How to put together a freelance graphic design contract

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March 23, 2021
5 minute read

In all the excitement of landing a new design client, sending a contract might not be at the top of your priority list. But it should be. A freelance graphic design contract protects both you and your clients as you work together.

Deciding to work without a contract can be a costly mistake. To help you avoid legal and financial trouble, we look at why you should always work with a legal contract.

Disclaimer: Since we aren’t lawyers, this post isn’t meant to be used as legal advice. It’s written to explain why you need a freelance graphic design contract for your business, plus give you some important topics to discuss when meeting with your lawyer.

What is a freelance graphic design contract?

According to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School, a contract is “an agreement between private parties creating mutual obligations enforceable by law.”

In your freelance business, your contract is a legally binding agreement between you and your client. Once you both read and sign it, the contract has mutual assent. In other words, a signed contract means you both agree to the offer and accept the terms and conditions.

Wait for the signed contract before you begin working. Doing so allows you and your client to collaborate with confidence. You’ll know that your client is aware of, and agrees to, the costs, fees, and project scope. The contract also provides your client a timeline of when to expect deliverables and invoices.

Why do you need a freelance graphic design contract?

Contracts seem so formal, and many freelance graphic designers don’t think they need one since they aren’t a large design firm. Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

All designers should use contracts, even if you’re a sole proprietor. Because while you may get lucky and have a few projects go smoothly, things won’t always work out so well. And it only takes one bad situation to convince you of the need for a professional freelance design contract.

You don’t have to wait for something to go wrong before you start using a contract. Instead, be proactive and work with your lawyer to get one ready before you run into trouble. To persuade you to begin using a contract immediately, here are five important benefits of having one.

1. Ensure you receive payment for your work

As a freelance graphic designer, you rightfully expect payment for the work you complete. And while some clients pay you quickly, others will do everything they can to avoid sending you money.

Those bad clients might ghost you, suddenly disappearing after you’ve delivered the files. Or, they might send only a partial payment, claiming that the rest of your work wasn’t high-quality, so you just deserve a portion of your fee.

You can find tons of similar horror stories online. But the bottom line is, no matter what excuse a client uses for not paying your invoice, a contract provides some legal recourse if this situation occurs.

2. Establish ownership rights

Once you’ve completed work for the client, who owns the rights? Does your client get access to the actual design files or only to the finished product? Can they continue to make changes on their own in the future? And can you legally use this work in your portfolio?

As a graphic designer, you must think about these questions and others related to intellectual property rights.

Typically, the more rights you transfer to the client, the higher your rates should be. You may decide to offer different tiers of pricing, each transferring additional rights. Or, you might charge a premium rate, and release all rights from the start.

There isn’t a single right or wrong decision in this process, so take the time to think it through. Then, make sure your lawyer helps you with the wording of ownership rights in the contract, since it’s an area that often leads to conflict.

3. Avoid scope creep

When you first connect with your client, you discuss their needs and talk about what design deliverables you’ll provide. Knowing what your client expects helps you send over a proposal that’s fair for both parties.

Unfortunately, it’s common for clients to request changes after you begin working. Scope creep is when your client asks you to do something outside of the terms you’ve agreed to without paying you more.

At first, the request might be something small that falls outside of the original scope. For instance, your client could ask for an extra round of revisions or if you could add a page to a document you’re designing.

You might decide that since the changes are so small, they aren’t a big deal. Or maybe you’re worried that if you say no, you’ll lose the client altogether. So, you agree to incorporate the additional work without asking for further compensation.

That could be a mistake.

Because while these small tasks may not take a lot of time, they are still extra work that you’re doing without getting paid for. And, it could get you into the habit of always saying yes to clients at your expense. That isn’t a healthy situation for any business owner.

It could also set you up for some clients to take advantage of you. Once you accept the first few changes without charging extra, your client may assume they can continue requesting additional work without consequence. They’ll be less likely to respect your other boundaries, which can lead to burnout and stress. Doing extra work for free is just one common mistake that freelance designers make.

A contract can help prevent this downward spiral. Ask your lawyer how to use a change order to work with your client when they request changes to the project. While these orders are most common in construction, businesses in many industries use them to document updates to the original project scope.

In your change order, make sure you document the additional work requested and an updated price. You might decide to charge an hourly rate for this portion, or just increase the project total.

Either way, stop working on the project until you hear back from your client. Then, only begin the new portion once you have a signed agreement authorizing the change. This way, you and your client are both on the same page.

If you do decide to accept work outside the project’s scope because it’s something quick and easy, be sure to let the client know that it’s not part of the initial agreement but that you’ll do it this one time as a good-will gesture.

4. Establish an end date

Have you ever finished a project only to receive a frantic email from the client a few months later asking for help? Some companies expect that since they paid you for this work, you’re now at their beck and call to solve any problem experienced in the future.

A design contract can prevent this problem. Make sure you use yours to document the support you offer, and include a clear end date for that support. This can also include specific dates for when you'll present your designs to the client and when you’ll be deleting all files associated with the project. That way, the client knows they have a limited amount of time to download and save everything to their systems before it’s no longer available.

5. Deal with project termination

No one wants to terminate a project, but sometimes it happens. Occasionally companies have something come up and ask to cancel the work. Or a client might decide that now isn’t the right time to proceed and decide to wait until later. Sometimes, clients may even opt to go in a different direction with a new designer.

Additionally, you may need to terminate a project someday. Life can throw curveballs, and sometimes unexpected things come up that prevent you from doing the work you agreed to.

Your contract should clearly state the process and expectations for this event, regardless of who asks to terminate the project or why. That way, you can end the project without burning bridges and have confidence that it was done fairly.

Can I write my own contracts as a graphic designer?

As you can see, having a freelance graphic design contract is an essential part of your business. You really shouldn’t begin until you there’s one in place.

But, meeting with a lawyer takes money. And when you’re first starting, you might be on a tight budget. So, you might try to save money by writing your own contract instead of consulting with a professional.

While your own contract may work well for some of your clients, it can also open the door to legal challenges. That’s because contracts are legal documents and are often written in very precise legal terms. If you aren’t a lawyer, you could accidentally misuse (or neglect to include) these terms, allowing your client to find and use loopholes.

Moreover, self-written contracts are typically simple. You don’t know what you don’t know about potential problems. That means your contract won’t include information to help you deal with those unknown situations. These limitations impact your freelance labor contract’s effectiveness, resulting in you being out of luck if a conflict arises.

So please don’t write your own. It might save you money, but it’s not worth the potential risks.

Can I use a free graphic design contract template I find online?

With a basic Google search, you can find several free contract templates for your graphic design business. But, when it comes to legal advice, you typically get what you pay for.

Here are the three main problems with using a free graphic design contract template:

  1. Not location-specific. Where was the contract template you found written? If it wasn’t in your country or state, it might not include the required state-specific wording needed for complete protection.
  2. Boilerplate language. Free contract templates are written with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. However, your business is unique. A lawyer can help tailor the generic wording to meet your specific needs.
  3. Selecting the wrong contract template. You can find free contracts for just about every type of freelancing business. The problem? It’s very simple to download and begin using the wrong one. You need your agreement to match your business structure and services, so you’ll want some legal guidance to make sure everything lines up.

It’s worth it to consult a lawyer to get a professional graphic designer contract to avoid these problems. According to The Florida Bar, “Only a qualified lawyer can advise you on whether an agreement is binding and what rights or obligations you may have if there is a breach.” A lawyer-designed contract costs more money initially, but if it helps prevent even one legal problem, it will save you a ton of money (and sleepless nights) in the end.

What needs to be included in your freelance graphic design contract?

Now that you know why you need a professional contract for your graphic design business, it’s time to dive deeper into what should be included. Below, you’ll find a dozen things your contract likely needs to have. Bring each one up with your lawyer, and ask how your contract can be made into a template to use with different clients.

1. Basic description of the project

At the beginning of most contracts, you’ll find a quick project overview. This is the place to document which two parties are entering into this binding agreement and a summary of the project. You can often use some of the wording from your project proposal to help customize this part.

2. Project scope description

You don’t want your contract to stop at a basic overview. What services are included in this project? Do you provide copy along with your designs, or will the client need to give that? How many pages is the workbook you are designing?

These types of questions help you determine the project scope. You’ll want to detail this in each contract you send to avoid the dreaded scope creep mentioned previously.

3. Details about the deliverables

There should be a section where your client can see exactly what they’ll receive. It’s the place to detail the specifications for all project assets, including information about the size, format, and delivery method. When you list these particulars, you can both see precisely what is (and isn’t) included.

You’ll also want to have a timeline with expected delivery dates. If you’re working on a larger project, this could also include smaller milestone dates. Then both of you can refer to the timeline to make sure the project is progressing as scheduled. As previously mentioned, you’ll also want to have an end date for your clients to access files stored on the cloud.

4. Client responsibilities

So far, most of the contract has focused on you as the designer and what you’ll provide. However, the design process also depends on some information from the other party.

In this part of your contract, record exactly what you need from your client. Your list might contain specific passwords and usernames, photos, or copy. As you add each item, include any size or format requirements and the deadline for sending it to you.

It’s also important to note what happens to your timeline if the client doesn’t send what you need. That way, the client can’t say that you’re out of contract for being late with the design when you never received the information needed.

5. Payment details

You deserve to get paid for your work. And the client deserves to know what your payment terms are. Your contract should include specific details so both of you can agree to them.

In this section of your contract, work with your lawyer to include information on:

  • The project price.
  • Any deposits required.
  • Any milestone payments to be sent.
  • Your invoicing process, including at what points you’ll send invoices and the payment deadlines.
  • Late fees.

This might seem like a lot, but each part plays a vital role in getting paid on time. And when you’re getting paid, your business cash flow will be in a much better place to keep growing your business.

To help facilitate payment, you’ll also want to include details about your accepted forms of compensation. For instance, some freelance graphic designers accept payment only through PayPal or Stripe. Others accept several payment methods using a more robust service, such as Wave's invoicing software. It allows you to send invoices for free, and receive credit card payments and ACH transfers for only a small fee.

No matter what your specific invoicing and payment terms look like, detail them carefully in every contract you send out.

6. Copyright ownership terms

Since designs are considered intellectual property, as the creator, you own exclusive rights to them unless you are in a work for hire situation. As the owner, you can choose to sell or give away some or all of these rights.

You and your client must know which rights you’re maintaining and relinquishing. By including this information in your contract, you can help avoid copyright infringement problems in the future.

7. Revision details

Once you’ve completed a draft of your design, how many rounds of revisions can your client request? Can they ask you to start completely over if they decide they don’t like what you’ve created?

Your contract needs to include details about your revision process. Many designers offer up to three rounds of revisions. However, you have to decide what makes sense for you and your company.

While you’re thinking about revisions, consider the timeline for this process. How long after receiving an initial design does your client have to request changes? Include this information in your contract, so everything is clear before the revision requests begin.

8. Client approval process

Before you receive your final payment and send the completed assets off, your client needs to approve your work. Who makes that final decision?

If you’re working with a sole proprietor, that question is easy to answer. But it gets more complicated when you’re dealing with a larger company. It’s important to know who your point of contact is and who has the final say in these cases. Since companies might need to go through an internal approval process, your contract should include a timeline that works for both parties.

9. Confidentiality agreement

As a designer, you’ll be working with the confidential information of the people and companies you work with. A confidentiality agreement in your contract can reassure your clients that you’ll keep their trade secrets, passwords, and other personal data secure.

10. Arbitration agreement

If your client disputes something about your work, how will you handle it? An arbitration agreement in your contract can help avoid lawsuits if this situation occurs.

An arbitrator is a neutral third party trained to handle conflicts. While you hope you’ll never have to use one, it’s better to have a plan in place in case something goes wrong.

11. Termination plan

As mentioned above, sometimes clients and graphic designers need to stop work on a project. Having a termination clause in your contract offers protection if this happens.

In this section, detail any kill fees, notice periods, and other aspects of canceling that your client needs to know about. While creating this section, work closely with your lawyer to ensure the wording will stand up in court.

12. Place for signature and date

A contract isn’t legally binding until both you and the other party sign it. However, sometimes designers are so eager to get started that they begin without waiting for the signatures.

Don’t make this mistake, as it means you’re working without protection. Always wait to receive the paperwork in full before you start designing.

Common questions about using your graphic design contract

Now that you have a professionally written graphic design contract, you still might have some questions about using it. Here are five common questions designers have about the use of contracts. Of course, always check with a lawyer for personalized legal advice for your business.

1. How do I get my contract to my clients?

Once you have your contract updated, you’ll need to send it to each client. You have a few options to accomplish this.

Some designers choose to send their contracts through email. If you go this route, you can include a customized note to the client and explain the signing process. However, email communication requires a bit of back and forth. By the time you get it clarified, signed, and countersigned, there will be several emails involved.

If you prefer to keep your inbox clutter-free, you can go with a third-party service such as DocuSign, PandaDoc, or eversign. Each of these companies can facilitate the delivery and signing of your contract for a fee.

You also have the option to physically send a hard copy of the contract to your client in the mail or through fax. Then, they can sign it and return it to you the same way.

You can touch base with your lawyer to see if one method makes more sense for your business.

2. Will one freelance design contract work for all of my design services?

While some designers use only one contract for every client, that may not be the best decision for your business. Some design services are inherently more complicated than others and require additional protections.

Depending on the range of design services you offer, you might decide to work with your lawyer to create multiple contract templates. Then, when a new job comes up, you select the one you need.

Using a contract that’s tailored for a specific design service has two main benefits:

  1. It doesn’t confuse your client. One problem with a more generic contract is that it likely includes information that doesn’t apply to every client. By having multiple contracts to choose from, you can send each client exactly what they need, without pages full of unnecessary legal terms and conditions.
  2. It’s faster to customize. You need to customize each contract for your client before sending it. When you have multiple contracts to choose from, you can start with the one most closely aligned with the new project. Then, you already have a basic starting point for deliverables, client responsibilities, and the other essential elements.

However, even though there are benefits to having different options available, don't try to add or delete sections in the contract yourself. Make sure a lawyer reviews every freelance design contract you use.

3. Do I need to send every client a contract?

Should you always send a contract? What if you’re working on a quick project for a repeat client? Or doing work for someone you know in real life?

No matter who you’re working with or the gig’s size, it’s always a good idea to use a contract. You never know when a design project will go downhill, or when you’ll end up in a dispute with a client—even if you know them personally.

The best way to protect yourself is to send a contract every single time. Even if you don't think you will need one.

4. What if my client refuses to sign?

Some clients might not want you to send a graphic design contract for the work, and may refuse to sign. This refusal is often a red flag that the client won’t be a good fit for you.

Push back, and let your client know that you won’t get started on the project without a signed design contract in hand. If they continue to refuse, politely let them know that they’ll need to find another designer.

5. Can my client request changes to the contract?

Sometimes, clients ask you to send a contract draft that they can propose changes on. If your client requests this, make sure you don’t just blindly sign the revisions sent back.

Always take the time to review the changes, and if necessary, consult a lawyer for advice. There are some areas of the contract draft that you may not mind changing. But there are others where you’ll need to stand firm, depending on the project’s specifics.

Regardless of what gets updated, once you both agree that the contract draft is finalized, make the changes as necessary, and resend to the client for a signature.

Protect your business with a contract

Working without a contract is a risk that you don’t want to take. If anything goes wrong, the contract can help protect you and ensure that you get paid for your design services.

So take the time and money necessary to meet with a lawyer to craft a professional contract. When it’s finished, use it with each and every client. It’ll give you the peace of mind to stop worrying about the legal things and focus on what you do best, creating great designs.