If you’re going to spend the money, time, and effort it takes to run a successful design business, you have to protect it. Ask yourself this: do you have a plan in place if a client doesn’t pay you on time? How about if they’re late sending materials you need to start or finish the project? What happens if they want additional revisions?
Whenever a designer reaches out to me for advice about a client problem, I always respond with: “What does your contract say?” EVERY brand and web designer should have some form of service agreement or contract in place with all their terms detailed clearly.
I don’t care if you’re working with your own sister, you NEED a contract in place.
I highly recommend working with an attorney to ensure that you’re covering yourself completely. That way you can rest assured that an expert who knows your niche is forming the perfect contract that addresses all of your needs.
Anyone who respects you and your contract won’t have a problem signing it. If they do, consider it a HUGE red flag, and ask yourself if working with someone that won’t allow you to set clear boundaries is worth it for you.
In this blog post, I’m breaking down why you need a contract as a designer, what you need to include in every project contract, and how often you should update your contract.
Why you need a contract for every project.
Since designers provide a service instead of a product, it’s crucial to be upfront and clear with your client communication when starting the project. Plus, it’s incredibly helpful to have everything on paper to refer back to! Each time you sign a contract with a client, you want to feel confident that both you and your client are protected.
The benefits of having a contract in place:
Contracts provide you and the client with a description of responsibilities. This helps both of you understand who is responsible for what.
Contracts secure timely payment. There’s nothing more frustrating than a client withholding the money they owe you, or delaying payment. In case payment does become an issue, your contract should cover what will happen.
Contracts protect your timeline. An effective way to ensure your client sticks to project deadlines, hands in homework on time, and gives you feedback on time is including a clause in your contract that outlines your deadlines, how long your client has to provide you with homework or feedback, and what will happen if the project goes over the deadline.
Contracts establish your right to copyrights. If you don’t establish your right to copyrights in your contract, you could find your client using a logo design draft.
Contracts protect you if you happen to encounter problems around cancellation, ghosting, and chargebacks with your clients.
Once the contract is signed, it enables all parties to understand the terms of their agreement, and serves as a guide to the relationship.
What your contract should include.
Have you ever worked with a client that ghosted your emails for 5 months, but then expected you to pick up the project immediately once they reached out again? To prevent headaches like this example, you need specific clauses in your contract.
The basics that all designers need in their contract:
1. Payment terms
Require a non-refundable deposit to reserve a spot on your schedule. If you book projects 1-2 months in advance, it’s important clients show they are committed to working with you. You can request clients to pay a non-refundable 50% deposit immediately after signing the contract. Or request clients pay a non-refundable 30% deposit if the project price is substantial.
If there are things the client might need to buy for the project (i.e. font licenses, web hosting, etc.) I recommend listing those as “additional costs” and state that the client is responsible for purchasing them.
If you offer payment plans, list how many payments the client will make, the exact amount, and whether the payment timeline is biweekly or monthly.
Set specific dates for the client to make a payment based on the timeline you’ve estimated for the project. Even if there are delays, the client will have to make payments on those set dates. Ensure there is clear instruction around any late fees. Often the mere presence of a late fee provision will encourage clients to pay their invoices on time.
2. Chargeback policy
In the event of a legal dispute or a client deciding that they no longer want to work with you, the client might try to do a chargeback with the payment vendor (i.e. Paypal, Stripe, etc.) If that happens, you have some protection where you can forward the signed contract to the merchant and share your side of the story.
3. Intellectual property
Have you ever wondered who owns the copyrights to your final designs? How about the mockups you created that your client rejected? This section of your contract establishes who owns exactly what, and its usage.
Putting limits on how many rounds of revisions are included in your project will help save your sanity. Trust me, you don’t want to get stuck on a project where the client never stops asking for revisions (so much so that the designs no longer look like what you started with!) At Quixotic, we include two rounds of revisions for custom projects. If the client wants to add another round, I add a flat rate to their bill, no exceptions.
5. Platform choice
Clients need to understand that the platform they choose for web design is final before you even start designing. This way they can’t change their mind halfway through the project, and saves you time.
6. Use of assets
Are you comfortable with clients using any assets that are shown in drafts? If not, you’ll need to disclose this so you can avoid clients using draft files on their social media accounts.
7. Cooperation of client
To help keep your project on track, set a limit on the amount of days a client can go without responding or providing feedback. Since you don’t want the project to drag on forever, you’ll need to set deadlines for every step of the project. Deadlines are key for ensuring your other client projects won’t become affected by delays.
While nobody wants to have a project canceled, sometimes it’s necessary. If you find that’s the case, you need to have a clear plan for how it’ll work in your contract.
How often you should update your contract.
Attorney Danya Shakfeh recommends that you review your contract annually. If you don’t review or update your contract regularly, you can run the risk of the content becoming outdated and obsolete. When updating your contract, consider what outcomes could be improved if the contract were better worded. Also, it’s a good practice to check the laws in your industry to make sure certain clauses are not outdated.
Need a services agreement?
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This agreement will allow you to lay out, in written terms, the services you’ll be providing, payment terms, intellectual property concerns as you part with your client, as well as liability issues and a clear statement of work to prevent miscommunication as well as ensuring protection for your methodologies and intellectual property.
Payment plan contract add-on:
Purchase a Payment Plan Add-on here.
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Once you decide to extend a payment plan, you should always prepare for the worst (i.e. late payments, missed payments, ignored payments altogether). Also, securing recurring credit card payments requires authorization from the owner of the credit card.
I also recommend getting a chargeback policy to add to your contract:
Purchase a Chargeback Policy here.
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When a client requests a refund or initiates a chargeback dispute, you need all the documented proof you can. As a business owner in the eyes of the issuing bank, you’re “guilty until proven innocent,” or in other words, until you can prove that the charge was accurately made.
If you’re looking for a roadmap that covers all of the legal necessities you need to protect your business, check out our educational course for designers, Dream Big Designer. The course also includes a video lesson from Quixotic’s own attorney Taylor Tieman! Taylor’s a trademark and business attorney who’s passionate about helping new, first-time business owners get legally protected.
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, and do not give legal advice. These are simply suggestions to help you protect your business. Please consult with your attorney for legal advice.
FYI, I get commissions for purchases made through the links in this post.