Contracts For Creative Freelancers: What To Include + Why
While I'm not a lawyer or someone who has much legal experience in any way, I do have almost five 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 setting up contracts can be?
Plain and simple, contracts are there to protect both you and your client.
For each service inquiry I receive, I set up a meeting with my [potential] client 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 that 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 client questionnaire and details for the rest of the project*.
*This might seem like a no-brainer, but I always make it abundantly clear to my clients that I can't start any design work until after the contract has been signed (plus payment of the non-refundable deposit). A major part of my design process is my client questionnaire, not to mention that it includes information that is my intellectual property, so I like to keep it protected until after the client makes a paid commitment to the project.
Most importantly, my contracts are something that everyone involved can check back on at any point to reference if there's a question about what the project is supposed to include, what the agreed upon deadlines are, payment expectations and much more.
Now to the fun part! Here's exactly what I include in all of my contracts:
Project scope - this covers who the client is, who I am and what deliverables the client should expect from me by the end of the project.
Schedule + deadlines - this goes over how important meeting deadlines will be for the project to be successful and states that I can't be held responsible for a missed deadline if the client doesn't do his/her part (i.e., supplying website content in time or signing off on work that I send over). I also write out a week-by-week timeline for the project and include what should be happening design-wise each week, along with when payments are due.
Payments + estimates - this part 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 client is actually put into my design calendar. I also use this section to let clients know that I won't send any design files or deliver any other work until after past due balances are paid, and that the initial billing price could change if there are other costs incurred (such as needing to pay for extra revisions).
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, and that all payments reflect how much work has already been put into the project. If we're halfway through a project, that means 50% of the invoice should be paid. If the client cancels after that point, it means I've still been paid for the services I've performed and that the payment can't be taken back (since I've already done the service). With the exception of the non-refundable deposit (which my clients know up front can't be returned regardless of if work has actually been started or not), I set up my payment schedule so that all payments reflect how much work I've put into the project. I explain why I require a non-refundable deposit for all projects in my FAQ.
Revisions + alterations - I outline how many revisions come with each part of the project (i.e., logos get 3 revisions, marketing items get 1 revision, etc). I also use this opportunity to let clients know that excessive revisions will cause their project estimate to go up (I do this at an hourly rate) and that it could cause a missed completion date.
Content, errors + omissions - this part basically outlines that it's the client's responsibility to provide me with the things I need to complete the project (filling out the questionnaire, sending over website copy, etc), that it's the client's responsibility to check for grammar and technical accuracy and that I can't be liable for errors. I let the client know that if errors are found after the final approval that extra costs can be incurred.
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, but that it also means the rights to my work remain with me (unless we negotiate an "All Rights" purchase). The client can't use anything I create for anything outside of what's stated in the contract, and that I must be contacted if the clients wishes to do so in the future.
I use this section to remind my clients that the information and content they provide to me needs to either be a) owned by them or b) they should have permission to use the content. I also state that I reserve the right to photograph and publish the work I create for my own promotional and marketing items.
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 that any payments made up to that point will not be refunded.
Signatures - then we both date and sign it!
Something else I want to point out is that HEADERS ARE YOUR FRIEND! Much like how I bolded the different points above, headers will help your clients organize and make sense of the information being presented to them. And let's be honest, most of the time contracts are (accidentally) broken because they're just too hard to understand. I want your clients to be as happy with the contract process as mine are, so just remember: a good, bold header will never do you wrong!
Drafting your contract shouldn't be hard and overly complicated, and neither should creating, delivering and signing it. I've listed my favorite tools below:
MY 3 FAVORITE TOOLS TO CREATE CONTRACTS:
InDesign is hands down my favorite tool for creating contracts. It's as easy as adding your logo, text boxes, inserting a couple of lines for signatures and exporting it as a PDF. I love how InDesign helps you line up your content with guides, resulting in a clean, nicely designed product. If you don't already have InDesign, you can go here to download a 30 day trial.
Word document programs are also really good for drafting up contracts. I have Open Office, which is a free program. Make sure you add in your logo at the top, then type in the rest. You can export this as a PDF as well.
Adobe Acrobat is another software program that lets you create PDFs. With Acrobat Pro (also available for a 30 day trial) you can insert images, text fields, signature fields and much more!
With all of these, though, you'll have to upload the PDF to an electronic signature/content management system, outlined below:
TOP 3 TOOLS FOR SHARING + SIGNING:
Before we talk about uploading PDFs, I'll tell you about the current platform I use for contracts: 17hats. I first started using this app to organize client projects, but it also comes with contract delivery and e-signing, so I moved all of my contract work to this platform. This isn't a free service but it certainly helps me keep everything in one place!
A program I used to use was EchoSign. You just upload your PDF, add in signature and date fields, then follow the prompts for it to be sent to your client. It's very easy to use and I never had any complaints or questions from clients when using it! When researching it again, though, it seems as if the program isn't free anymore - but you can get a 30 day trial and test it out to see if it works for your needs or not :)
Docusign is another program just like Echosign and claims to be "the most widely used electronic signature" platform out there. It works the exact same as EchoSign and also comes with a trial period!
And here's the all-important disclosure: again, I am no legal expert and if you take my advice as your sole reference when creating a contract, you're only doing yourself a disservice! Please research, research, research and even use actual legal help to approve and refine your contract before implementing it with an actual client. As with any advice you get from any blog, the blog writer can't be held responsible if something goes wrong or ends badly on your end. This is all about setting you and your client up for protection, so don't take it lightly!
With saying that, I'd love to answer any specific questions you have about contracts and clients, so be sure to leave them below or shoot me an email to keep the conversation going!