Contracts For Creative Freelancers: What To Include + Why (2018 UPDATE!)

Contracts for Creatives: What to Include and Why. Click through to read →

Please note: This post was originally published in April 2016 but has been updated to reflect my current client contract (January 2018).

While I'm not a lawyer or someone who has much legal experience in any way, I do have 5+ years of client project success to back up how I create and handle contracts for my design services.

What's significant about my approach is that the contract terms are short and easy for my clients to understand, my contract process is simple and efficient for everyone involved, and it sets a professional tone for the rest of the project.

Today I'm outlining why you need a contract for your creative business, how and when to introduce it, what to include AND my favorite tools for creating, sharing and signing contracts. 

Ready to see just how easy contracts can be?

Plain and simple, contracts are there to protect both you and your client.

Here's a quick peek at my contract workflow:

For each service inquiry I receive, I set up a meeting with the lead to discuss design needs and project scope. We agree upon a price estimate and timeline, then I write it all up into a contract.

I find it beneficial to send over the initial invoice at the same time as the contract so my clients can take care of both items at the same time.

As soon as the contract is signed and the invoice is paid (and not a minute before), I send over my project prep checklist* which includes a list of questions that we'll go over during our project strategy call.

*I know a lot of people opt to send out client "homework" at this point, which you should look at as your intellectual property. It's super important to keep this protected until after your client makes their first payment, and also make sure your client knows you can't start any design work until both the deposit and contract have been taken care of (cuz if you start design work and your client ghosts you, that time you put into the project means you lose out on both time and money).

So, what information should you include in your contract?

Now to the fun part! Here's exactly what I include in all of my contracts:

First and foremost - It's important to never address yourself as "I" or "me". This holds you personally liable when you really should be separating yourself as much as possible from your business (even if you're operating as a DBA or LLC). This is definitely a mistake I was making when I first started my business! Now I simply use the term "Company" in place of "I" and "me".

Project Scope - This covers who the client is, who my business is, what deliverables the client should expect by the end of the project, the project estimate and what the charges will be for any work requests that fall outside of the stated project scope.

Schedule + Deadlines - I use this section to write out a week-by-week timeline for the project and make sure to include what will be happening design-wise each week, along with when payments are due. This section also lets my clients know that I can't be held responsible for a missed deadline if the client doesn't do his/her part (like supplying website content in time or signing off on work that I send over).

Communication Guidelines - This covers my studio hours and lets my clients know how they can contact me if they'd like to set up a time to chat. I also use this section to list out how I'll be contacting my client (including their email and phone number) and let my clients know the general timeframe I'll need to hear feedback from them (it's 5 days), as well as what will happen if they fail to send a response within that time frame. 

Pause Clause - This is a newer section to my contract which lets my clients know what will happen if they fail to send any sort of deliverable (feedback, content, etc) within my 5 day time frame. My Pause Clause simply states that the project will be considered on hold if anything is more than 5 days late and that a reinstatement fee will be added to the invoice each time it happens. Another thing I note is that the project will be rescheduled based on whatever my current availability is at the time of their reinstatement payment.

Payments + Estimates - This section outlines my payment plan (including invoice amounts and due dates) and reminds the client that the initial payment serves as a non-refundable deposit that must be paid before the project is confirmed in my design calendar, as well as that a late fee will be charged if payments aren't made on time.

I also use this section to let clients know that I can't deliver any final work until all balances are paid, and that the initial billing price could change if there are any costs incurred once the project starts (such as fees for extra revisions or late payment fees).

Refunds + Cancellations - Plain and simple, this portion lets my clients know that I don't offer refunds for design services since it's customized work, but that my clients are free to cancel our project at any point. I also let them know that any outstanding work must be paid within a certain time frame and what will happen if they fail to pay up.

Revisions + Alterations - In this section I outline how many rounds of refinement come with each part of the project (i.e., logos get 2 rounds, marketing items get 1 round, etc). I also use this opportunity to let clients know that excessive revisions will cause their project estimate to go up in cost (I do this at an hourly rate) and that it could cause a missed completion date.

Content, Errors + Omissions - This part basically outlines how it's the client's responsibility to provide the things I need to complete the project, and that it's the client's responsibility to perform a final proof for grammar and technical accuracy on anything I design for them.

Originality + rights of ownership - This section is a little bit longer since it holds a lot of information about my work and what's to be expected from my client after our project is over. 

I use this portion to make sure my clients know that they will always receive original and unique work from me and that ownership and rights to use my work remain with me until all fees have been paid (including any fees incurred after the project starts).

This section also lets my client know that only the final designs belong to them, and that I retain ownership and rights for any unused concepts. I also reserve the right to showcase or publish the final designs for studio promotion and marketing, even after ownership has been transferred to the client.

Lastly, I use this section to remind my clients that the information and content they provide needs to either be owned by them, or they need to have expressed permission to use the content for our project.

Contract Term + Termination - This part just says that the terms in the contract will continue until the project is either completed or terminated, that the client is able to cancel at any time and then I give a final reminder that any payment made up to that point will not be refunded.

To finish up this section, I include the governing law for the contract (this is most likely the state you live and work in) + what address any legal or formal notices should be sent to for both me and the client.

Signatures - Then we both date and sign it! BOOM.


**A couple of things to note:

  • Something you might want to consider for website design projects are terms that let your client know if you plan to include a design credit in the footer that links back to your website. There are a ton of differing opinions on the subject, but if it's something you generally add to your client sites I advise creating a section that explains this to ensure everyone is on the same page (some people stipulate that it can be removed for an extra fee).

  • When drafting your contract, headers are your friend! Headers will help your clients make sense of the information being presented to them and I want your clients to be as happy with your contract process as mine are. So just remember: a good, bold header will never do you wrong.

Drafting your contract shouldn't be hard or overly complicated, and neither should creating, delivering and signing it. 

Here are my favorite tools for creating, delivering + e-signing contracts:

  1. Google Docs + SignRequest (free) - with this option you simply draft your contract in Google Docs then use the SignRequest add-on inside of Google Docs to add your signature lines. Check out this tutorial for full instructions.

  2. You could also use a program like InDesign (go here to download a free 7 day trial) or Adobe Acrobat (free 7 day trial here) to create a document with your logo and contract terms, then simply export it as a PDF and use a program like EchoSign or Docusign to add in signature fields and email to your client (both of those programs come with a free trial period).

  3. And lastly, you could use Dubsado* which is my tool of choice for creating + sending contracts. Dubsado is actually a super dynamic tool that helps you manage projects from top to bottom (capturing leads, sending contracts + invoices, getting paid, creating client portals + much more). Check out their full feature list here and use this link* to get 20% off of your first month :)

    *Affiliate link - This means I may earn a commission (at no additional cost to you) if you click through this link and make a purchase.

**This may seem like a no-brainer, but to save time during your contract workflow I recommend creating a master template that you can duplicate and customize for each new project**

Final disclaimer:

I am not trained in legal matters and this post is not a substitute for working with a professionally trained lawyer or professional.