Logo: James Elliott

Jhames Supercollider

A Bulletproof Design Contract

The biggest mistake any designer can make is committing to work without a written agreement between oneself and the client. A verbal agreement provides little to no protection in a business transaction since physical proof of what terms were mutually agreed upon by all interested parties cannot be verified or upheld in court. The best protection for everyone is a written agreement that states the services which will be provided by the designer to the client in exchange for compensation and promotional use.

Seems easy enough: a contract with outlined terms of the project and signatures from all vested parties. That couldn’t be more than 1-2 pages, right?

Unfortunately, money makes some people turn into disease-ridden scourge of the earth – “bad apples” – who go out of their way to burn others for the sake of a dollar. Consequently, the actions of a few bad apples necessitated contracts with lengthy terms that require speaking & writing in tongues. What was once a simple negotiation turned into contracts as thick as a telephone book—don’t forget the additional attachments to the contract that cover confidentiality, licensing, and warranties. More often than not, designers sign these agreements without understanding how the contracts’ terms favor the clients’ interests.

Google has roughly 264,000 search results for “bulletproof design contract” which of course prompts the reaction “Jesus.”

During the course of my career I’ve come across all manner of contracts, everything from a two-sided agency contract to a sixteen-page agreement for contract work. Not too long ago, I hired a lawyer to draft a fourteen-page contract that also came in four variations, depending on the project. When I met a CEO who used only one contract for all his client projects, I whittled my contracts down to one consisting of no more than eight pages—and even then I would have it returned by clients with additional clauses that added serious bulk.

Q: How can a designer write a bulletproof contract?
A: Simple: write a bullet list.

Clients, it seems, are like site visitors who gave up on reading a long time ago. I would send contracts to clients and wait what felt like an eternity for a response. Now when I send clients my bullet list of terms, I hear a response within the hour. Why? Because the terms are listed, and this format makes the language easy to read and understand. At the end of the day, most people would rather do business on a handshake than involve a cabal of legal forces, so I let simplicity guide the agreement.

I will:

  • produce [service] that consists of [product] in [EPS/PDF/etc.] file formats
  • work with [client] on [service] for [product]
  • finish the [product] within 2-3 iterations to keep the project on track
  • deliver [product] files in [AI/PSD/etc.] format to [client] for development; or
  • produce additional [product] files for the [client]
  • have portfolio rights when all work is available for public consumption
  • keep my mouth shut about [client]’s business strategies and trade secrets
  • not farm the work out to anyone; however
  • recommend [company] to [client] for [service] I cannot provide
  • work at an hourly rate of [$000.00]
  • estimate all work to not exceed [000] hours
  • immediately contact [client] if my time needs to exceed [000] hours and secure permission before continuing work
  • send [00] invoices: [00] after completion of [services] and [00] after completion of [product]

[client] will:

  • sign-off on [product] to indicate completion of milestones
  • pay me in a timely manner (Net 15) upon receipt of invoice
  • own all rights to the work I produce after final payment
  • indemnify me from any loss, damage, fire, frost or frippery*

That’s it. Seriously.

I know many people will object to the work-for-hire clause, but web designs are often updated in order to match public demand and market competition. Will I lose any potential revenue because I let a client own a web design with a shelf-life of five years, at best? Hardly. If I was an illustrator producing a series of books, then I would obviously have a different opinion on the matter. But the majority of my work is web design and brand identity, and I don’t know a client that would want to continuously pay a licensing fee for a brand they use to market services and/or products.

Since I’ve implemented this bullet list, I haven’t encountered any legal higgeldy-piggeldy with clients. Everyone knows where they stand with the project and I can focus on a client’s needs instead of legalese-induced headaches.

Hopefully you can find some use with this approach.

*Copyrighted, possibly, but hopefully Mr Dahl’s lawyers have a sense of humor.

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