Common mistakes designers make with clients – Part 1: Not signing a contract

Working this clients can be a difficult task. With lots of training and practice designing logos or web sites and very little practice or official training on working with people, it’s easy for us to make serious mistakes when working with clients.
Today, I’d like to start a new series where we discuss a number of common mistakes designers make when working with clients.

Mistake #1 will be (because it’s one of the most common ones I see) not signing a contract with your clients before starting a project with them.

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Why is this such a terrible mistake?

Due to the nature of this blog, you can imagine the kinds of emails I get from designers. I love getting emails from all of you and I love helping you with your concerns as you build your design business. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t blog about it all the time and I wouldn’t have taken time to write a book about it.

But as I help other designers solve problems on a regular basis, I’ve noticed that a good majority of the problems they face could have been avoided altogether if there was a solid contract in place.

Signing a contract is a preemptive attack

Everyone knows it’s better to avoid a problem than to try to solve it later. That’s why not signing a contract is the most important mistake to avoid-because it will help you avoid so many problems in the future.

What should I include in my contract?

But signing a contract before starting a project together is only helpful if your contract actually helps you avoid trouble in the future.

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So what should you include in your contract so that you can avoid as many future problems as possible?

Here’s a few ideas and tips I have accumulated over the years (Please note that I am not an official legal consultant. Please consult with a legal professional when drafting official contracts and similar documents.):

  • Definition of scope. What will the project include? What happens if the client decides he wants more than the defined in the contract. This is perhaps the most common problem I see when I help designers with client problems: scope creep.
  • Deadlines and timing. When does the project need to be done? How often does the client expect to be updated? What happens when these deadlines are not met or change. Also, be sure to include what deadlines the client has. If they don’t get you assets by a certain day, you shouldn’t be held responsible to still hit your deadlines.
  • Means of communication. Most designers don’t know they can include this in a contract, but it’s very important. How will you communicate with your client? What’s their official email address and telephone number? This comes in handy in a court hearing. If you tried to communicate via the official, agreed-upon means and they didn’t respond, you’re less liable.
  • Payment. How soon after (or before) delivery of the final product will your client pay you? Will there be a down-payment? Will there be a penalty for not paying on time? At what point will the payment be turned over to a collection agency?
  • What else should designers include in their contracts? There’s a lot of information I have left out. Help me fill it in by leaving a comment on this post and telling us what important aspects you include in your contracts.

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  1. One thing I would add is to designate an official point person if you are working with a company or corporation. For instance if you are working with a team of people on the project and you send an email requiring feedback to Jim, one member of the project team, and Jim doesn’t respond, what do you do? If the team is made up of Jim, Susie and Tony, and Jim doesn’t respond, Susie or Tony could say they didn’t know that you were waiting on feedback and now we are behind schedule. If Tony is the designated point person, in case of a dispute, you can always point out that you contacted the official point person and did not get a response.

  2. Rachel et al, I’ve been in this business quite a while and what you really describe is a formal “Proposal”, (this sounds better than a Contract). In the proposal there is a schedule and description of everything that is to be done, how and how many included in the presentation, how any additions, subtractions or revisions are to be handled. Time frame for each phase.
    On billing; if this is a new client (without referral), a fee schedule should be set. If this is a regular client, you might agree to a payment after major segments are completed, (this will avoid submitting large invoices and delaying the approval process). Remember that a Proposal / Contract works both ways, so be careful as to what is written, innocent mistakes can be costly for all!
    A Proposal usually is different for each assignment, this is why many skip this important step.

  3. Like Saffron says, the transfer of copyright is also very important along with the fact that you can put it in your portfolio or not. Sometimes this isn’t allowed, and so I would usually charge more for these occasions. After all, putting an interesting project in your portfolio usually attracts new clients.

    Interesting lecture indeed.

  4. Well-defined contracts are a must! Here are some of my additions:

    1) Description of the client – this helps reiterate to the client how you perceive their business.
    2) Description of the expectations – very important! It really helps to make sure both you and your client understand the parameters and feel of the project.
    3) Price, and a clearly defined point at which the price goes up. If you’re quoting per project rather than per hour, clearly define when extra charges will be incurred and what that price change will be.

    Thanks for the article, Preston! I’m looking forward to the series.

  5. Great article! Can’t wait to see the rest of the series. 🙂

    Clause #1 on all of my contract is the Independent Contractor clause. I am not your employee. You are not my employer. This is really important here in Canada (and probably Universally) because if that isn’t stipulated in the contract and it’s a big job that keeps your bills paid for a while, the Government could insist that the client pay expensive taxes and contributions like Old Age Pension and Employment Insurance. Without that clause, it’s up to the Government whether you’re Independent or not — scary idea.

    Then your standards: If the client cancels, If you cancel, Act of God, Transfer of Copyright (what gets transferred when, what doesn’t), Repayment of costs (especially if you use templates or stock imagery).

  6. Hey,

    in my opinion its really important to define the rights of use. National, worldwide, which media is included, and so on. And of course that the copyright belongs to you. Although many think this is obvious, I would always recommend adding it.

    If you are working on a “service contract”, your client should sign your final piece. Otherwise he could come back again and ask for a relaunch. At least this is the present law in germany/austria. Thanks to my accountant who gave me this tip.

    I got a really good book in german about contracts and I guess there must be some similar literature in english as well.

  7. In our opinion, a contract should also include a summary of the client’s responsibilities towards the project to avoid things like…’oh I thought you were supposed to write the content for us…?’.

  8. Thank you for the wonderful post

    Sounds interesting

    this blog is very nice
    and thanks for giving such a wonderful knowledge.

  9. You couldn’t have started this series at a better time! Just two days ago I got a call from someone wanting a “quick illustration” to go on a tshirt for a marathon. As a favor, I quoted them a very low, flat rate thinking I’d just quickly be painting a little character, scanning and emailing it over, done. Since then the client has come back for multiple revisions, adds on, requesting different variations for different uses, etc. I had no idea a standard logo project is what I was getting into and now I feel it’s too late for a contract!

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