your agreement, make sure that it touches upon each of the following items:

Project Basics

List out exactly what work you’re responsible for and how this relates to your fee (often called a “Statement of Work”). This will make it easy to settle up debts in case the project cannot be completed. Also include a “Terms and Conditions” section to set project limits (i.e. what you’re not responsible for doing), such as the number of revisions, follow-up tweaks, color variations, etc.

Client expectations

A good contract should always include your client’s responsibilities. After all, design is a collaborative process that requires effort from both sides. This section can include your main point of contact and designate the person who will be make any final decision. Ideally this will be the same person – and you have every right to specify this in the contract – so that you won’t have to deal with conflicting and confusing client opinions.

You can also specify what information the client should provide (customer data, previous identity assets, etc.), and what sort of labor they will be responsible for (i.e. proofreading your work).

Deliverables

It’s easy to forget that your client might not be as tech-savvy as you are. Ever had a client accuse you of not providing a working file, when they actually didn’t have the software needed to open it? Avoid this by stating in the contract exactly what file types will be provided, so there aren’t surprises at the hand-over.

Another consideration is storage. Many clients expect you to hold onto a copy of the deliverables, so they can contact you in case they should lose theirs. You should specify the length of time you are willing to hold onto files and whether you will charge to retrieve them.

Timing

This is the most frequent cause of designer-client conflict. Avoid surprise time-crunches by agreeing on the exact timeframe for each project, breaking it down further with deadlines for each step of the project. Also agree on feedback deadlines. Your work can’t progress if the client isn’t giving you timely feedback. You don’t want to encounter a situation where you can’t meet your deadline because you haven’t heard from the client.

Finally, you can use this section to remind your client that, like all other human beings, designers require sleep. Set working hours for yourself, outside of which you cannot be asked to work on the client’s project. Imagine that!

Payment terms

If getting paid is important to you, this section will be of interest. Be clear in how you will charge. By-the-project is typical for larger tasks. By-the-hour can be better for quick or basic work, where a difference of 1 or 2 hours should be reflected in your earnings. Some designers use a mixture – for example, they’ll charge by the project and require an hourly rate for revisions beyond a certain number.

You should also state how you will bill them, noting how much is required in advance and when the rest will be charged. It is typical to charge at intervals, but many designers simply charge a certain amount up front and the rest upon completion.

You also need to prepare for the possibility of a mid-project cancellation. Stipulate that the client may not demand a refund on payment already given and that you can also set a cancellation fee (sometimes called a “kill fee”) in order to discourage either party from canceling the project capriciously.

Intellectual property

As a designer, your IP is your bread and butter, so this is arguably the most important section of any contract. Remember that you automatically own the copyrights to anything you create and have every right to set the terms for how you transfer those copyrights. Within an overall “design,” you can transfer the copyright to some things and not others (such as the wireframe of a website but not the icons).

You can also specify licensing terms. AIGA suggests four:

  • Full assignment: You hand over all IP so the client has exclusive rights to the design with total freedom to modify.
  • Exclusive without freedom to modify: The client has exclusive access to your design (so you cannot sell to others), but is not permitted to modify it.
  • Limited: These contracts require extra fees if the client wants to use your work for additional purposes (for instance, turning it into a full ad campaign)
  • Personal use: You can specify your rights to use your design work for promotional and other non-commercial purposes, like on your personal website or Behance portfolio, even after the IP has been transferred. Of course, the client may want to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement which may prevent you from doing this, so be prepared for that.

5. How can you help to avoid additional conflict?

design contract studio

Contracts are great because they are legally enforceable, but nobody wants to actually get to that point. There are countless ways to maintain a good, positive relationship with your client – most of which boil down to being a polite and reasonable person.

One way, suggested by Designmodo, is to “underpromise and overdeliver”. In other words, set terms in your contract (for the timeline, revisions offered, etc.) that you can strive to surpass at no extra charge. This is a surefire way to make a client love you, and far better than setting ambitious terms that you will struggle to live up to.

Another is to simply be patient and charitable. Don’t treat your clients like nitwits or scammers, even if you’ve encountered some of those in the past. Go into every job with the understanding that most clients are good people looking for a fair business relationship, just like you are.

Got any further questions about freelance design contracts? Ask in the comments!

Featured image: Juli (via Flickr)

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