We’ve discussed before that there are a number of things you don’t learn in design school. Yet, there are many skills you need to have in order to have a successful business.
What’s one of the most important pieces of information you didn’t learn in design school?
How to write a freelance web design contract!
It might seem easy enough to throw some legal jargon together and call it a contract but, believe it or not, it can actually be a fairly complex process with many different moving parts.
In this article, we review a few simple tips for creating an effective contract. There are even a few templates thrown in for good measure.
Basic Essentials of a Web Design Contract
Before you get too deep into creating your contracts, let’s cover the basics first. Any contract must have the following to ensure you’re protected:
- Basic contact information – including your name, address, telephone number, and email address. The same information is needed from your client.
- Conditions of work – including who your point of contact will be, who handles making decisions regarding the design, and who handles paying you. These should be your “must-haves” before you commence working.
- Scope of work – including what will be done, when, and by whom.
- Terms of payment – including your fees as well as any expenses you might incur that the client is responsible for repaying.
- Disputes – including arbitration details and the conditions of termination.
- Protection of property – including terms and conditions that govern intellectual property. A non-disclosure agreement is often part of a contract as well.
Everything you put in your contract needs to be detailed. For example, don’t write in your contract that you’re going to design a website. Clarify what’s included in the website, from the features to the number of pages to the number of revisions included in the base price. The more specific you are, the better.
Now that we have a better understanding of the essential features of a contract let’s take a look at each component in more depth.
The Importance of Contact Information
While this section might seem intuitively obvious, there are a couple of things of which you should be aware. If you’re a freelancer working from home, do you really want all your clients to know your home phone number and home address? If not, you’ll need to rectify that situation so you have an alternative to listing your personal information on all your contracts.
Instead, consider opting for a Google Voice account. You can get a local number for free that will forward all business calls to your mobile device. It works just like a regular phone and has a separate voicemail from your cellular line. Clients will have a means to contact you, and they can do so without having your personal number.
If you’d prefer not to use your home address as your business address, get a post office box specifically for your business. A small box runs just a few dollars per year, and gives you a professional address while also giving you some peace of mind that you won’t have clients knocking on your door to ask you questions about their project.
Also be sure to include your email address on your contract, as that will often be the method by which your clients will contact you. Just like when you write a resume, it is imperative that your email address reflects your professionalism as a web designer. If you’re still using your college email that has sequences of numbers or odd words, you need to ditch it. If you don’t have your own domain or email available, set up a Gmail address with your business name (or your own name, if you operate under it) as the handle.
You need your clients’ contact information to include on the contract. That way if there is a problem or issue, you know exactly where and how to reach them.
Make It Easy: Specifically Outline Your Conditions of Work
The conditions section of your contract will be personalized to reflect your needs and the unique working situation you have with each client. However, there are several features common to most conditions sections.
Primary Point of Contact
The primary point of contact is the person you will go to with any questions about the project, from getting approval on mockups to getting payment for services rendered. Having a primary contact person can be a lifesaver when (not if) issues arise.
Not only does this give you a consistent point of contact, it forces the client to determine who’s in charge of the project on their end. This is especially useful if you’re working for a business or organization with a lot of stakeholders. There is little worse than working on a design and getting conflicting feedback from multiple people involved in the project. The contact clause will protect against that occurrence.
Terms of Communication
It is also advantageous to include a clause about the expected communication between you and your client. Sometimes clients get busy and don’t respond to calls or emails for quite some time. In the event this occurs, you need to be able to protect yourself against claims that you aren’t meeting deadlines when the delays are caused by poor communication from your client.
Your communications conditions also need to include a clause that any and all requests for revisions are delivered to you immediately. This will help you avoid having to spend hours of stressful time trying to meet last-minute demands from a client.
Likewise, your communications conditions need to stipulate that any changes to your client’s contact information, ability to pay, or changes to their operations be disseminated to you immediately. These occurrences can cost you a lot of time and energy if not communicated to you in a timely fashion.
Additions or Deletions
Agreeing to work for a client to perform a specific function, only to have the client change those terms later on by adding or taking away tasks, is the worst. To avoid this situation, include an additions or deletions clause in your contract that requires your approval before anything can be added to or taken from the project. Anything that changes the terms of your contract should be done in writing and attached to the original contract.
Verbally agreeing to do something is a major no-no in business, because unfortunately sometimes people will try to take advantage of you. Be sure to get everything in writing!
Scope of Work – Set Limits to Protect Yourself
Perhaps the most important aspect of a web design contract is the section dealing with the scope of work. You must clearly define exactly what it is you will do, for what price, and by what deadline. Without this, you run the risk of doing a whole lot more work without getting paid for it.
Number of Revisions
If you’ve been a web designer long enough, you know that sometimes clients will change their mind. This is their prerogative, and you should honor their right to want things done differently.
However, you need to stipulate how many revisions are included in the base price. A good rule of thumb is to offer 2-3 revisions as part of the initial deal, with subsequent revisions coming at an additional price.
Having a set number of revisions serves two functions. First, it protects you from doing a bunch of work for which you don’t get paid, and second, it discourages clients from changing their mind dozens of times. If they still change their mind, at least you get paid for it!
Establish your fee for extra revisions in your contract. Like everything else involved in doing contractual work, revision fees need to be specifically outlined before any work commences.
Sometimes clients will have a hard-and-fast deadline by which they need you to complete the work. Other times, projects will be more casual and open-ended, and the client will allow you to dictate when the project can be completed. Either way, you need to have a deadline for the project, and it needs to be part of the contract.
Without a deadline, you run the risk of loitering on a project too long. Additionally, you will need to have deadlines set for your projects so you can schedule future projects with other clients accordingly.
Naturally, your ability to meet deadlines depends in large part on your client’s ability to promptly provide you with assets, feedback, and payment, among other things. Sometimes clients get busy and lose track of the timeline, but that doesn’t mean you should continue working on their project. Send reminder emails, make phone calls, and attempt to get what you need from the client. But if you’re unable to get what you need, inform them that their project is on hold and will be moved to the back of your queue until they can give the project the attention it needs.
Include a stipulation that if your client does not reject your deliverables within a specific timeframe (i.e. three business days) that it will be considered accepted. This can be extremely helpful to protect yourself from clients that have trouble meeting deadlines.
Everything You Need to Know About Getting Paid
Getting paid is why you work, so naturally it should be an integral component of your contracts. In addition to describing your preferred method of work – by the hour or by the project – your contract should also stipulate the terms by which you are paid, when payments are due, and what happens if payment is not made on time.
How to You Charge Clients
In a previous article, we discussed how to charge for web design projects and reviewed the pros and cons of hourly vs. fixed rate pricing. Whichever method you prefer, be sure to make it absolutely clear in the contract how the client will be charged. This prevents any confusion down the road.
Here’s something many web designers don’t consider:
If you charge by the hour, add a clause that outlines a minimum and maximum number of hours of work you will complete as part of the project.
Setting a minimum number of hours is a way to protect yourself and ensure that you will get paid a certain amount, even if you finish the project ahead of schedule. Setting a ceiling for hours worked gives the client peace of mind because anything above that limit is not billable.
Of equal importance is defining the schedule by which you are paid. If working on an hourly basis, do you get paid by the week? Every two weeks? Once a month? On fixed price projects, do you get half up front and half when the project is completed? Or do you split it into three payments, with one up front, one at the halfway point, and one upon completion?
However you set up your payment schedule will vary depending on your needs and wants, and to a degree, it will also depend on the client. Usually, clients will agree straightaway to your payment schedule, but sometimes you will need to adjust it to meet their needs.
But keep this in mind:
Whatever payment arrangement you come up with, never, ever begin work without some sort of payment up front.
Whether you call it a retainer, a deposit, or something else, your client needs to provide some kind of proof of funding before you start work so you know they are ready for the project to begin and have the money to pay you.
How Payments are Made
Your clients will need to know how to pay you. This can be particularly tricky if you work remotely. Some clients have PayPal and prefer to handle payments via that platform. Others will prefer to mail you a check. Still others might insist on using direct deposit or some other means to pay you.
Whatever payment methods you accept, be sure to quantify a grace period. Not all clients will always pay on time, so they need to know how long they have before you take action. Remember to provide enough time to receive payment such that various parties, like the post office, your client’s accounting department, and others involved in the chain of payment, have time to send, receive, and issue payment back to you. These details need to be agreed upon and signed off on before you do any work.
When Things Go Wrong: How to Resolve Disputes
Sometimes you will run into situations in which you and your client cannot come to terms, and a disagreement turns into a full-blown dispute. Do you rely on arbitration or litigation? Do you utilize a mediator or terminate the project and collect the kill fee? These decisions need to be made before you start work and like everything else listed here, must be in your contract.
Terminating a Client
There will come a time in your career as a freelance web designer that you will need to let a client go. Maybe they are uncommunicative. Perhaps they miss deadlines. Or worse, maybe they don’t pay you for services rendered.
Your decision to part ways with a client cannot be one you make on a whim. You’ll need to outline in your contract exactly what you will do when you no longer desire to work with them, including what you will do to try to avoid terminating them, the timeframe in which you will work to resolve any disputes, and what money they owe you upon their termination.
Every once and awhile you will have a client that stops a project after you’ve done a work on it. This is why you need to have language in your project about a kill fee. Essentially, a kill fee protects you from working for nothing. Some designers make the kill fee as little as 20-25% of the total project cost. Others require much more – upwards of 50%. Still others require payment for work done up to that point. Do what you’re comfortable with, but make sure you’ve got a kill fee specified.
Protect Their Ideas (and Yours!)
Once you’ve completed the work you’ve been hired to do, who owns it? How can the product you’ve created be used? How do you protect yourself and how do your clients protect themselves if confidential information has been exchanged? These topics should be covered in your contract with statements about intellectual property and non-disclosure agreements.
Intellectual property rights can be a sticky situation for freelance web designers. There are a number of scenarios in which you might retain full rights to your work, partial rights or none at all. Most web designers will retain the right to use their work in their portfolio or for advertising purposes and nothing more. Other designers retain full license over their creations or require clients to give them credit whenever the product that was designed is used.
For example, assume that you’ve been hired to design a website, and as part of that job, the client asks you to create some icons and buttons for the site. Your contract needs to account for a variety of situations:
- Can the client use the icons and buttons on another one of their websites?
- Is the client required to give you credit whenever they use the icons and buttons you’ve designed?
- Can the client modify the icons and buttons?
- Does the client have a license for the icons and buttons? If so, is it exclusive or can you license the icons and buttons to other clients as well?
- When does the copyright transfer to the client? Upon final payment, once the design is complete, or after a specified timeframe?
These are questions that might come up, and, as a result, should be explicitly addressed in your contract.
Maybe you will be sharing confidential information with your client or perhaps they will be sharing secret information with you. Either way, having a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) as part of your contract will often be necessary. Essentially, an NDA protects your client by ensuring that you won’t reveal any confidential information that is disclosed to you during the course of your contractual employment. Confidential information can entail just about anything, from the purpose of your work to the nature of your relationship with the client to trade secrets.
Include language in your contract that you reserve the right to use anything you create in your portfolio and for marketing purposes. You’ll need to be able to populate your portfolio (and refresh it from time to time) with current work samples.
Free Web Design Contract Templates
Developing your contracts can seem like an unbelievably long, complex, and boring task – because it is. So why re-invent the wheel when there are all kinds of free web design contract templates out there ready for you to customize to your needs?
AIGA’s Standard Agreement
AIGA, the professional association for design, has devised a customizable design contract template to create a freelance web design contract. Rather than being of the cut-and-paste variety, this template’s language is broad enough that you don’t have to rewrite it for every project while also being specific enough to ensure you’re protected. The template, which includes basic terms and conditions and intellectual property provisions, allows you to fill in the specifics online and send the document immediately to your client.
The web design contract template offered by Bidsketch is similar to the one available through AIGA in that the language is broad, yet you have the ability to customize it to your needs. The contract stipulates the scope of the project, criteria for development and acceptance of the work, procedures for payment, project management guidelines, and much more.
Documents From Web Design Law
Another great resource for contract samples and other documents is Web Design Law. Like the other contract templates mentioned above, Web Design Law gives you the ability to customize the documents to suit your needs. The site has two contract versions – one with full terms and conditions and one that is condensed. Additionally, Web Design Law has other paperwork for freelance web design, including:
- Letter of Agreement
- Project Proposal
- Past Due Reminder
- Collections Letter
Each of the documents listed above can come in handy, and should be part of the documentation you have on hand when starting any new project.
Although it sounds like freelance work is a scary undertaking in which client after client will try to take advantage of you, that couldn’t be further from the truth. You will find that the vast majority of your customers are amazing people that are fun to work with, who pay on time, and who come back to you time and again with project after project.
But just like in life, you have to have rules because of a few bad apples. The one client out of 100 takes advantage of you is why you need a clear and explicit contract and why you have to have that contract in place and signed before you do one minute of work.
What tips do you have for developing web design contracts? Leave a comment below and let us know what clauses you include in your documents. For more great businesses tips and information on design resources, be sure to sign up for our monthly newsletter too!
Email by Sean MacEntee via Flickr Creative Commons
Contract by 24oranges.nl via Flickr Creative Commons
Working by Travis Isaacs via Flickr Creative Commons
Payments by GotCredit via Flickr Creative Commons
Wake Up Call by Petras Gagilas via Flickr Creative Commons
Ideas by Sean MacEntee via Flickr Creative Commons