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Crucial tips for writing graphic design contracts

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Updated on:
December 12, 2022
December 12, 2022
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Have you decided to pursue your dream of becoming a freelance graphic designer? Awesome! But, if you're going to be doing contract work, it's essential to know how to put together a professional graphic design contract.

Want to know what a design contract is? Curious about how you put one together? Let's jump straight into it!

What is a design contract?

What is a design contract? Well, after your graphic design proposal template is approved, you'll need a contract. It's partly so your client knows what they'll be getting and also to protect you, the designer. As a freelancer, you won't have the luxury of a personal HR team to protect you if a client decides not to pay up.

You may want to put your complete trust in your client but not protecting yourself at all is very risky. Hopefully, you'll never need to take a runaway client to court, but it's better to be safe than sorry, right?

Don't worry, being able to draw up a suitable contract doesn't require a spell at law school! It just takes a bit of planning and good old fashioned common sense. There are plenty of freelance contract templates to help you out.

What you should include in your freelance design contract

There are a few key sections you should include in your freelance graphic design contract. If you're having trouble getting started, searching the web for marketing contract template can be helpful.

A professional contract should include:

  • A detailed description of any work you're going to do
  • A timeline for clients deliverables
  • Details for payment
  • Copyright ownership
  • A termination clause
  • Signatures and date

Let's take an in-depth look at each of these components.

Every designer Should have detailed descriptions

Before you start any work, make sure your client provides a detailed brief. This should include any little pieces they need you to do.

Write down in your graphic design contract exactly what is required by both parties. You and your client must be on the same page (!). You both need to know what's expected so there're no crossed wires along the way.

If you need more advice on managing your clients, there are lots of great tips here on how to run your business successfully.

Timeline for client deliverables

Let's imagine that your client needs the work finished by a certain date. Aim to get all the graphic design contract work finished at least one week before. This means you have some extra time in the event of any eleventh-hour changes.

Decide which deliverables should be done first, and figure out how long it will take you to complete them. Next, choose suitable dates to give them to your client, and be aware that there's likely to be some polishing up to be done.

Adding dates into your graphic design contract will help you to stay focused and on track. It also helps clients know when to expect the work.

Get paid: payment details

It's your decision how much you charge your client for the work agreed upon. Some freelance graphic design contractors like to quote per project, while others prefer to charge an hourly rate.

If the work in question will take you more than a day to complete, it's probably better to charge by the project.

A basic graphic design contract will ask the client to pay half of the whole project cost upfront, and then the other half before they receive the finished work.

This bit is essential. Watermark your finished work when you send it off for approval. Once they're happy with it, invoice for the outstanding balance.

Copyright ownership

Copyright ownership or intellectual property ownership is very important. For example, say you signed a logo design contract pdf. You designed a logo for a client and charged a couple of hundred dollars.

If they used it to sell products that made millions, you'd be mad at yourself for not keeping some of the intellectual property ownership.

An option is to give some of the copyright to your client, not all of it. You could give them ownership of the design as it is, but state that they can't alter it or modify it at all.

Termination clause - peace of mind!

A freelance design contract will usually state that both the designer and the client may terminate the project whenever. This reassures both parties because you never know when life is going to throw the next curveball at you!

Family emergencies, computers giving up on life, or discovering that you've acquired a nightmare client are just a few examples of why you may need to end a project. If your computer is on its last legs, you may want to think about investing in a tablet that's suitable for graphic designers!

It's down to you to decide the rules for the termination clause. However, a common clause in a graphic design contract is that your client still needs to pay you for any work that you've done up to the date of termination.

Once your design business starts to take off, it's a good idea to draw up a freelance graphic design contract template that you can use for all of your projects.

Contracts: signature and date

Always make sure you and the client sign your graphic design contract. Without both signatures, the contract is about as useful as a chocolate teapot! Be sure to date it once it's signed as well. You can use Bonsai's online signature maker to create your e-signatures. You can also follow our guide on how to insert signature in Word and how to digitally sign a PDF.

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Mistakes freelancers make with a graphic design contract

Next, we'll go through some common mistakes that new freelancers make with their designer contracts. We've also got some great tips on marketing strategies that could prove invaluable to your new business.


The client likely hired you because they thought you could do the job well. Although a good sales pitch normally involves making one guarantee, including lots of goal-oriented promises in your designer contract is risky.

"Scope creep" usually happens when you don't clearly outline what will happen in the project. It also happens if you charge your client for what they're going to get, rather than what you'll do.

You'll end up with the client coming back to you wanting to make a million changes to the project. This is inconvenient and harmful to your project.

It can lead to unapproved changes and things that aren't accounted for, meaning you may forget to charge for them! It can also create unrealistic timeframes and deadlines.

As you start to hit milestones with a project, you may need to tweak your goals to keep your hours in control and to maintain your worth to your client. Effective designer contracts include the process steps, any revisions, and feedback.

Be professional with clear add-on options

Ensure you acknowledge that you'll likely need to work longer than originally thought and remember to bill for this appropriately.

By including add-on options and other scenarios into your designer contract, it avoids any awkwardness in your business relationship.

Not asking for payment

Although modern-day invoicing makes it easy to request payment from your client, there are more effective ways. One way is to offer prepayment in your freelance contract.

This is a wise idea if you're working with an unproven client who hasn't yet earned a good track record. Remember, not having a reputation at all can be just as dodgy as having a bad one!

Not charging late fees

You may want to believe every client you have is a stand-up person, why wouldn't they pay in a timely fashion? Believe it or not, even good companies can levant.

Make sure you get paid for your work by including a penalty for bounced or late payments. Not only does this offer you protection in the unlikely situation of non-payment, but it also means untrustworthy clients will likely run for the hills at the sight of your terms and conditions!

Letting them pay you when they want - NO!

Along with including penalties, successful, wise contractors offer a shorter payment window. They generally don't offer more than 30 days for clients to pay if the contract doesn't have a finish date.

Follow this trend by giving your client a shorter window to make the payment. 7-10 working days is usually a good timeframe for clients of a small company.

Not giving clear milestones

When you break your designer contract up into sizeable chunks, you're creating milestones. This may seem like a pointless extra step, but it can be very beneficial to contractors, especially when it's stated in the contract. This can be a little different for a graphic designer retainer agreement.

Regardless, milestones answer your client's questions without them needing to be asked. It stops the need for incessant back and forth emails, confusion, and micromanaging the work. It also shows how professional you are and that you're capable of managing the project.

Being too nice!

You may find that many clients demand the project work be "work for hire." Essentially, this would grant your client full rights to your finished work. They'd be able to use it however they like, anytime and they wouldn't have to give you any credit.

Although this happens a lot, it's not compulsory. As the designer, you choose the rights you want to grant to the client. Be sure to price accordingly though. For example, the more rights you choose to give, the more you should charge.

Remember, your research and any supporting documents are yours and should be kept separate from the finished project.

Sharing your processes

If you've been hired for a design job, it means the client likes you and thinks you're capable. While it's vital to inform them about things such as deliverable work and milestones, don't give away your successful processes before you get the work done.

There are many unfortunate stories of designers who explain precisely how they do their work, only for the client to take those methods back to an in-house team. Or in some cases, another freelancer who is charging less!

Even if you're working for a client, you are under no obligation to reveal how you work!

Overcommitting to their work processes

On the flip side, as a freelancer, it's important to realize you're not someone's employee. You're not getting any employee benefits and you're not required to meet any certain workflow requests.

If your client insists on you working for a certain amount of hours, or for a set period of time (i.e 8 am-4 pm), this isn't acceptable.

Be firm from the get-go and explain that you'll work during hours set by you, while still leaving room for certain requests from your client.

Agreeing to exclusivity

If you've been a professional designer for a while, you'll know that client privacy is important. Being expected to keep things about the client confidential isn't unreasonable.

If you acknowledge in your freelance design contract that you will keep this information private, it means you'll be able to work alongside other companies in the same field, and potentially broaden your client base.

If a prospective client wants you to work only for them, make sure you charge them substantially for that privilege!

Dismissing taxes and fees

Although you mustn't tell precisely how you price your design services, it's essential to calculate the cost of business from the start. As a freelancer, you're responsible for paying your own tax and Social Security.

Not being prepared for these costs can result in some nasty surprises by the time you come to do your graphic designer taxes. Familiarize yourself with the true cost and expenses and add them to your service price plan.

Final Thoughts

Right now, you're probably thinking that there's a lot that can go wrong with a designer contract. While that can be true, it only takes one excellent contract to set you up for continuous success.

As soon as you've created a contract with zero errors, save it - before you forget to! A good graphic design contract template will be a first-time freelancer's best friend.

Even the most expert designers use contract templates, and you can reuse the successful version again and again, ensuring you have a bright and prosperous career in designing.

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