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The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Simple Graphic Design Contract

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After weeks of long days and espresso-fuelled nights, you’ve finally finished the design project of your life. You send it to the client, who adores it, and then… nothing. You reach out, then you reach out again, and not a peep in response. With a heavy heart you realize that for all of your time and effort, you have nothing to show – no compensation for the hours you put in and no final design to share with the world. 

Of course, not every artist has experienced this, and in an ideal world, no one would. Clients are people, and as such, they usually treat those they work with respectfully. Even so, these types of situations still happen all too often in creative professions. Without a simple graphic design contract, artists are left to fend for themselves when their clients don’t follow through on their word. By clearly detailing the expectations for a project at the get-go, you can rest assured that if issues arise, it’s not just your word versus theirs; you have legally binding evidence on your side. 

Importance of Graphic Design Contracts

Design work is inherently risky; it’s subjective, which places artists in a vulnerable position. Without a written agreement, all sorts of problematic situations can arise. First, the client could refuse to pay. Whether they don’t like the work, claim it wasn’t what they asked for, or they disappear altogether, the result is the same – your efforts go uncompensated. Another potential pitfall of working without a graphic design contract is scope creep. This occurs when the requirements for a project change after it has begun, piling additional work onto the designer that they never agreed to in the first place.

Not only does a simple graphic design contract protect the artist from industry risks, it also demonstrates professionalism. A well-made agreement shows that you understand how business relationships work, you respect a contract, and most importantly, it tells the client what to expect when working with you. The artist isn’t the only party taking on risks; the client is dedicating time and money to the project as well. Clarifying expectations could help alleviate any concerns they may have. 

What Should a Simple Graphic Design Contract Include?

When drafting a contract for your graphic design projects, you don’t need to worry about jam-packing it full of legalese and overly technical descriptions of job. Keep it simple, and focus on these areas:

  • Your scope of work
  • The expectations you have for your client
  • Payment details
  • Design rights and ownership
  • Liability
  • Termination

Fortunately, you can reuse what you create for many of these sections on subsequent contracts. 

Work Details

Even in the most simple graphic design contract, one of the most critical pieces to consider should be the work section. This section is known by many different names (statement of work, scope of work, SoW), but they all describe the same thing: what you promise to provide the client. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • The scope of work (exactly what and how much you will be doing)
  • Objectives (the end goal)
  • Deliverables (the pieces of the larger project as a whole)
  • Timeline & Schedule (when the project will be complete and any important milestones) 
  • Revisions (how many versions you are willing to make)

Clearly defining what you are willing to do for the client is one of the best ways to prevent scope creep; if they ask for additional work without additional pay, you have a written agreement as protection. It’s also crucial to explicitly describe the timeline and schedule. Most people aren’t looking to work 80 hour weeks, so to make sure they don’t have to, designers should set those boundaries from the get-go. Equally important, though a tad contradictory, is to work flexibility into the timeline. Infinite factors could influence the amount of time a project takes, and you don’t want to be held to an unrealistic deadline if the circumstances change. 

One situation where designers tend to get caught between unfinished work and a deadline is during revisions. Most people aren’t known to choose the first option they see, and if you don’t put a cap on changes, you could end up designing a hundred logos for the price of one. This isn’t to say you can’t make adjustments, just that you should be compensated for any work beyond the scope of the original agreement.

Client Expectations

Graphic design contracts also lay out how the client will support the artist over the course of the project. This includes when the client needs to turn over any materials needed for the project, how long they have to give revisions, and how they should go about communication and approvals. 

Things tend to run smoother when there’s one main point of contact representing the client. When too many opinions get involved, you can end up with contradictory feedback, muddled communication, and a total lack of organization. To prevent this from happening, a simple graphic design contract should cover:

  • Modes of communication (email, slack, in-person meetings, etc.)
  • Point of contact (who to reach out to for what)
  • Schedule & Frequency (when communication should take place and how often)

For similar reasons, you’ll want to clarify how review works as well. How the process looks exactly will vary by project, client, and the technology available – but most graphic design forms for clients should include a section outlining, at a minimum, who is in charge of approvals and when those approvals are due.

Payment Details 

As a designer, getting ripped off can feel inevitable – but it doesn’t have to be. The best way to guarantee you get paid for your work is to create a payment schedule. This describes when the client will pay you, how they should do so, and what happens if they don’t. Typically, it’s best practice to hold onto the copyright for your work until you are paid – that way, the client can’t use your designs unless you’ve been reimbursed for your efforts.  

Rights and Ownership

If you want credit, you might have to ask for it explicitly – and a simple graphic design contract is the place to do so (and even if you aren’t concerned about receiving credit for the work, if you want to use it for your website or portfolio, written permission could come in handy). 

Liability

Graphic design contracts are meant to protect both the artist and those commissioning the work from potential liabilities. To protect the client from copyright problems down the road, they may require a warranty of originality. This particular warranty states that you (the artist) will not use any materials that you do not have a right to. Graphic design contracts usually need a warranty for the work created as well. This type of warranty explains what you will do (if anything) if issues with the design are discovered after the project ends. By getting this in writing, you won’t have to worry about old projects coming back to bite.

While warranties definitely need to be included, the most important area to cover in this section, without a doubt, is liabilities. If the artwork you create doesn’t sit well with the client’s audience, lands them in legal trouble, contains an unfortunate mistake not caught during review, or negatively impacts their finances, they could try and hold the designer financially responsible. To prevent this from happening, you can include a clause stating that you can’t be forced to pay damages beyond what you were paid for the artwork. 

Termination 

Lastly, for a simple graphic design contract to be complete, it should also cover its termination. This clause will describe whether either party can end the contract before a certain date, if payment to the artist is necessary in order to end the contract prematurely, and how to go about the return of client materials. By mapping out the requirements to end the contract, designers can rest assured that they will be compensated fairly for the work they’ve done – whether the project was fully realized or not.  

Sharing and Signing Graphic Design Contracts

In order for a document to hold any power, it needs to be acknowledged and signed by the relevant parties. The question is: how do you get it to them? If you use the same standard template for most projects, one option is to put your contract directly on your website. This is an excellent option if you want to demonstrate transparency, as it allows potential partners to view your conditions before scheduling an initial meeting. 

A second option is to send the forms over email as a PDF. The benefit of this route is that you can share the documents with the exact people who need them, and you can request a response to guarantee that the forms made it to the right inboxes. If you put the forms on your website, it may or may not be necessary to share the documents with clients directly – but it’s usually best to do so. That way, there’s no confusion around whether or not the client has received them.

Another way to share over the web is through an e-signature collecting platform. For highly confidential projects, big-ticket clients, and forms that require lots of signatures, this option will likely be the best. To start, e-signature collecting platforms are more secure than email, making them a great method for more confidential work. These platforms also mitigate the risk of clients missing a signature, as they (typically) guide users through the page and remind them of any necessary places they may have missed. However, the real draw of this method is that signature collecting sites and platforms almost always allow designers to track how many signatures they’ve gathered, giving additional clarity to the process. 

Build a Better Client-Designer Relationship With Ashore

Creatives and their clients aren’t always on the same page; they speak a different language. Luckily, Ashore has everything you and your clients need to bridge the gap and work together better. To ensure that projects stay on track and everyone knows what is expected of them, Ashore offers customizable workflows, assigned senders and approvers, and automated notifications. 

To clarify feedback so designers can work more efficiently, Ashore offers contextual commenting – allowing reviewers to point to something directly and talk about it. By streamlining the review and approval process, creatives on Ashore get their proofs approved 50% faster. Ready to get started? Sign up for a 14-day free trial today!

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