When you’re starting out as a freelancer and you’re eager to get new clients, it can be tempting to overlook contracts and negotiations in favor of closing the client quickly. Without a contract in hand however, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The truth is that very few designers actually enjoy negotiating a contract, but we do it because it’s necessary to protect ourselves and to ensure we get paid fairly for the work we do. Being a freelancer might mean more flexible in determining your hours and projects, but there’s no room for flexibility when it comes to having a contract in place for the work you do.
Respectable clients expect to sign contracts. They do it everyday in the course of working with service providers and suppliers. A client who tries to pressure you into working without a contract almost certainly doesn’t respect the work you do, and isn’t entering the working relationship with good intentions. We can’t emphasize this enough: whatever you do, do not trust a client who says you don’t need a contract. A contract protects both you and the client, and a client not wanting to sign one is a huge red flag.
Every designer is a little bit different. You have your own style and your own way of doing business, so it’s up to you to determine how you want to work. Just make sure that the terms that are important to you are reflected in your contracts. There are also a handful of basic things that every contract should include. We cover the most important ones below.
1. The Basics
Cover the basics by making sure you specify who is doing the work (you), who you’re doing the work for (your client), and what the nature of the work you’re doing is (eg; logo design, website design).
You can also specify your state as the state of law for the contract. This means that should a client sue you (and it can happen, even if you haven’t done anything wrong), legal disputes will be determined by a court of law in your own state. Otherwise the client may be able to sue you in their own state, which can create a lot of additional hassle for you.
2. Project Details
One of the most important things a contract does is specify what the project is and what the work entails. The project details section is where you include the creative brief as agreed upon by the client and a scope of work that clearly establishes what the project deliverables are. These are the line items that the client will hold you to, so be specific about the work that’s included in the project. If your scope of work is too broad, you could end up responsible for completing work you hadn’t accounted for. You can also specify things that are not included in the scope, like copywriting and content upload.
3. The Cost to the Client
Design is a creative field, but you still need to be specific about the fee structures for your work. You have the option of charging by the hour, or by the project.
If you’re charging by the hour, obviously you need to include your hourly rate and how often you will bill the client. If you charge on a project-basis then you’ll need to include the flat rate for the project. In this case, you also need to be specific about revisions. For example, you can specify that you will deliver 2 rounds of homepage mockups and an additional 2 rounds of revisions on whichever homepage direction the client chooses. Accounting for revisions is essential to ensuring you don’t end up losing money on the project because a client keeps requesting changes. Even if you’re charging on an hourly basis, it’s still wise to put a limit on revisions. Most clients won’t want to keep paying you to revise endlessly, but those with deep pockets could end up monopolizing your time by asking for ongoing tweaks and revisions.
4. Payment schedules
Include a payment schedule to specify not only how much you’ll be paid, but also when you’ll be paid. This is the only way to keep clients accountable to paying your invoices promptly. For project-based work, split the cost of the project into a series of payments that are due as agreed-upon milestones are hit.
In this section of the contract you also want to include documentation about what happens when payments are late. For example, is there a small grace period after which all work on the project will stop until payment is received? Will you charge a late payment penalty fee after a certain point? Will the payment begin accruing interest after a certain point? Including provisions for late payment will incentivize the client to pay your invoices promptly. For more information about how to design a contract that helps you get paid on time, check out this article from AIGA.
Include deadlines in your contract, even if you think imposing deadlines on yourself sounds like a crazy thing to do. Deadlines make everyone feel more comfortable, and they keep the client from pestering you to deliver work faster. Speaking of clients, you should also impose deadlines on them. Specify how long the client has to provide feedback on something you send through for their approval. Make sure to include language that makes it clear a client can’t hold you accountable to your deadlines if they’re the ones holding up the work on their end (something that happens all the time). For example, if a client wants to pay for additional rounds of mockups, make it clear that that extra work will push back final completion of the project.
6. Kill fee
Specify an early termination fee to be paid by the client should they choose to stop work before the project is complete. This is a strong disincentive to fickle clients who like to embark on projects but get cold feet or change their minds part-way through. Including a kill fee will ensure you still get paid for your time and effort, regardless of whether the client bails before the project’s finished.
Negotiating contracts is part of the business of being a freelancer, and having a strong contract in place is necessary to make sure your interests are protected. If you’re looking for more resources The Freelancer’s Union website has tons of useful information for freelancers, including tips on contracts and the rights of independent contractors. You can also check out AIGA to find template contracts and other useful information tailored to design professionals.