Should repeat design clients have to sign a contract?

For today’s post I have a very intriguing question and, frankly, I’m not sure I know the best answer.

In a freelancing forum recently, I came across someone with this question:

“Do you use a contract for every job, even if it’s a repeat client?”

The question really got me thinking about the best way to approach this sort of situation and I wanted to pass the question on to you to get you thinking too and also to hear your solutions.

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Leave a comment on this post and tell me: should repeat clients have to sign a new contract with each new project?

Why I would say “no”

To get the conversation started, here’s what I think: if they’re a repeat client–and I mean new projects every few weeks, not new projects every year–and have been working with you for a long time, they probably deserve a little bit more trust.

With that being said, contracts aren’t just there to ensure everyone’s honest. They also establish guidelines for the project and make sure all parties are on the same page for each new project.

If you decide your repeat clients don’t have to sign a new contract every time you work with them, you should probably have a blanket contract (one that you reexamine every year or so) that explains the terms of your relationship.

Why I would say “yes”

I’m a huge advocate of contracts. You know that.

I have been taken advantage of one too many times by clients and I have decided that I will never work on a design project without a contract again.

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Does that mean I have to draft up a 100-page document? No. Sometimes the contract is one page. Sometimes it’s 3/4 of a page.

But I always have a more successful project when we’ve come to terms of agreement before the project ever starts.

It allows me to explain deadlines, needs, costs, and expectations–things that, in my opinion, need defined for each new project whether the client is new or not.

So what do you think?

Well, where do you stand on this issue? Should repeat design clients have to sign a new contract for every project you work on together? How do you work with repeat clients? Leave a comment and enlighten me. I’d love to chat with you about it!

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  1. I got around the problem of getting clients to physically sign and accept a contract by stating in my contract and accompanying email, “downpayment infers you accept my job specifications (along with my terms and conditions) and have read them and are in agreement with them.”

  2. To sign or not to sign… I say let sleeping dogs lie, especially when a handshake agreement has been working well for years!

  3. I think a simple deliverables, schedule and price sheet would be good for everyone to feel comfortable. It also shows the client you are putting your name on the line too.

  4. This article definitely caught my attention. I’ve always asked myself this question too.

    For me, it usually depends on the client and on the project. I have 2 different contract types. One for logos/graphic/print designs stuff and the other for web designs. Now if I get a client that wants a website but has only signed a logo contract, then I’ll make him sign the web design one too. As the contracts a little different.

    However if that same client orders more print stuff, well I guess it depends on how much money is involved. If it is just $100 – $200, then I usually don’t bother (I probably should though). Anything higher I may have them sign one, just because so much money is at stake and I’ve been burned before on that front.

    Where I find myself having a harder time is when I get past clients coming back to me, before I started doing contracts. I already know their trustworthy, that they’ll pay the money. Should I really make them go through that hassle?

  5. We treat all jobs the same, even if it’s with a new or existing client, they ALL have to sign a contract. Each contract equates to each job. Yeah some clients make a bit of noise about it but we try our best to explain, we treat everyone fairly and it won’t be nice if another client found out that we didn’t let someone else sign a contract for a similar job.

  6. Of course they sign a contract. The only circumstance in which they don’t is if they have you on retainer in which case they’ve prepaid to have you on standby. That’s much rarer these days than when I started. Handshake agreements aren’t an endangered, but in fact are a dangerous species that will bite you without warning and may infect your client base.

  7. Yes, always, except when… Not a crystal clear answer here, but when I definitely lean more toward yes (when in doubt, cover your own ass).

    There are always going to be exceptions, though. One way to I try to avoid the question, so-to-speak, is to just anticipate the needs of a repeat client. For example, I have a client, a nightclub owner, that uses me to design their promotional materials. But since they are not always responsible for that (sometimes a club promoter, DJ, or a sponsor will handle it), there isn’t a consistency to when I’ll be asked to create something. What I do know is, that anytime the bar owner himself needs to get a poster done, he will call me every time. So, I wrote up a contract that was specific to the design process, price, but general on dates/times. “I will deliver 1rst draft within 48-hours of request, $xxx for one sided poster/flyer, $xxx for 2-sided, blah, blah, blah…” Then I included a statement that this contract is valid until a specific date (it was a one-year contract). Once the contract expires, we’ll write it up again, allowing me the flexibility to raise rates if appropriate.

    So, in short, if you anticipate a client becoming a repeat customer, think about at least writing up a general, long-term contract.

  8. I have a “boiler plate” contract that each client signs ONE TIME. Then, each individual project is only estimated on a one-sheet in writing. Here’s how they work together:

    The contract includes the passage, …”Each individual project is estimated in writing….all Estimates incorporate the terms of this document.” In other words, each estimate is SUBJECT to the terms of my “boiler plate” contract.

    Each estimate also contains the phrase, “This Estimate is subject to Terms of Service…”

    So while the client only needs to sign the contract ONE time, they are in fact agreeing (“re-agreeing?”) to it every time they sign each new estimate. And naturally, I won’t start a project until they agree to the estimate in writing.

  9. Common sense tells me when and when not to draw up a contract, with clients we already have an established relationship with based on trust, it’s not usually necessary unless the project is a large one. With new clients who we have no previous relationship with it goes without saying a signed contract is in both our interests until such time that an establish common trust is built up.

    Nod is right about the nails by the way, should’ve retouched those babies :-/

  10. Man, the nails of the girl on the pic are horrible!…

    But yes I agree, No professional should work without a sign contract.

  11. I’d just say “yes.”

    With a repeat client, I’ll usually be a bit more lenient, as all of my project proposals have an “overview contract” on the second page that explains everything in layman’s terms. There’s a dotted line at the bottom for them to sign if they want, but also a disclaimer stating that verbal or written confirmation via email is legally binding from this point out.

    That usually covers the bases enough for me without worrying about hassling my “frequent flyer” clients.

  12. I would say it really depends on the client and how much you know them (i.e. how much trust has been built up).

    In my own experience, I have some very loyal and honest repeat clients who really appreciate quick “processing” with regard to projects. They send new work each month, and negotiating/signing lots of paperwork can just frustrate them more than anything and delay the work. For these, I usually just have them give written approval by email of the quote. Of course I still always get a deposit, no matter what. Once I have deposit in hand, THEN I start working!

    On the other hand, I have some clients that, while still valuable to work with, will most definitely take advantage of me if I don’t put absolutely every detail in writing. Usually their motives are not evil, they just don’t quite understand how a design process works (e.g. why they can’t keep piling on requests for free). So those get the whole 9 yards… multi-page contract listing absolutely every deliverable, due dates, payment terms, etc.

    As an added note, I’d say that my success as a freelance designer so far (5 years now) has been due in large part to my customer service skills and ability to read people. I think these are skills ever freelancer should hone. I treat each of my clients a bit differently, and I often make allowances to ensure that their experience working with me is as pleasant as possible…which means they’ll come back! Of course that doesn’t mean I undermine my values and basic needs, but a little flexibility goes a long way!

  13. This is one of those situational examples for me.

    I have a repeat client that gets the exact same thing every bimonthly-ish, just with a different theme of their choice. For this I drew up one contract at the beginning, we agreed on the terms, and we use that ‘default’ contract for all of the projects. (In retrospect I should have defined a length of time for the contract to be good, but if I said I had to raise my pricing reasonably, they would have no problems with it.)

    They also have other projects from time to time and we generally don’t work up a contract for those, either, but we have in writing (email), what the cost is, what the work is, and the time-frame. So it’s a VERY informal contract but the details are all worked out. I have always been paid on time from them, so I trust them completely to pay their bills. They really are an excellent client and I truly cherish our relationship.

    With other clients, especially ones that I have to bug for payment, I like to have a signed contract on-hand for each project. For clients who tend to have scope-creep, I also make sure each project is well-defined, and usually break down the design work into chunks…i.e. contract for the identity, contract for the website, contract for the marketing brochure, etc…instead of all of it in one bundle.

    Finally, I work with a design agency who requires a contract from me for any work I do for them, but it works out really well for the both of us. This keeps all the ducks in a row for them and for me.

  14. I am not sure there is a right or wrong answer to this question. I think it really comes down to the scope of each project. Technically, even when I am printing a $40 business card order for a client, they are signing a contract when they pay the invoice which states: Payment denotes APPROVAL of artwork (file name listed) and ACCEPTANCE of Terms of Sale (link listed).

    Like you said, not every job needs a specific contract. I like the idea of creating a blanket contract and having them sign it once a year to cover most jobs and then maybe a specific project addendum if needed.

    Thanks for another great article!

  15. For larger projects I would get my repeat clients to sign a contract, but for smaller ones I usually skip it. Also at times I include project deliverable in an email (if the project is small) and ask them to reply by stating that they agree to the terms. For large print jobs that involves thousands of dollars I do have a contract singed. I have heard of a few cases where the client runs off with the print job and never pays for them, had this happen to a friend of mine that got stuck with 25k worth of print materials (repeat client too).

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