Best Practices for Freelance Design Contracts
Freelance designers often need to teach themselves some legal skills to tackle the delicate moment of creating or signing a freelance design contract. Doing things right can save you a lot of money and headaches. The best way to learn is, as usual, from experience, but there are a few “tricks of the trade” that you can apply from the very beginning: legal mistakes to avoid, negotiation tips, and the opportunity to copy from the best.
Start from a designer-friendly template
If you have the chance to have the client sign your draft, don’t waste it! Make sure you use a contract that’s favorable to you as much as possible. The best way to ensure this is of course to have a lawyer review it for you, but there are many examples out there already used by professional designers that are definitely a great starting point:
Website + Identity Contract – Complete and lawyer-vetted service agreement.
Web Design Contract – Plain-English version of design proposal and agreement. Very popular!
Designer Sample Contract – Short and flexible contracts from a veteran freelancer.
These templates are also a good reference point in case the client wants you to sign his own draft. It is likely that you will be handed something that’s really good for them, and very bad for you. How can you tell? Read everything closely before signing, and compare the terms with designer-friendly contracts. If there are major differences, ask for changes or walk away; this is not a good deal.
In any case, never start working without a contract. If the client needs some time to submit the paperwork to his/her boss, move the start date forward and minimize the risk of working for peanuts.
Don’t assign the rights to your work before you are paid in full
This is the most common and lethal mistake when selling creative services. Make sure that the contract you are signing covers this by looking for these words: “upon completion of the services and conditioned upon full payment…” as in this clause:
Upon completion of the Services and full payment of all invoices, the Designer shall assign IP rights to the Client. These IP rights include all ownership rights, including any copyrights, in any artwork, designs and software created by the Designer and incorporated into a Final Deliverable, except as otherwise noted in this Agreement.
Break-up pricing in milestones and deliverables
While this is common practice for long projects, it can be a winning approach for the smallest design gigs as well, particularly if you’re working with a client for the first time. Why risk endless revisions and misunderstanding? Break down the projects in small tasks and check with the client at every milestone. Once the client approves, be clear there’s no going back without some extra fees involved. This is also an advantageous situation for the client, who can save time and feels in control of the direction of the work.
Don’t forget the kill fee
“We just hired someone else” “We don’t need this anymore” “We don’t have the money to finish this.” Heard these excuses before? Then you know how bad it feels to have hard work thrown away, not to mention the monetary part. Maybe you even turned down other projects for this, and now you’ve lost time and opportunity. The kill fee will save your ass(ets) in all these cases by simply stating that, if the clients cancel the projects in advance, they need to pay you a certain sum. For example:
In the event of cancellation of this assignment, ownership of all copyrights and the original artwork shall be retained by the Designer, and a cancellation fee for work completed, and expenses already incurred, shall be paid by the Client. Cancellation fee is based on the hours submitted, if the project is on an hourly basis or a percentage based on the time estimate for the entire job. A 100% cancellation fee is due once the project has been finished, whether delivered to the client or not. If the project is on an hourly basis and project is canceled by the client, the client agrees to pay no less than 100% of the hours already billed for the project at the time of cancellation plus a flat fee of $250 or 50% of the remaining hours that were expected to be completed on the project, whichever is greater.
Disclaimer: This article wants to be useful and informational, but keep in mind it is not legal advice and all the legal documents cited are only to be used as a starting point. Don’t forget that legal stuff is important, and a good lawyer can help you review these examples and tailor them to your particular project and local laws. The author, DesignFollow, Docracy and the original authors of the documents cited disclaim any liability connected to the use of these material without a licensed attorney.
Bio: Veronica Picciafuoco is the Director of Content for Docracy.com, the home for free, open source legal documents, socially curated by the communities that use them. She has a legal background and works closely with tech startups and freelance designers in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, and Tumblr.