The biggest mistake designers make with contracts – costing time and money

Imagine you’re a web designer (maybe you are one) and a client comes to you and says something like:

“After looking through your portfolio, we’ve decided we’d really like to hire you for our next web design project.”

The client then proceeds to give you all the details of the job and you’re stoked.

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You can’t wait to get going on the new project so you jump online, review your portfolio, pick a previous project you’ve worked on, and copy the design exactly, changing out the logos and other small details for your new client.



Who in their right mind?

Today’s discussion is not about designers who duplicate past projects and offer cookie-cutter design.

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We’ll save that for another day.

What today’s post is all about is contracts.

The biggest mistake designers make with contracts

And the reason I brought up my fictitious story to start the post was to illustrate a point.

Just like you would be crazy to copy an old design for a new client, you’re crazy if you think you can just copy and past your old contracts for new clients.

The biggest mistake you can make is thinking that a contract that worked for “Client A” will always work for “Client B,” “C,” or “Q.”

It just doesn’t work that way.

I know…

I know that writing contracts is hard.

I know it’s not very fun.

But it’s a very important part of business.

And it certainly merits more of your time and energy than just copying, pasting and hoping for the best.

So what should you do instead of copy and paste an old contract for a new client?

How to solve the copied contract problem

Here are a few ideas:

1. It’s ok to copy portions of your contract that make sense for your current situation.

If you always require 50% upfront, copy that section of the contract.

If you never allow late payments, copy that too.

But make sure that, if you are copying portions of an old contract, you know exactly what you’re putting in the document and what it means for you and your client both.

2. Hire an attorney.

If your business is to a healthy point where you can hire an attorney, your problems can be easily solved.

You simply tell your attorney what you need out of the agreement, what the deal terms are and presto, they write up the contract for you.

If you’re on the fence about it, think hard about budgeting for legal help. It can be well-worth your time and money.

Remember, for every minute you’re working on contracts and other legal issues, you lose a minute working on finding new clients, building your business, and doing what you love: designing!

3. Keep it simple.

When all else fails, keep your contracts simple.

You don’t always have to use flowery legalese to get your point across.

The purpose of a contract is to have a document with clear expectations that both parties can agree upon.

Don’t overcomplicate it, get stressed about it, and definitely don’t let the fear keep you from writing up contracts at all.

That’s death if something goes wrong.

Say no to copying contracts

Do you agree? Do you think you’re better off avoiding the copied-contract syndrome? Leave a comment on this post and let me know what you think!


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  1. Always work with a contract, that’s a must. But you must also assess each client differently when it comes to terms. Some jobs are different size, difficulty, stakeholders, etc. Things that make sense in one contract may not in another.
    I use a boilerplate contract and decide in the initial consultation and subsequent conversations whet needs to go in the contract for each gig.

  2. I am currently in the middle of a lawsuit with clients that have not paid. This is my second suit, and I am extremely confident that the outcome will be in my favor. Why? Because I very clearly outlined the costs and terms of business in the proposal, the contract, and each of my drafts. While having a solid contract does not automatically mean that every client will pay you when you want, it does mean that should you have to file suit, you will be very well-prepared.

  3. To tell you the truth I’ve never worked with a contract.(OMG!!) Well I actually see now how important it is to protect my work. I got pretty scared a couple of months ago when I made a bad choice: I sent the source files before receiving the final part of the payment. After weeks waiting for the money to arrive, it finally did and everything turn out to be a big misunderstanding. That was close!
    So… I’m now trying to put some decent document to use as a base doc. I have some doubts though regarding the use of these documents. How often do you guys use them? I mean I understand that big projects are more easy to quantify but what about small bits of work from known clients that takes maybe 1 or 2 days to accomplish at the most? Do you write a contract too? Very helpful blog @Preston D Lee

  4. This article sums up so many designers, I have actually worked with a few that do exactly what you are describing.. I think one of the key things to being successful in this business is to not duplicate websites or even copy little elements. Clients come to you because they want their OWN website.. they want it to be unique.. Thanks for the great post.

  5. Hey Blender people!

    I suffered tremendous headaches in my first years as graphic designer because of a lack of a contract/agreement. Time and money lost.

    I’ve had the pleasure of being mentored by a couple of people who contributed an infinite amount to my career. One of those contributions was a contract/ agreement. The legal terminology was drafted by an attorney, and then there are job-specific terms that vary for each client. The drafting of each contract is fast for me and its great to work in peace knowing my bases are covered.

    This is a great article!

  6. I utilize a working foundation which includes legalities and such but do modify elements of each contract so that it properly represents the project at hand. Along with signing the contract and retaining a deposit at that time, I do go over ALL aspects with a client and then have them initial a line that says they understand the terms etc. I also cross reference the contract content with a design faq section on my site. This has worked very well and reflects a commitment on both parts (designer & client) so they understand how the process unfolds, what I will be presenting as well as their responsibility.

  7. For those who can’t afford an attorney to help with a contract / work agreement, AIGA has one that I’ve been told holds up in law quite well. The problem I have with their contract is that it’s way too long. I don’t want to be losing prospective clients because I’m boring them with 10 pages of legal mumbo jumbo for a small project. I suppose it does have it’s place though with larger projects however. I’ve found that borrowing from existing agreement forms and implementing my own pieces and wording makes for a more easy to digest contract. Thanks for the read Preston.

  8. Contracts are always good policy and there can, and should be, some standard clauses that protect you and the client contained within it. I’ve found it best to practice presenting the contract to prospective clients before you meet with them. Mentioning it to them during the initial meeting so that they understand the major points it describes, avoids future misunderstandings.

  9. I agree! I put all of my “boilerplate” language into one large “sample” contract and had my attorney review it. Once approved, I had a lot of different sections that could be copied or adapted to fit the situation at hand. Of course, it would be ideal to have him write every contract for me, but I don’t usually have the time or money to do that for every little project.

    Copy-and-paste can get you into trouble in many situations, so it’s crucial to re-read every single word before sending it.

  10. I think it is possible to have the same contract tagged onto the end of every proposal. I prefer to call mine Work Agreement rather than contract. It’s important to include separate information about web work and print work if you’re designing for both these disciplines. Ask a lawyer who’s familiar with the design industry to create the terms for you. Some argue that contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. I sleep peacefully knowing I have myself covered and believe it’s more professional to include a legal terms and conditions. 🙂

  11. I completely agree with this.

    Just as we tailor our proposals, cover letters, and even resumes at times, we should always tailor contracts and agreements with our security and the clients security and understandings in mind.

    Great short article.

  12. I actually have a standard contract that spells out the terms that everyone has to agree on: deposit, late fees, cancellation, etc. But in the Project Scope, that is filled out for each client individually. And while the rest is K.I.S.S., the scope is detailed but in wording everyone understand. Who is responsible for each part and what is provided for the finished project. I have never yet had a client that asked for changes to the original contract but have had to make Change Orders for them. And yes, anything that changes from the original requires a Change Order and a signature. I won’t get burnt that way ever again.


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