Q&A: Do I need a contract for every design project, even small ones?

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In today’s Q&A episode, I answer a question in a way that might surprise you if you’ve been reading GDB for long. The question is “Do I need a contract for every design project, even the small ones?”

If you’re reading this post in an RSS reader or email, click here to view the video.

I’d love to hear your take on the whole thing. Leave a comment here.Screen shot 2013-07-29 at 8.14.42 AM

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. Hi Preston,
    Your video link is not working. Thanks for all of the resources you provide, they have been very helpful to me!

    Tim

  2. Preston and Sarah,

    Thank you for addressing this question. Perhaps taking the time to write up a contract for a small project seems like overkill because you are still charging by the hour. If you charged by the project you could:
    a) Make more money
    b) Be free from time constraints
    c) Never have to communicate “how long” this project will take, rather communicate the end “value” the customer is receiving.

    The value that your work brings is a better judge of price because your customer is benefiting from your skills and hard work, the revenue this project will likely bring in, the reinforced brand that you should be implementing and the overall improvement that you are making for your client’s company. I don’t think an hourly rate reflects all these things.

    Here’s some free food for thought if you are still charging by the hour: http://www.freshbooks.com/blog/2013/06/12/breakingthetimebarrier/

  3. Good point on the time you might spent on short work vs contract.
    Thank You!

  4. I’m an experienced graphic designer. Everything must be in writing to prevent possible misunderstandings. With most clients, I generally only have to provide an understanding in an emailed “scope of work”, which bulletpoints what is included — and what is not — as well as what the client’s responsibilities are (such as supplying finished copy and photos, proofreading, signoff, and payment). A time frame is included based upon receipt of source materials from the client, as well as which final file format is required, and who receives the files.

    Then the fine print can be very quickly added to that email as standard cut-and-paste boilerplate copy. It is generally very similar for each job and covers extra cost items and payment. So, even if the job is cleaning up an existing photograph for half-an-hour, it shouldn’t take more than five minutes to prepare and send off an email that explains the scope of work and that protects the designer.

    Nothing is given for free, unless it involves virtually no time and effort on my part, but it means a lot to the client. That, and the desire to make the client look good to his people.

    I’m not a mindreader. So, extra-cost items or fees always include the unknowns, such as additional layouts or concepts, AAs, changes in scope of work, photo retouching, copy editing, research, endless conferences, any out-of-pocket expenses, rush/holiday/evening/weekend work, etc.

    Likewise, whether by email or contract, final proofreading — including spelling and overall accuracy — and design approval is always the client’s responsibility, and approval must be given in writing (an emailed thumbs-up from the client is fine). For jobs that die on the vine, there is also a kill-fee based upon how much work has already been done.

    Generally, new clients need to pay a third to start, a third as a progress payment, and then the balance within XX days of delivery for print jobs; or upon completion before a Website goes live. Interest charges for late payment is also in the boilerplate.

    Business is business. A lot of protective boilerplate language should be included in any understanding, and it’s quick to add. This is going off-track a bit, but too many designers hate to deal with the business end of their businesses. Clients know that, and too often take advantage of designers. But, clients will take designers seriously if designers are professional and fair in both the creative and the business aspects of a project.

    If clients are unreasonable or unrealistic — if they balk at fair estimates or timeframes; or insist that the designer work for free, on spec, or at greatly cut fees — those are red flags. Don’t do business with those bad-news clients, regardless what they promise. A handshake agreement is only as good as the paperwork that backs it up.

    However, if the designer must live with bad compromises to pay the rent, at least get the job 100% prepaid up front and wait for the check to clear before commencing work.

    BTW, I do build an “aggravation factor” into my fees for clients known to be difficult to work with. But never for the strictest client if he plays fair.

    Apologies for going off on a tangent. But it’s all part of the contract or agreement process. Designers must cover their behinds.

  5. Hi Preston, great video. What are your thoughts on getting upfront payment for smaller jobs? For jobs under a certain amount I request full payment upfront, and thankfully none of my clients have ever had a problem with this. It also alleviates the issue of chasing up money for smaller jobs. :-)

  6. Hey Preston,
    I just recently started following GDB and so far it’s been insightful and helpful, thanks! Regarding the contract issue, I have never actually used a formal contract for any of my projects. I have always documented everything in emails, which in a sense is a contract in itself. I’ve found that sending an email outlining the particulars of the project with the discussed rate and having the client respond with an approval has always worked for me. Larger ($$$) projects are always preceded with a quote sheet that may be a little more detailed, but essentially it’s an attachment to a simple email stating the arrangement. As long as you have a form of documented communication that states what you promise (the design work) in exchange for what they promise (the fee) and upon completion, there is a final approval on the last proof/final files, you should be good. I guess looking back at what I do, it is pretty detailed, but as it unfolds over a series of emails it just seems less daunting than a formal written contract can be. So far I’ve only had one payment issue that involve lawyers. I’d say that’s not bad for over eight years of freelance work.

  7. Contracts are important plus knowing who you are dealing with is another.

    For new clients, have a contract no matter how small the job. It can be something informal as an email, but making sure you get terms of payment and a deposit. If they balk at this, then really… would you have gotten paid if you finished it?

    If you have an existing client, for large new projects, contract. For smaller jobs, at least something written as proof of work needed (mostly for me, it’s an email they sent requesting something). We’ve built a relationship based on trust over the years that they will pay. The take away is BUILT A RELATIONSHIP…OVER THE YEARS.

    Just recently I realized the value of having a contract (new client) Thank Goodness!!!

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