One of the first lessons that most freelance designers learn is the importance of using contracts. Hopefully that lesson is learned the easy way by taking the advice of others, but for most of us it has been learned the hard way.
Just using any contract is not enough. If your contract isn’t solid or complete it may not prevent the issues that you are trying to avoid.
One contract can certainly be more simple or more complicated than others, and some of the necessities of the contract will be dictated by the size and complexity of the project. But even for small projects there are essential elements that should always be included in your web design contracts.
Most designers go into freelancing because of their love for creative work and the opportunities that are available to help clients. The business-related details almost always take a back seat to the creative work, and many freelancers wind up learning from their mistakes about the importance of certain aspects of running the business.
You can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by simply having access to a few key documents that can be continually re-used on your client projects. In this article we’ll take a quick look at some documents that are critical to freelance designers and 5 important things to include in your contracts.
7 Critical Documents for Freelance Designers
1. Web Design Contract Template
Probably the most important document for any freelance designer is the contract. Most designers have learned the hard way about the importance of contracts, and if you have done any reading at all about running a freelance business I am sure you have read many times about the importance of a contract.
Although collecting a percentage of the payment up front can help to weed out shady clients, having a signed contract is really the only way to effectively protect yourself. In addition to just having the contract, it should be a contract that clearly states the specifics of the project. This includes the details of exactly what you will be providing (along with sometimes covering things that are not included), how much you will be paid, and at what stages payment will be due. You may also want to include details about what is required of the client, for example if you need to get content from them.
The cost of legal services is one of the main reasons that many designers do not use contracts, but spending a little bit to get a good contract can save you time, headaches, and more legal fees involved with trying to solve a dispute later without a contract. The basics of contracts for web design projects are often very similar, so you don’t need to get a contract custom drafted for each project. You can purchase a contract template, download one, or hire an attorney to draft a template that you can use over and over again with only minor adjustments.
2. Website Maintenance Contract Template
In addition to having a contract for providing services for designing or re-designing a website, it’s also a good idea to have another contract for providing on-going maintenance services. Almost every freelance designer provides some type of on-going services to clients, and in these cases the typical project-based contract is not likely to be sufficient.
The maintenance contract should provide a description of the services you will be providing, as well as an explanation of how the client will be billed (An hourly rate? A flat rate per month?)
3. Design Brief
The design brief is a document that is given to the client at the start of the working relationship to help the designer get more familiar with the client and what they need. It will ask some basic questions about the company and it’s products/services, as well as some questions about the project at hand. The answers to the questions will help you to get a better understanding of the client and to know how you can help them to make the project a success.
If you have a design brief template you can quickly send it off to new clients or potential clients, minimizing the time that you need to spend on this stage of each project. You may want to customize the questions from time-to-time, but generally they are pretty basic questions that could be applicable to all of your clients without requiring changes.
When you are ready to make a pitch to a potential client in attempt to secure the project, a proposal template can come in quite handy. With a proposal template you can break out the details of the project into line items so that it shows the client exactly what is involved and what costs are associated with each part of the process. Most clients appreciate this transparency, and it also can help to prevent “sticker shock” that happens when a client sees a higher price than expected.
Additionally, the proposal template also provides an opportunity to present a positive brand image. Whether you are sending a PDF version of the proposal or a printed proposal, having a document that includes your logo and branding helps to present a professional image.
The invoice is obviously a critical document because it is needed in order to get paid! There are a lot of web apps out there that help to create and manage invoices, or you can just do it on your own. Some freelancers use simple Excel templates for invoices, or you can use something that will look a little better with an Illustrator or InDesign file. Like the proposal, the invoice template also provides an opportunity to use a branded document.
6. Project Completion Document
It’s also a good practice to have a simple document template that can be used to get the clients approval of project completion. The purpose of this document is to show that all of the required work has been completed by you, and that you and the client both agree that the project has concluded. It is a simple document, but it can help to prevent cases where a client claims that you never finished the work or that they did not approve of the way that the project was completed.
If you are doing any printing or mailing, stationery or letterhead is also important. Not all designers deal with printing documents or marketing materials, so if you don’t, stationery isn’t critical. However, if you are sending letters to clients or potential clients, having stationery or letterhead that reinforces your brand is helpful and professional.
5 Things to Include in Your Web Design Contracts
1. Scope of Work
Scope creep can be one of the biggest nightmares for designers. A solid contract is probably the best defense against projects that keep getting larger and larger.
Your web design contracts should clearly state the specifics of what services are being performed and what work is being provided under the terms of the contract. You may even want to list some specific things that are not being provided, depending on the situation.
Of course, projects will sometimes evolve and the client may require work that wasn’t included in the original contract. In these situations if you have a solid contract you can charge an additional fee for the new work that has been added.
2. Payment Details
Your contract should be very specific about payment details like the amount owed and when it will be due. There are a lot of different options here, and your contract should be very clear. You may charge a flat fee with a percentage due up front and the rest to be due at completion. Or you may have specific milestones along the way at which payments are due. In some cases you may even be charging an hourly rate.
As you can see, there are a lot of variations when it comes to payment details. Be sure that your contract is clear in case you have issues collecting the payment.
Your payment details can also include information about transfer of files are it relates to the payment. For example, you may want to specify whether final files will be given to the client before or after the final payment has been made.
In most cases your web design contracts will include some sort of milestone dates. On larger projects you may have milestones where you will be paid based on reaching a certain point of the project.
Even on smaller projects there may be milestones that can be set into the contract, such as a target deadline for getting initial information from the client.
4. Responsibilities of the Client
When you are covering the milestones and project scope in the contract, it’s also important to list the responsibilities of the client. This may include providing written content, providing photos or images, providing feedback on mockups, providing users for testing, etc.
As I’m sure you have experienced, a delay from the client can make it very difficult for you to live up to your end of the agreement. If you are responsible to meet certain deadlines it is only fair that the client is also responsible to meet deadlines that will allow you to do your job.
List the responsibilities of the client, and you may even want to assign dates or time frames to when they should be completed. Also mention that your work is dependant upon the client fulfilling their responsibilities.
5. Intellectual Property
Intellectual property disputes are a potential cause of conflict between designers/developers and clients. Your contract should address the issue of intellectual property, who holds ownership, and whether it is exclusive or not.
The Freelance Starter Kit
All of the documents that have been mentioned in this post, and more, are included in our Freelance Starter Kit. The starter kit is our effort to help those who are new to freelancing by offering documents and resources that can save time and help to kick start a freelance design business. Get more information about the Freelance Starter Kit.
This article is intended to serve as an introduction to the topic of contracts for web designers. It is not intended as legal advice and we recommend every designer to have an attorney evaluate their contract or contract template.