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5 Contract terms that will keep you safe as a freelancer

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Contracts are one of the most talked about and most written about topics on freelance and design sites. It’s no secret that we should all have them and use them. They protect us and they protect our clients and keep everybody happy.

When I started freelancing it didn’t take long for me to be convinced that I needed a contract. I felt like it was being beaten into my head from every other designer I talked to: “Use a contract!”

Rightly so.

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Something that wasn’t nearly as easy to find out though, was what to put in it. I knew I needed a contract, but what should it say?

I struggled with that question for quite a while; until I watched a talk that Design Director Mike Monteiro gave on the topic. He explained a lot of the key contract concepts that a good agreement should include. To keep you safe, to keep your client safe, and to make sure that both of you know exactly what is expected of you, even in the case of a project that doesn’t reach completion.

This article is only going to cover some basic concepts and explain how they work. You should of course talk to a legal professional when it comes to the actual process of writing the contract. I don’t aim to replace your lawyer, just make it easier to tell them what it is you need.

If you’re serious about learning all about contracts, you should also read Contracts for Creatives here at Millo.

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Quotes, Revisions and extra charges

Define what is included in the quote. How many revisions and options are included and beyond that, what will be the charges for more work. Having this nailed down from the beginning will avoid the awkward conversation when you are on revision 99 and start feeling like you’re losing money.


A deposit is an amount (often a percent of the total project estimate) that is paid up front, before you begin work. This is a great way to gauge how serious your client is about a project and gives you a level of security. ( A client who doesn’t want to pay a deposit might be one who’s going to fight you on the final bill as well. ) If you never work without a deposit, you will always get paid, even if a project falls through. This bring us to the next point.

Kill Fee

Including a kill fee in your project insures that you get paid for your work even if the project falls through or the client cancels it. The kill fee is often the deposit, or it can also be the deposit plus the cost of any work completed above that amount. This will make sure that excuses like ” we got someone else to do the work” or “we didn’t end up using what you made” don’t leave you with empty pockets.

Intellectual Property transfer

By default you own anything you make. It’s important to work out with the client who will retain ownership of the work. If they are buying or leasing rights from you, the contract needs to say when the rights are transferred (ie. after final bill is paid in full) and how much is being paid for those rights. If they are only buying display rights and not ownership that should be spelled out as well. How much is being charged for display in what medium for how long, etc.

Payment deadline(s)

Depending on the project size and length you should set a payment date or schedule and define it in the contract so you and the client can agree to it and stick to it. Get it in writing and it will be a lot harder for clients to stiff you on payments than if it’s just a verbal agreement.

With all of these the idea isn’t to get a legal advantage over your client. The goal is to have an agreeable plan for you and your client no matter what happens. It sets expectations from the beginning, and that keeps you both happy

Have a contract idea that I didn’t cover? I’d love to hear what you guys are doing to keep clients happy and yourself safe.

Comments here.

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About Ben Brush

Ben Brush is a graphic designer working and living in Nova Scotia. You can view his work on his website. Find more posts by Ben on his graphic design blog Design Puffin or connect with him on twitter.

Leave a Comment



  1. I’ve added to my website design contracts a condition for making sure it doesn’t drag on and on. Many developers have experienced this: you are finished with the site design and coding, but are waiting on the customer to provide all the content…and waiting…sometimes for months. To prevent a job from hanging on way past its prime, my extra clause states that after 30 days beyond the finished design, the client will be charged $100 per week until they have held up their contribution to the site completion (all details also spelled out in the contract). Each one has been agreeable to this, and I’ve been able to put projects to rest in a timely manner. Yay!

    • Neil Keller says:

      There is another aspect of this…to protect yourself as designer — if a client and you have agreed upon a completion date whether flexible or mandatory, but the client has been dragging his/her feet in providing necessary content, you need to include language that such delays may jeopardize the required completion date, and you (as the designer) will not necessarily be held responsible to adhere to it.

      Perhaps language that says something like for every day’s delay in providing content necessary to complete the job on time, one business day will automatically be added to the required completion date. Other language can be added that rush, weekend or overtime charges will apply, if it is still possible to make the original due date.

    • Shelley Arthur Taylor says:

      A great idea to keep projects moving along. I can’t believe that it is working so well for you. I know what most of my clients are like and I’m not certain that they would be in agreement. I’m going to give it a try though. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the tip Cathy! I’ve run into this situation a few times and I can see how charging would help speed things along.

  2. I am trying to draft a contract for a volunteer project, and i am having a lot of trouble coming up with wording for transfer of rights. Normally it’s when final payment is made, but if it’s volunteer then no payment will be made. So how or when are the rights transferred?

    I seem to have my design contract pretty solid, with everything i want. Its just so hard to transfer it to a volunteer project, and there are no resources for volunteer projects either. Any suggestions or ideas or advice would be awesome!

  3. Neil Keller says:

    Designers, especially those who don’t like client confrontation, will benefit from having all contingencies in writing, including the project fee; detailed scope of work; payment schedule (typically 1/3 to start, 1/3 midway, 1/3 at the end plus expenses); out-of-pocket; rush/weekend/holiday work; AAs: changes in scope of work; what the client will own or license, and what is not upon completion and payment in full.

    Major outside costs, such as printing, should be contracted directly between the client and the vendor so the designer is not out of pocket or responsible for non-payment or slow payment. (And if the vendor doesn’t approve the client’s credit, that’s a sign the designer should be wary of working with this client).

    If a client refuses to provide a deposit or otherwise agree to fair terms, walk away. You’ll only have grief with this “client”. Except for trusted, long-established clients, request a deposit to start (typically 1/3 up front to start; 1/3 additional about halfway or so through the project; and the final 1/3 upon delivery or within no more than 30 days after acceptance. Out-of-pocket costs for materials or services are typically added on to the final payment.

    To avoid conflicts, confusion, and needless fingerpointing, there should be just ONE point person client-side who provides changes and approvals. All changes and approvals MUST be in writing; if verbal, by written understanding of the changes to the client.

    The only thing the client is entitled to is the return of any of his original materials (such as photographs, reference books, or product samples) and the final art in the actual format required scope of work. This can be in the form of, say, retouched electronic files, interactive PDFs, functioning Web pages, or offset printed pieces. Intermediate steps, notes and alternate layouts or concepts, layered “master art” files, the designer’s application software and fonts are not transferable.

    For example, if the project is created in QuarkXPress/Illustrator/Photoshop, but the requirement for delivery is high-resolution PDFs, then (aside from return of the original client-supplied materials) only the final PDFs are delivered. No XPress/Illustrator/Photoshop files. No fonts. No software. No retouched photos or separate graphics.

    It’s a lot easier, and friendlier to merely point out a line in the signed contract to resolve any questions than to get into a heated dispute at the end of the project.

  4. Great article! It is also important to make sure the client understands that they are responsible for making sure the content is accurate, that there are no spelling errors and that they have permission to use, or, own any artwork or images that they provide for the design.

    • Neil Keller says:

      Absolutely! The client must be responsible for final proofreading, legal approvals, photo rights, etc., and must sign off on the job. Even an emailed “OK on the final art for the new product ad” is fine.

      But be sure that you are dealing with one person in a position of responsibility, so he or she can’t say, “Oh, Jason was not authorized to sign off. And now you are responsible for the costs of redoing this.” I’d far rather deal with a client’s, “Sorry we messed up and we’ll give you corrected copy in the AM.” Then you, as designer,” can be the hero trying to help the client get the mud off his or her face.

  5. Good article. When I first started designing websites I didn’t bother with contracts. Although I never got burned, I came to the conclusion it was something I needed to do. Projects were getting bigger and more money was involved. What I now use incorporates the things you mention above.

  6. Jodie Lapchick says:

    I always assumed kill fees were primarily to cover other work you may have turned down in order to accept the job you’re accepting, should it then get cancelled.

    • Neil Keller says:

      A client cancelling a project is a risk we all face. It’s an interesting point. Thinking about it, I could see possibly adding a cancellation clause in your contract, with some nominal amount as a penalty fee, much like a store’s “restocking fee” should you change your mind after the purchase of, say, a TV. Maybe 5-10% of the contracted fee?

      But, getting back to the kill fee, it’s a fair fee to charge the client for work actually completed to date for a specific project, if the job is “killed” or simply stalled. I’ve had jobs put “on hold” with no resume work date forthcoming from the client. At that point, I send an invoice, mark it “kill fee” with the note that “should the project resume within 90 days from [date], full credit for the work done thus far, will be applied.”

  7. Great article, something I hadn’t thought to much about as a newbie to freelancing but will definitely look into this. Does anyone have any examples they can upload to get a idea.



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