When you’re making your mark as a freelance graphic designer, you’re going into business with yourself. Yes, designing compelling logos or delivering on the client’s vision is important. On the other hand, however, design prowess alone won’t lead to a successful career. Building a client base, marketing yourself, and protecting your work are important pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps nothing is more important, however, than legally securing terms and payments by drafting a concise-yet-thorough graphic design contract.
If you start work without using a contract, it’s very possible to get shorted by clients — no matter how professional they seem. It takes just one project to fall through, and dozens of hours of work to go to waste, for any freelance graphic designer to grasp the importance of a design contract. But, drafting a contract is a balancing act — you don’t want to scare away clients with a document totaling 40 or 50 pages (you also want to cover all your bases).
When you’re drafting your main contract, you’ll want to save a template copy and edit it as necessary on a case-by-case basis. But first, let’s talk about what to include in a graphic design contract.
Keep it simple, but don’t cut corners
“A good contract is ironclad, but it still breaks down the information to a manageable size.”
If you consult a lawyer, or have a legal professional draft a general contract for your freelancing, you may end up with something full of “legalese,” which could cloud your meaning and discourage clients. This is a graphic design contract — the goal should always be clear and direct communication that both parties understand. A good contract is ironclad, but it still breaks down the information to a manageable size, without unnecessary padding.
AIGA has a Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services, on their site containing all of the information you’d ever need to include in a design contract. Now, take a look at the length of this document. Is your new client willing to sift through 80 pages of protections and conditions to find the important working clauses? And, how many clients will stick around for words like “wherein” and “thereby”?
On the other end of the spectrum is this sample contract, for graphic designers, which clocks in at less than 500 words. There are several clauses and clarifications missing from this basic contract that should always be included when working as a freelance designer.
Striking a balance between ironclad and readable is tough. With this in mind, the following is a list of primary points that should always appear in your freelance graphic design contracts.
1. Project details
This may seem obvious — in fact, it’s so simple, it’s often overlooked. Even though you and the client may have a verbal understanding about the project, it’s important to have these details in writing so that your role, and your deliverables, are crystal clear. This will prevent scope creep in the long run.
Establish the overall framework of the project and your responsibilities so that you can decline later if the client asks you for more. If you’re not inclined to provide technical support once your files are delivered, explicitly include this in the contract. If the client requested five versions of a logo, then asks for five more once the project is underway — a common issue —you can return to this section of the design contract to rule out that additional work.
2. Timelines and deadlines
No one wants to put in a 60-hour workweek. Therefore, include clauses that limit your working hours by week, including when the client can reach you during the day. Set clear boundaries — add a section to your graphic design contract detailing your available hours. Include details such as the following:
Weekends and irregular hours — the cost of those hours, compared to weekday hours.
Overtime — whether the client can expect to pay extra if you work more than 40 hours a week.
How quickly a client can expect a reply when they reach out to you with questions or edits, during off hours.
In this section, you should also state any agreed-upon deadlines. While many designers loathe deadline constraints, it will keep you productive while helping the client understand when you will submit the work. These deadlines should always allow for extra days and setbacks. Don’t eagerly jump into a contract deadline, expecting zero hiccups in the creative process. Give yourself more time than you need; that way, the client is pleasantly surprised if you deliver everything early.
3. Responsibilities of the client
Outline everything the client will deliver to you in order for you to complete the project — and when. It’s also important to delineate the chain of command on the client’s end, so that you don’t get caught in the middle of a disagreement.
Creative Brief — use a template that specifies all the details of a project you need to know up front. Explain that the more they put into this up front, the fewer questions they’ll have to answer. While the brief is ideally the project’s full-on operations manual, sometimes there’s not enough information at the beginning of the project. That’s okay. You can ask them to append it when more information is available.
Point of Contact — request to establish one person for communication purposes, in order to control the flow of information and requests. There are few situations worse than multiple people emailing you directly with their own requests for changes (who might not be talking to each other). Respectfully call it out as soon as you spot it, and request one point of contact.
Approval Process — Establish a clear path to finishing the project. Sometimes your point of contact will handle that internally. However, you can ask for things like timelines, or if you’re to expect additional communication from a different person. If you prefer sending hard copies for them to sign — say so. If virtual signatures, or email confirmations, are sufficient, include that information.
And, what about potential errors? If there ends up being a typo, how much time does the client have to notify you? What if an image needs to be replaced? Include your pricing for any extra work, or requests of this nature, after the project is completed. Sometimes, making tweaks after the final product is submitted is necessary — you should discuss this ahead of time in your contract. If not, inform the client that the contracted duties have been performed, and that additional fees will apply for the extra work.
Always describe what the product includes, preferably in the brief, and in what manner you will be delivering the final product. What file types can the client request? And how will you deliver these files? Do you prefer email, cloud link, or a flash drive/hard drive. If the client specifies a delivery method, lay out every detail of this process in your contract.
Also, include a clause that explains how long the client can expect you to store the files. If you’ve archived the files, and the client reaches out six months from now for another copy, should they expect to pay a fee? Provide clarity for any situations you foresee, so you receive fair compensation for file delivery and storage.
5. Payment details
This is perhaps the most important section, from the designer’s point of view — detail exactly when you expect payment, and via what method. General best practices are that you, the designer, should receive a deposit of 50% of your total fee before you begin work. This protects you (and the client), allowing you to prioritize their assignment while motivating you to complete the work to receive the other half. Clarify when you will receive the final payment. Traditionally, this should be before you deliver usable files to the client.
Within the payment details, you should justify any additional adjustments, or requests for extra payment, that may occur. If you’re working on an hourly rate, estimate the overall time, and break down the payment, so the client won’t be surprised if you ask for more, once the project is completed. If you’re simply working on a project rate, include any circumstances that would lead to you requesting more than the agreed-upon amount.
Here are some subsections, regarding payment, that will come in handy.
Many designers will choose a flat rate for a well-defined project, such as a website or logo design. It’s typical to offer a quota of free revisions within this fee, as projects usually go through a few rounds of feedback. Two objectives will help corral changes, in order to maintain control:
Define what “revision” means.
Group revisions, and any other changes, to numbered rounds. This helps (sometimes forces) the client to consolidate.
You may offer small changes, like fixing typos. But, if the client asks for an entire re-do, after a mock up has been approved, they’re likely exceeding the agreed-upon project parameters. It’s a great idea to address the cost of revisions before exceeding the included quota. You don’t want to be stuck doing extra work, without fair compensation. This could also help rein in a fussy client. At this point, many designers revert to an hourly rate. However, if a client wants you to work on an offshoot of the project – for example, a new page on the website you created for them – consider this an additional flat rate, not a revision. Again, recognizing contractual disrespect as early as possible prevents situations from snowballing — or becoming an “extra” the client expects.
While we would all like 100% of freelance design projects to run smoothly, this is not always the case. When you (or the client) decides to terminate the contract, whether it’s because of an unsatisfactory experience, or simply that the project is no longer required, your contract should include a cancellation clause, so the protocol is clear.
If the client terminates the project, how much will they owe you? How would you, or the client, go about terminating the project, and what should be done in that situation? This applies to payment, but can also cover the returning of licensed images and sensitive materials. Allow for the possibility of cancellation in your contract, so it doesn’t become a headache if the situation occurs.
Acts of God
A legal “Act of God,” often referred to in contracts as a force majeure, refers to an unforeseen situation beyond your control that renders you incapable of finishing the contract on time. Though rare, this can happen, especially when digital storage is involved. Let’s say your apartment floods, compromising all of your hardware and storage. Or, your office space is burglarized. Or, there’s a death in the family. At some point, even when you have a finely tuned workflow, you may simply be unable to meet a deadline — or finish the project at all.
In this situation, your client should know what to expect. Some established freelancers are comfortable forfeiting the second half of their payment. However, seeing as every job counts, this clause should request more time. At minimum, it needs to protect the delivery of your payment. Work this out with your client if there are any questions.
Confidentiality is an expected clause in most freelance design contracts. You’ll be handling private, sensitive information, pertaining to things like product launches or company marketing strategies. Many clients will provide their own confidentiality clause or contract for you to sign. However, you can negotiate and include exact terms in your own contract to remain comfortable with the contents.
As the designs you make may or may not be secretive and sensitive, among the standard confidentiality nomenclature, you should know which parts of your design you can display, and where. Is the client comfortable with you uploading the completed work to your own website portfolio immediately, or should you wait? If you must wait, at what point do the designs cease to be confidential?
7. Promotions and credit
This clause ties in to the point above – you should always be able to promote and share your own work. Include clauses that stipulate where, and how, you can use the work you have created for the client.
Many contracts include allowances for the designer to use samples of the work on the designer’s website and portfolio for self-promotion. Most clauses also allow clients to submit the work to competitions and retain the right to exhibit the work once it’s been made public by the client.
You also want to be fairly credited for your hard work — include information that contains exact language for how you should be credited — whether this is on a press release, in an award, in a competition, etc.
(Note: some clients will not want you to showcase or promote the work under any circumstances. Adjust your promotions clause on a case-by-case basis.)
These aren’t specific clauses, but here are some important guidelines to keep in mind:
Allow for customization: Ideally, you’ll draft a template contract that you can alter to suit each project. Adjust, add, and omit clauses as needed while you discuss project needs with your client, so no part of your contract appears redundant.
Always get a signature: This is crucial! Simply emailing the client a copy of the contract is not enough to protect you, and, most importantly, will not hold up legally. Politely insist that the client deliver a signed copy of the contract before you begin working. Give your clients options so they can send you the signature via their preferred delivery method.
Of course, one of the best resources when drafting your own contract is to view the contracts of other working graphic designers. Check out the template contract that logo designer Joni Solis keeps up on her website. Though it doesn’t include every clause mentioned here, it demonstrates an appreciation for clear language and direct design contracts in the industry — compared to dense contracts, full of jargon.
For a terrific collection of sample clauses that you can adjust accordingly, read HOW’s guide on keeping contract language simple.
As a final note, keep in mind that this article should merely be consulted as a resource. When you do have important questions about your contract, and your relationship with a client, always consult a licensed, legal professional.
(This post was originally published in May of 2017. It has been updated to reflect changes in the industry.)
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