The second most boring possible subject involved in being a freelance designer would have to do with design contracts. The most boring are taxes. Whoopee. But contracts are essential for the operation of your business. This write-up isn’t meant to be a full contract tutorial, or a complete list of things you need to include in your contract. There are many write-ups out there that already do this and you can find them in the Resources I list at the end of this post.
Why You Need a Contract
Almost every freelancer has a story where they did a bunch of work for a client and then never saw the money. Or they did work that wasn’t remotely related to what they wanted or anticipated on doing for a client. Or a client disappeared halfway through the work never to be seen again. It’s not a remote possibility for a freelancer to find him/herself in a situation where their client has different expectations. It’s also, sadly, not rare for a freelancer to get stiffed on a project. Nothing would make designers happier than if all their clients were good clients and there was no such thing as late payments or payments that never happened. But take one look at The World’s Largest Invoice, and you’ll realize this happens every day. While having a contract won’t guarantee that your clients go from flaky to awesome, it will give you a base that outlines what you and are not responsible for and how you want to be paid.
Contracts aren’t one-sided documents either. They aren’t all about you and getting you what you need. Contracts should be a fair agreement between you and your clients so it should tell them what they can expect from you, in how much time, for how much money, and describe some contingencies in case things don’t work out well–whether it was because of a delay on your end or theirs. In general, a design contract should include detailed information about who is responsible for what, the timeline, the scope of the project, the fees, amount of revisions available, how the project will be deployed, copyright terms, warranties, maintenance agreements and many more. Remember, this list is lacking in some necessities and details that you can pick up at places with more dedicated write-ups on design contracts such as The Design Cubicle and Tuts+.
Don’t Make it Painful
While contracts aren’t the most exciting of topics and most people don’t relish on reading or signing them, they are essential pieces of the project as a whole. You can help make your contract less of a chore to go through by passing on the legalese and write it in something both you and your client can understand because if both of you understand exactly what’s in the contract, there’s less chance of one of you accidentally misinterpreting it. Now, just because you’re presenting a contract written in more casual terms doesn’t mean your contract isn’t a serious business tool. You don’t want an intimidating contract, but its purpose as a business document should not be understated or compromised. 24 Ways has an excellent example of a non-intimidating, casual language contract that you can use as a reference.
Sign the Contract
Freelancing brings some wonderful rewards, connections and friends. I know you’ll do a good job. You know that you’ll do a good job, but your clients don’t know that yet. They have to trust you, based upon the reputation that you built around your previous projects. Of course, if you’re first starting out with nothing under your belt, it can be intimidating and downright terrifying when you approach a client with your contract in hand and ask them to sign it. After all, there’s a stigma out there that contracts are “unfriendly”. But there’s nothing unfriendly about a document that’s meant to protect both the designer and the client. Having both of you sign off on the terms will only help solidify the importance of the project and your professionalism as a designer. Never start a project until you get the contract signed and do not make concessions on your contract unless absolutely necessary and this goes for you as well as your client.
Big Dogs Play Different
Depending on who your clients are, you might not get a chance to present your own contract. Small business, start-ups, non-profits, and one man operations don’t usually have specifically written design contracts to hand off to you. So when you’re working with smaller organizations, you’re more likely to be able to sign a contract without involving any lawyers while working directly with your clients to set the terms that both of you can agree on. When you get to larger organizations, things change–sometimes for the better. Sometimes not. Large organizations can be fun to work with, but when it comes to contract negotiations, things you wouldn’t think you’d have to worry about crop up. For one thing, you might find yourself in need of a lawyer who speaks to their lawyers because, as a very wise man once said, “lawyers speak to lawyers”.
If you’re dealing with a larger company that presents you a contract, go over it with a fine toothed comb. Ask for legal advice if there’s anything you don’t understand or aren’t 100% clear on. A lot of freelancers avoid hiring lawyers because of the idea that lawyers cost a lot of money. But think of the scenario you’d have to deal with otherwise when you’re working with someone else’s contract. You could come out with a portion of the contract money going to your lawyer, but you are otherwise paid and happy. Or you could discover halfway through the contract that you violated a term you missed or didn’t fully understand that could get you in a ton of trouble with your client. If you aren’t sure whether you need to lawyer up or just need to ask a small legal question related to the design industry, try My Lawyer Gabe, a site set up by aforementioned very wise man and his very wise lawyer.
In the End, It’s About Your Work
While being good with your contract negotiations is fabulous, remember that at the end of the day your contract is a small part of the whole and getting a contract signed is only the beginning of the work. It makes sure important details are outlined on paper and it helps to guarantee a fair and level playing field for you and your client. It’s a serious document, and it’ll be up to you to live up to your promises because once you sign that contract it’ll be time for you to do what you’re really good at: Making awesome things.
The Design Cubicle – Has a general list of items you should include in your contract.
Tuts+ – A detailed list of some of the essentials items on a contract.
24 Ways – A pleasant example of a concise but casual contract.
My Lawyer Gabe – Friendly legal advice about the design industry.