Using freelance graphic design contracts

Design contracts can be an essential part of freelancing as a graphic designer, but when you’re starting out it’s not always clear what to include. Here’s how established designers conduct their businesses, how I’m dealing with potential clients, and a few useful design contract resources.


How others deal with client contracts

I read a piece on LinkedIn where Michaela Shuett asked what to include in a design contract. Jen Giacalone replied with these contract benefits:

“…it helps both you and the client to outline exactly what to expect of one another. Also important to consider is who has ownership of the work. I typically give the client ownership in my contracts but have a clause that says I am free to display any non-sensitive work (including unused ideas) in a portfolio.”

Felonice Margasak recommends the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines. It contains sample contracts.

Jeff Fisher chimed in.

“Always make use of a contract to protect yourself and define the project details for the client. If a potential client won’t sign my project agreement they won’t be a client. Mine is customizable to the specific project requirements and can be found at the link below…
Signing on the dotted line

BoDo (Business of Design Online) allows you to download their information as a PDF: Free forms.

How I deal with potential clients

When potential customers contact me, I make it clear that a 50% downpayment is required in advance, with the remainder to be paid upon completion, and just before final artwork is supplied. Disregarding use of a contract, this helps in two ways:

  1. It provides necessary reimbursement for the time allocated towards researching, brainstorming, sketching etc. before the client receives initial design options.
  2. It makes a statement to those potential customers who expect something for nothing i.e. spec work.

Although I’m in the process of drafting one, I don’t currently have a contract in place. Instead I clarify time frames, costs, and deliverables with clients through a number of emails before the project starts. It’s possible to further streamline my design process, and part of the reason behind this post is to learn from you.

How do you handle things? If you have your own contract available for others to view, or if you’re willing to share a war stories, please do comment. Do you use a contract? Have you been burned without one? I’ll compile your tips in an upcoming resource.

Update: 07 April 2009
Graphic design contracts — your advice.

Meanwhile, here are a few contract resources.

Signature image credit

57 responses

  1. Hello David,
    Great article. – I am a new designer (just started 4 months ago) and have really tried to get clients through social networking, referrals and God knows what else.. behance, flickr, coroflot.. etc.

    But I have found that designing on sitepoint’s 99 designs was the only way I could receive constructive/insightful feedback, and compensation ( i have won many of their competitions..) and build my portfolio and skills. I have started to feel uneasy about the site considering that they could take my design and run but for someone just starting out who needs some extra cash, what else am i to do?

    I’ve got some local clients, but no where near the business I need in order to stay “busy.” – Any ideas on where else to find jobs? I am a big fan of your logo work and the subtlety of your designs, also logoholiks, occulars, and david pache… and follow you guys almost religously.. – Thanks for any insight


  2. Hi David,

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

    We designed it so that we only have to sign the Contract (we actually call it a Design Agreement) once with a client and then the specifics of each particular job are detailed in a separate Proposal or each project (which also gets a signature).

    We’ve had one client refuse to sign, one client that objected strenuously to the clause that we would stop work if their balance remained unpaid after 30 days, and one client who objected to the right to accreditation. We’ve found our most wonderful and respectful clients are the ones who signed it without any problems.



  3. Something to be conscious of in situations when your offering includes specific business strategies (i.e. eLearning), is a non-disclosure/confidentiality contract. You don’t want to go through the whole sales process just to get your idea stolen.

  4. As a freelance writer, I face similar situations when it comes to clients and contracts. I take the approach that there’s no such thing as a dumb question. I’m kind of known for asking a long list of questions, some of them might even seem peculiar, before I draw up a contract. My interrogation usually helps me add important information to the contract so that we both know what lies ahead. For example: I recently wrote a press release for a company that is in deep trouble. They needed someone who could put a positive spin on this really awful situation so that they wouldn’t lose customers. I knew it would take more than the usual couple of hours to crank the release out because I needed some time to comprehend the company’s dilemma. Because of this, we agreed on a deadline for a week after I started writing, and that more than my usual one or two revisions would be required. Also, because of the company’s dodgy situation, and because I had never worked for them before, I thought it would be best to require money up front or in escrow. Having a thorough and meaningful discussion ahead of time has helped eliminate problems down the line.

    As for ownership, much of the copywriting I do is for work that I won’t own. I ask that I can display it in my portfolio, and most people agree to that.

    I never work without a signed agreement.

  5. Hi David, thanks for another great post. Freelancing is something I’m interested in because I can do stuff my own way…and be my own art director…if that makes sense..:)

  6. Good stuff here.

    I’ve dabbled a bit in low end, inexpensive… okay okay cheap… logo design and other stuff like templates for Ebay auctions & sellers stores and the like, and I’ve done okay so far with no contracts. Of course, with these small projects, it’s all been low cost and minimal risks.

    Recently I’ve been encouraged, in part by your own posts/comments, to steer away from spec work and toward either A) just leaving it to professionals, or B) upping my game to work professionally myself.

    The move to embracing design from a more professional perspective brings new concerns like establishing a professional design process (which I’m just beginning to explore really), learning what contracts to use & how to use them etc.

    So long story short – this post is right up my alley. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Greetings David. I actually just started using contracts this past week. It’s been on my list of things to do for quite some time and I’m happy to say that I’m now implementing this important step into my workflow. It’s much more comforting now knowing that I have an extra level of legal protection and a better understanding with my clients of what exactly I am providing for the price, what I am not, and what they need to bring to the table.

    Since I couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer to draft something, and I didn’t trust myself with creating this document, I decided to go to my local University Law School and ask for help. Turns out they have a Business Law Clinic that helps small businesses protect themselves with contracts and other legal matters. After working with a 3rd year law student and one of the professors I now have a wonderful document for my small business.

    You, and your readers, may benefit from calling your local University and see if they offer any similar services.

  8. Great post, David. This is a definite bookmark for me, because it’s an area I’m never quite sure of. I will refer back to this the next time I have a client .

    Thanks :)

  9. I haven’t used contracts in the past & I’ve never had any trouble. Probably because my work was small-time and didn’t have much risk involved for wither party (a few hundred dollars at most).

    However, since business has started to pick up it is beginning to be a concern – So, I’m looking forward to the contract info.

  10. Hi David – Thanks for posting such a comprehensive, relevant article. My experience with contracts has been good overall. Most have been drawn up when setting up freelance with former employers. Although most of my other freelance clients have been on a “trust” basis, as they are referrals and friends/former colleagues. These are usually handled with a signed Quote and a PO #.

    As business grows and I start dealing with people I may never interact with face-to-face, a contract with 50% down and confirmation of full rights to display in self promotion will be essential. Thanks again for putting this together … I will be back often!

  11. Thanks very much, David!

    These days, I was just writing the contract-examples for my web design business and this article helps a lot!

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

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

  13. The other benefit to established payment upfront 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 6 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 6 months later and all.

    Slowly we learn from our mistakes and our contracts get longer. Thanks for the BODO link. I hadn’t found them yet!

    AIGA has a contract you can download, too (I see Jennifer uses it).

    And if you need a laugh today, watch Redesigning the Stop Sign (he should’ve had a better contract!)

  14. Thanks again for this article. I find this very usefull not to be stolen or paid on time as when it happened to me, some weeks ago (very short experience). I guess it’s time to make one.

  15. Hi David,

    I have a similar process to you I believe however I do use a contract. Usually I receive an email asking for a logo design, I then send them a questionnaire, they fill it out and get it back to me, I send them a proposal and a contract, I ask them to deposit 50% and sign the contract and send it back to me, I then commence the design process and upon completion before final work has been given I request the final 50%.

    If it is a small job such as a flyer, rather than say a logo design, I wouldn’t bother, it just doesn’t seem worth it… instead I just ask for 50% deposit up front, that way we both have a retainer to fall back on.

    One thing also, I never mention the word ‘contract’, I always use the word agreement.

    James also had a good idea about going to the law section at uni for help… I may look into that.

  16. Sean, starting out in any business always takes a lot of effort. Expect to work longer hours in self-employment. At least until you’re set up. You’re probably well aware. I recommend steering well clear of logo design contest sites. Have you done any door-to-door selling? It’s not easy, but can help drum up local business. I hope it works out well.

    Jennifer, thanks for the link and insight. “Agreement” does sound a bit friendlier.

    You’re very welcome, Jeff.

    Peter, I’ve come across quite a few clients requesting confidentiality, even after the work is complete. Good addition.

    mari, excellent approach. I make it clear that clients shouldn’t hesitate if any questions whatsoever come to mind. Interesting about escrow. I’ve never used one.

    tif, should you decide to take up self-employment, do let me know if I can be of help.

    AzAkers, great to see you welcome encouragement to avoid spec work.

    James, that’s a coincidence. I can understand the extra comfort level they give, as most eventualities should be clarified from the start. Thanks for the tip about your local uni.

    Doug, I hope there’s some info here that helps.

    Daniel, no worries at all. Cheers.

    Nout, likewise, and best of luck with Warewolf.

    Richard, that’s a good point. I ask for that initial 50% from all new clients, but I’m more flexible with those I have worked with before. Then you’ve had that opportunity to build more trust.

    Lauren, the ‘vested interest’ point is certainly valid. I can empathise over those clients who disappear for months, only to return and expect immediate action. You’re very welcome for the BoDo link. Cat, of NO!SPEC and Designers who Blog, put A LOT of work into it.

    Gerardo, good luck.

    Jacob, for smaller jobs, flyers, etc., I agree.

    clement, glad you like the colour change. I think it’s a step in the right direction.

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

  17. hi david,
    This post of yours and also the comments were what I have been looking for. Most of the works do come from refferrals on “trust basis” as Daniel said. So i was wondering whether to implement contracts and how.
    A timely post. Thanks a lot to you and all others for the insightful info.

  18. Hallo David,

    first want to say how I much I like to read your blog. Doing that for a few months now! Thanks.

    I am thinking of getting some freelance work in addition to my employment. Who knows, if it goes well, may be I will just freelance and be my own boss, manager and slave :)

    Question of contract is a good one, I also ask myself if I will need it. Does it make an impact on the client, make you look more established? Or is it just for your comfort? Because I don’t really believe it can assure safety – if a client doesn’t want to pay he will find a way. The function of “weeping out” potentially unstable clients is interesting though!

  19. grafic7,

    Glad to be ‘on time’ for you, and yep, the others have been very helpful by adding their own insights too.


    Thanks a lot for reading. Regarding your question, it makes an impact on clients in two main ways. First, they become more clear on exactly what they’re paying for, and second, it shows them you value a smooth working process. Requesting a downpayment goes some way to securing full compensation.

  20. 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. Consideration is enough consideration to make the contract valid.

    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 to them 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 customers perspective.

    Sean – advice on keeping busy as a designer, this is how I do it;

  21. I agree with you on getting partial payment upfront… In the past, I’ve asked for one, but things were quite relaxed (she was a nice girl) but the project itself dragged out, and it ended up taking me almost 6 months to get anything from her. We didn’t have a contract, so we never set a schedule for her to get text to me. Bad move.

    I think you have to be really strict about asking for it upfront. In another example, the client was dragging his feet, and I was excited about the project and did some work on it. I then told him how beautiful it looked and how happy I was with my initial mock. He asked to see it and I said, “Not until we sign an agreement and I get my 1/3”. (I do 1/3 upfront, but maybe I should ask for half? i don’t know?). It’s amazing how fast he paid then!

    I definitely recommend both a contract, a schedule (for both parties… so if they have to prepare text, it should be done by a certain date, and if they miss it, your deadlines should be pushed back appropriately), and partial payment upfront.

  22. Amanda,

    Fantastic insight, thank you. I was a little unsure about the points you brought up, even though I knew how important those confirmation emails can be. I completely agree that simple email back and forth is less intimidating than actually putting your signature to a ‘contract’. So far so good with me too.


    If you’d feel more secure asking for a 50% downpayment, go for it. A lot depends upon the total cost of the project. If it’s many thousands you might split the payments into more than two.


    Glad you can appreciate the discussion.

  23. I’ve been writing up my own contracts and then have a lawyer review them but it takes up a lot of time and money, thanks for the links because now at least I know where I can get some forms that are ready to be edited for more than just graphic design. This is a ton of info and tips too, thanks. It’s like you opened up a folder of your bookmarks for us.

  24. Hey David,

    Thanks for a really great article. Your posts make our web world a better place.
    I know this does not belong here but your new design is looking really neat.

    Best Regards

  25. Hello everyone,

    Yes a contract is an essential part of freelance work as I have learned the hard way but sometimes the client who might run a small business asks me, can we do this thing on trust? If you have worked previously with the client then it is ok to work without a contract.

    I think it is best to always go for professional help while drawing up contracts. A few dollars apend here is a few dollars gained there.

  26. Now this is great, because I’ve been looking for articles and advice on contracts for awhile. Now this may be a very dumb question, but when doing business with a client that found you over the internet and cannot meet locally, it’s best to send a contract via fax? I assume that is the correct and best way to get the signature from the client, but I do not like to assume. I want to make sure everything correct, because I rather have everything perfect or if not the closest thing without flaws. Again thank you for your advice and thoughts on this subject.

  27. Farid,

    Glad you like the new design. Thanks for letting me know.


    It’s definitely a must that you have experience working with a client before basing your relationship solely on trust. Absolutely.


    I believe that as long as you have documented your agreement in writing (be it via email or fax) there’s a level of protection. Please bear in mind, however, that I’m no expert, but my email communications are always stored, which helps make me feel more at ease.

  28. Deisng is a legitimate business, not a hobby. Sometines we need to educate clients about that.

    I have been burned a couple times when I was fresh out fo art school and inexpereinced.

    Now I always work with an agreement and a deposit. I try to keep my agreements as simple as possible. This isn;t always the case as witha larger project, but I try to keep the langaue simple and communicate in a clear fashion.

  29. Reading your article and the responses from other readers gave me a better idea of what to do with my own clients with regards to contracts. I’ve had bad experiences in the past where the client cancels after I’ve already done much of the work.

    Thanks for the insight(s)!

  30. David,

    First off, I love your whole approach to your business! You have an admirer in Atlanta!

    Secondly, I’ve been using contracts for about 4 years. I find it is important to be upfront with my clients during the first meeting.

    1. The design process will not begin without 50% deposit
    2. My “invoice agreement” has to be signed by both of us.
    3. There is a clear consultation communicated to the designer

    I also use email as a liable contractual document. However, a hardcopy contract leaves no room for the “i haven’t checked my email”s or the “I miss understood”s. When a contract is signed by the client in front of you, the client is stating that they everything that’s on that sheet of paper is understood.

    I’ve watched enough tv court shows. lol


  31. Contracts are generally a good idea, but let me give some perpective from the other side of the table. As someone who hires freelancers often for small projects, the “hassle factor” is a big consideration for me – in other words, how much work will it take to do business with you?

    The freelancer I work with most often is a guy who I can call up on a moment’s notice, give a brief description of the assignment, and then expect to get an e-mail within a few days with some great ideas. The invoice arrives with the finished product. No contract. As much as I love his work, I’m not sure I would hire him if it required an exchange of contracts – especially because any contracts would require review from our corporate legal group, which could take a week or more. Putting 50% down would be an absolute deal-breaker because there’s no way I’m having that conversation with the people in accounts payable.

    Keep in mind that I’m talking about relatively small projects, not a 6-month, multi-step rebranding of an entire company. In that case, I would insist on a contract. My point is that there isn’t a one answer to whether or not to use a contract – even for the same designer. You might protect your rights for Project 1, but never get a Project 2. Always consider the dangers, not just the benefits.

  32. Thanks for adding your take, Lawrence.

    From a designer’s perspective, with first-time clients, receiving a downpayment is an absolute must. Of course, once trust has been established, I’m perfectly fine starting new tasks or projects before payment is received. To work this way from the beginning of a new working relationship is a mistake I’ve learned from.

  33. Lawrence

    Regarding smaller projects…I am somewhat in agreement with you.

    If a client has a good history of payment and we have worked together before, I can waive the 50 down payment. I still will write up a simple agreement of what is required and expected from both parties, even if it is a paragraph or two.

    Contracts can be modified to the project.

    A designer that gets burned by a client once learns real quick to work with some form of agreement, letter of intent or contract.

  34. Wow, thanks for all the information. I just lost my job a few weeks ago when the company I worked for went belly up. (New ownership…. bad idea right now). Anyway, I’ve just started freelancing a bit, and I’ve no idea how to bill or what kind of down payment or pricing to ask for. I never dealt with that before, just did the work and got a paycheck. I’ve only done a few jobs, but I made the mistake of waiting to talk about money until the jobs were finished. I haven’t been burned yet, but I could tell that it was awkward for my clients, and it was risky and un-professional of me to do business that way. I realize now, that no matter what kind of budget you’re working with, weather or not they pay upfront , there needs to be some way that both parties agree to terms of some kind. I appreciate everyone’s comments and suggestions on how they cope with the problem. I’m pretty sure you all have saved me from learning the hard way! THANKS!

  35. I signed a contract with a client who is turning out to be extremely difficult. We agreed on X number of web pages, which has now quadrupled (with 3 revisions, and in two languages – doubling the work).

    The 8 pages looked differently on a PC than on a Mac, so he got upset. I found the glitch (Google Analytics had removed some of my HTML), and went to upload the new files and cannot log in. He changed the FTP and web host passwords so I am unable to continue working, and is not responding to my calls or emails.

    What can I do? Any advice? I really hate working freelance lately, I’ve been burned so many times – clients who sign contracts then change their mind, clients who say they want X when they really want 10000X, etc. -Fed Up.

  36. Hello there

    Some how I found your site and I have to tell you that it is great.I bookmarked right away :-)

    I also just started freelancing and having trouble with creating contracts what I can use with my clients.

    Can anybody share theirs? A Sample ?
    I went through so many websites but all those samples does not seem real.
    Can you share yours ?


  37. David,

    Thank you for sharing your site and experience. I have been using a very simple contract with terms taken from the AIGA contract, though it is one page, very simple and honestly if I ever got in a bind I don’t know truthfully if it would help or not. I should probably have it reviewed by a lawyer.
    I call it a contract/proposal and I understand the feelings against using the term ‘contract’, but my concern largely is more on the proposal aspect. Now this is not always the case but I have in the past provided a logo to a company with the expectation that we will build off that logo, only to find (partially due to my not being a web designer) that they take the logo and either use other providers to incorporate it into their marketing, or slap it on a website that has no similarity or consistency to the logo. I would like to get more into the branding aspect of logo design and am looking for ways to incorporate that message into my proposals. Thanks again for the resourceful site.

  38. You’re very welcome, Mike. How you position yourself and what you show in your portfolio goes a long way towards what work you attract. This is something I talk about in my book, and something I’ll be giving much more attention once the book is launched (and when I have more time).

  39. My inspiration for developing my own design contract was all the bad clients I’ve had. I followed the AIGA document and just picked parts relevant to what I needed to cover, then I re-worded the terms to suit my own needs.

    Mike, you can always do the same thing with your contract. Just add the parts you need to cover and then you can always add your own based on your working experience. I am also thinking of running my contract by a lawyer just to get his/her legal advice and suggestions.

  40. It’s an old post now, but I had to add my voice here as this and the other contract articles (linked above) have been so useful to me the past few years I’ve been in business. Having left a design job to go it alone, I have found myself returning to this article over and over again. Helping to remind myself to make sure I’m getting paid and keep it professional, even if the work I’m doing is for people I know well.

    With your books and blogs, it’s a great service you offer to the design community. Much of the wisdom and advice you have given has certainly been priceless for me, and I’m sure has helped many designers build and sustain their businesses and careers. Thanks David.

  41. Hello David. Thank you for all the resources and information you make available to other designers. You have been a tremendous help to me!

    I see this is an older post, but maybe you can point me in the direction of another post that might answer my question. When submitting an agreement to a client via email or Dropbox link, what do you accept as a valid signature? Do you require clients to print, sign, scan/mail and return? Or do you have a more efficient method?


  42. You’re very welcome, Eric. I send clients a PDF with my terms and conditions, asking them to confirm agreement in an email reply. I don’t know how much help that would be in a legal situation. Thankfully I’ve never needed to find out. But I think it helps with client expectations, and if expectations are at the very least met, well, that’s good.

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