The Client Agreement - Basics and Beyond

The Client Agreement - Basics and Beyond

In this post, I’m sharing some of my practices, and will offer up some questions to help you figure out what works best for you.

The Agreement, also known as the proposal, contract, or statement of work, is the piece of paper that makes expectations known, and gets all of the pesky admin stuff out of the way so you can concentrate on creating. 

My own document has been a work in progress. I have one basic template that covers all the bases, and depending on special circumstances, I add or subtract individual sections. All sources I’ve consulted agree, however, that these are the absolute basics an agreement should cover:

  • Who’s the client
  • What’s the job
  • How much and when will you get paid
  • Ownership and licensing rights of the work

Who’s the Client

My definition of the client is the person who pays me. So if I’m working with an agency or another designer for one of their clients, I would expect them to do the interfacing with their contacts, and then relay the information to me. I like to have their mailing address, email, and phone number for my records, so I can send thank you cards, or Christmas cards, or W9s as necessary. 

I’m letting the agreement do most of the talking, and since it legitimately protects myself as well as them, I haven’t had a problem yet. Some people will balk and say “but we’re friends, you’re not going to make me sign this?” At which point I politely insist “no paper, no work, dude”, or words to that effect.

What’s the job

My definition of the job is whatever has been discussed in emails or phone or personal conversations during the client in-take process. This includes deliverables that they are responsible for, e.g. existing brand materials or colors, and a vision board of what styles they have in mind for their project. This portion also details my responsibilities for delivery, including how many files, what size, what format, and the graphic/lettering words they’ll contain. 

How much and when will you get paid

How much I’ll get paid depends on the size of the project and the client, more on that in a separate post coming soon. 

As for when I’ll get paid, after doing some projects “on spec” (i.e. sketches and ideas for the client to see IF they like any enough to move forward BEFORE any money changes hands) a few times and not getting anything out of it, I now charge 50 % upfront for sketches, and the remainder after delivering the finals. Those first 50 % also serve as a kill-fee in case the client decides not to move forward. 

If you're just starting out in your creative business, let me be very clear: I start thinking of ideas as soon as I hear about a project, of course. I see visions of layouts and styles I want to try to make work, I think of references I've seen and imagine how I would pull it all together. But I do not put pencil to paper until I receive that first 50 %, because doing the sketching and lettering and calligraphy is my work now, not just a hobby, and work deserves to be paid. (Strictly speaking, even the thinking about potential layouts is work, but hey, I can't stop my brain from doing its thing.)

Since I spend a considerable amount of time during the sketching phase trying out various directions before coming up with a couple of concepts to present, I generally have my time properly compensated without neither taking advantage nor leaving too much on the table. 

Ownership and licensing rights

Imagine you’re creating a design for a small independent ceramics studio that wants to sell it on mugs. They love your design, and you made it especially for them and don’t plan on using it again anyway, so you don’t mind and think nothing of it giving them ownership. 

Now imagine that studio gets acquired by Crate & Barrel, and whoosh, your design is on plates, tea towels, and tote bags all over the country… and you only got paid once for those mugs. 

Don’t Do “Work for Hire”

Ownership and licensing rights get really interesting (and potentially super lucrative) when your work will appear in advertising campaigns or on products for sale. The Graphic Artist’s Guild is quite adamant in that a designer should never give up ownership of their work, and to always maintain the copyright of the creator. If you don't own this book yet, I strongly recommend you get a copy. It contains a wealth of information on contracts and how to price your services. 

“Work for hire” contracts give all the rights to the client, and unless you charge a significant amount to cover all possible ways how your design might be used, you’re leaving profit on the table. For a take from a seriously successful designer, read Jessica Hische's empowering essay on The Dark Art of Pricing and her superb Client Email Helper with verbiage she uses in client correspondence. 

Logos and branding work could be seen as an exception to this rule, because that artwork is designed literally to represent that person’s or company’s identity, so it should be theirs. Which is also exactly why logos come at a higher price point. 

Additional Clauses

Additional information that can be covered by the agreement includes litigation procedures, non-disclosure clauses, specific use-case scenarios, a process description, a sample timeline, causes for termination, and how to handle additional work, expenses, and promotion. 

As I stated under the Ownership section, when designing for commercial products, I add verbiage for specific use-cases (e.g. mugs), where / in which territories (e.g. USA), and for how long (e.g. 3 years). All this information is based on the client intake conversations, and provisions can obviously be made for if and when they want to expand the design to a different product line or a different market. 

Since design can be quite a fluid thing, and some clients don’t know what they want until they see it, and then change the whole direction, it is important to a sentence about discussing all intended changes to the scope in writing and that they are subject to additional fees.

Ideally, I have asked all the necessary questions during the intake / on-boarding process and know what is expected in the sketches. As I prepare the designs, I keep that information in mind, so the output should never come as a surprise to the client. If they see the sketches and wants to change direction even though I stuck to the brief, that means I have to start over, and that has to be compensated. I keep the first 50 % as a "kill fee" for the now abandoned sketches, and draw up a new agreement for the new direction if we're starting over. In the contract, this can be a simple as adding

I also have a sentence covering rush fees in case work needs to be done overnight or on the weekend, and I can get into more detail in the blog post on pricing. So far, I haven't had to add language around late payments, because I don't start sketching until I receive the 50 % upfront, and I don't send final files to the client until they pay the remaining 50 %. 

Last but not least, I always have a sentence in my agreements about being able to share the design process online and the final product on my website, in my portfolio, and entering it into competitions. Promoting our designs is such an important piece of the work, and we can’t always rely on our clients to share who did the work for them with their circles. I don’t share anything while we’re in the middle of the process, but once it’s finished and live and ready to be talked about, I reserve the right to share concepts that were discarded as well, just to show the range of options that were part of the design process.

Questions for you:

  • Who is your client?
  • What are they hiring you to do?
  • Which files are you expected to provide in the end?
  • How much and when will you get paid for it?
  • Who will be the owner of the artwork?
  • How will disagreements be handled?
  • What would be causes for termination for either side?
  • How much is the kill-fee?
  • How sensitive is the project?
  • How, where, and for how long will your designs be used?
  • When can the client expect your work?
  • How will you handle a change of scope or timeline once the project has started? 
  • Who will cover any expenses (e.g. fonts, photographs, production supplies) incurred?
  • Will you be allowed to share your design process on your website?

I’m currently writing two more blog posts in this "running a creative business" series; one will be on pricing, and one will cover my process and sample timelines. Please let me know if you have any particular questions you'd like answered in the comments! :-) 

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