Graphic design contracts – your advice

A few months ago I mentioned graphic design contracts, and you gave some excellent contract tips in the comments. Here are just a few.

Jennifer, of Black Eye Design

Black Eye Design

“We use a custom made contract based on the AIGA one (which can be found here). Theirs is an incredibly comprehensive document that runs to 20+ pages. We found the length to be very intimidating so we worked with our lawyer to develop one that had a similar spirit of fairness to both parties but that is much, much shorter (two sides).

“We designed it so that we only have to sign the contract once with a client (we actually call it a design agreement) and then the specifics of each particular job are detailed in a separate proposal or each project (which also gets a signature).”

Amanda, of Truly Ace Design

Truly Ace Design

“I don’t make my clients sign an actual contract but I do make a contract ‘in the eyes of the law’.

“To make a contract in the eyes of the law you need three things. An offer, an acceptance, and a consideration.

“The offer is your quotation, including any ‘terms’ (you can view the terms as your contract specifics), the acceptance is the client saying ‘yes I want to go ahead’, and the consideration is them thinking about it for a day whilst you send an invoice for the deposit.

“Once they then pay the deposit you have evidence they have considered and still agreed to your terms by paying a deposit. I rarely work without a deposit unless it’s a client I really trust.

“As I deal exclusively via email for quotations, when I quote I have a written record of this ‘contract’ that has been made… I have written evidence of the offer, the acceptance, and then the consideration is evidenced by the follow-up deposit after the acceptance of the terms.

“Does anyone else do it this way? It’s held me in stead for many years, I haven’t had a none payer for about five years now.

“I also think it’s less intimidating than an actual contract to sign. They don’t even feel like they are in a contract, though I know that they are in reality. Plus it’s less paperwork for them… also appealing from the customer’s perspective.”

James, of James Kurtz III

James Kurtz

“I couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer to draft something, and I didn’t trust myself with creating this document, so I decided to go to my local University Law School and ask for help. It turns out they have a business law clinic that helps small businesses protect themselves with contracts and other legal matters. After working with a third-year law student, and one of the professors, I now have a wonderful document for my small business.

“You may benefit from calling your local university to see if they offer any similar services.”

Richard, of Peacock Carter

Peacock Carter

“We work in a similar way to Jennifer: a generic ‘terms of business’ document / contract, and then have a ‘project specification’ defining exactly what we’ll do, and what we need the client to do.

“We take 50% of the project’s cost up-front (although with existing clients / larger projects we’re happy to split the cost into more payments, taken at milestones defined in the project).”

Lauren, of Creative Curio

Creative Curio

“The other benefit to established payment up-front is that it makes sure both the client and the designer have a vested interest in the project. Of course, even this doesn’t always work to make sure the client is serious about the project, but at least the designer gets partially paid for his / her trouble! Too many times my husband has had clients that will pay up-front and then let the project go for six months only to come back and demand it be finished in a day because, of course, he had plenty of time to finish it, being six months later and all.

“Slowly, we learn from our mistakes, and our contracts get longer.”

Thanks very much to Jennifer, Amanda, James, Richard, Lauren, and to everyone else who left advice on my original blog post.

I work in a similar way to Amanda, treating emails as indication that consensus has been reached. There’s no physical signing. Am I leaving myself open to a fall? You probably know better, but after four years in self-employment, so far so good.

If you’re interested in how designers charge their clients, here’s a previous three-parter that I hope is of help:

How 20 designers charge their clients

  1. How 20 designers charge their clients — part one
  2. How 20 designers charge their clients — part two
  3. How 20 designers charge their clients — part three

28 responses

  1. Hi David! Good post!
    I’m a graphic design student from Brazil, and a great fan of your blogs.
    Congratulations on your work!
    From all of the tips listed above, I guess one that Amanda’s is the most risky. Her idea of making the client feel less intimidated is a good one indeed, but once a friend of mine was talking about another way of doing so.
    He suggested writing a contract with a more natural language and minor explanations of the “why” of some clauses. Maybe clients will feel better about signing under something that’s written in a more humanly manner and that tells them why they should agree with it’s terms (briefly).
    And one more thing. Don’t forget to show up here in Brazil! I heard your a great fan of football, so I guess you would enjoy the trip pretty much. Oh, and sorry for the long post!

  2. Great post David. Great timing as well! I’ve just landed one of my biggest freelance projects to date so I wanted to spruce up the contract a bit. I was planning on getting started on it tomorrow as well so its good that you have just made this post. :)

    Looks like I will be referring back to this post tomorrow!

  3. Hi David,

    Thanks for another helpful post with advice from some great designers!

    I recently posted an article here about sections that I include in a design contract with a sample pdf for anyone interested in a reference document.

  4. I use a process similar to Jacob in that I do indeed have a self drafted contract, but I call it a “design agreement.” It is as concise as possible and I haven’t ran into any problems or hesitation from clients so far with my system.

    I find this especially useful when dealing with local small businesses because they seem to “prefer” to sign a contract when hiring me for work to get the ball rolling. It adds a business class touch that many of them are use to using and adds client trust through the formalities. I think self documentation gives the appearance of a freelancer that is much more grounded and established in the industry.

  5. I’ve actually been thinking about contracts at the moment and I like the sound of what Amanda and you do. Only thing is I’m not entirely sure if that way would stand up in court, if things went nasty?

  6. Hi Diego, not having a physical signature (in ink) may pose a risk, and I welcome any advice about the legality of the typed email. In the nine years combined experience between Amanda and I, we’ve been successful with our procedures, but of course there can always be exceptions.

    As for Brazilian football, it’d be great to sample the atmosphere one day.

    Antonea, congrats with the new project you landed. I hope it all works out brilliantly, and thanks for correcting the FreelanceSwitch link.

    Matthew, Jacob, Tjeerd, thanks for adding those links.

    Patrick, where local clients are concerned, I’d be more tempted to show them a printed document with signature field. It’s been a good year and a half since I had any local clients, though. This can work in good and bad ways: good — no unnecessary meetings. Bad — no face-to-face contact.

    Mark, it’s my understanding that any evidence (for possible court proceedings) is relevant, and the advantage of email communication is that everything’s recorded. I still use PDF files for invoicing, and there are terms & conditions stated on those. Downpayment is my indication that everything is agreed upon, but of course I’m always flexible.

    Zachary, Quan Vu, more than happy to help, and Quan Vu, thanks for the kind link on your website. San Francisco has been on my ‘to visit’ list for some time.

  7. Great resource. Something I’m always curious about. I always wonder how other designers do things. A contract of agreement makes me feel a bit more secure although I often wonder if it would hold up in a dispute that went to court.

    Either way it’s good to get things down on paper and make both parties aware of the requirements and responsibilities.

  8. Thanks for the quote, David. Interestingly, we’re looking in to updating our current way of working to prevent problems we’ve encountered recently (in particular, with clients paying via standing order), so this is fairly topical to us.

    Having used a few contractors recently to help complete projects, we’ve learnt a few lessons there, too – I think Michael was planning to write these up in to a post in the future.

  9. Nice post. We are a web development and design company, and we just re launched our company website and looks and we were looking at redoing our prices and we have been going up and down and back and forth for about a month trying to figure out what we should do with our price structure.

    Thanks again for this information.

  10. Thanks, Jared.

    Lee, I think it goes with the territory, and all designers like to know how their competition operate. I hope all’s well in the big smoke.

    Richard, that’s a story I want to read. My projects don’t call for standing orders, but I understand that web development projects and other larger scale ones do.

    Shawn, I hope the site re-launch helps with business.

  11. Thanks for the mention David :)

    Although it doesn’t seem formal, the method we use does create a legally binding contract, and it certainly works pretty much 100% in terms of gaining the right sort of client and avoiding non payment issues.

    Even having to chase clients for payment is rare, the vast majority pay the final bill in a timely manner.

    The massive bonus is that this method avoids putting the potential customer of the deal with onerous (and intimidating) contract signing.

  12. Great post, some helpful tips. Reading the many pages within a contract can be daunting, has anybody ever signed a contract without a reading the contact?

  13. Wow. This is a very useful post. I really like Amanda’s solution and the payment upfront is just something necessary. That of course I also had to learn from my own mistake. :)

  14. My pleasure, Amanda, and thanks for backing up your original thoughts by leaving a comment. I agree, it can be a nice help not having to receive a physical signature from clients, and one I’m sure they appreciate.


    It’s all too easy to pen a form without reading all the print. I know I have. In fact, just a few weeks ago I bought a new sofa, and needed to sign a form in the shop. Did I grant power of attorney? Unlikely, but there’s that glimmer of chance.


    Thank you buddy. Good advice about help from uni.

  15. Hello David,

    We’ve also found that using contracts is also a way of getting clients to be serious about the design process. It’s the ‘yes we really are going ahead with work on this project’ starting gate.

    Thanks for mentioning my comment. :)


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