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Client Design and Freelance Contract Basics

Client Design and Freelance Contract Basics

Mike Lenhart

This article is part of a larger series. Click here to read the entire “The Nitty Gritty on Contracts” series.

Whether we’re working on a freelance basis or for a design firm, we need to know how to prepare and read contracts. As in all service businesses, a written agreement needs to be generated in order to get down on paper what we’re offering and what we expect in return. Sometimes our work can only stand on the contract that we generate, especially if we desire to provide what we say we’re going to and also to get paid. This is going to be the first of a series of articles on design contracts and what should be contained in order to, hopefully, be successful.


The basic language of many contracts from legal firms contains wording that we’ve never heard of and can’t even begin to decipher. In design contracts, we can keep the language in plain English and still get the message across. After the standard header of a contract which states the name of the Client, the name of the project, and the date in which the contract originates, we can cut down on the redundancy of writing the Client name and our name throughout by just using the word “Client” when referring to them and “Designer” when referring to us.

For example,ABC Company (Client)” can be written in the first paragraph and “DEF Design Firm (Designer)” can be written as well. This will set a precedent for the terminology and will let all parties know who is being referred to. We can then simply state Client and Designer throughout the rest of the agreement. It’s important to remember to set up the terminology early in the contract so it’s concise and understandable.

What Are We Offering?

Right at the beginning of a design contract, it’s a good idea to state just what we’re going to do for the Client as well. If the job calls for a brochure design, we should state what the task is. We can simply place a line of text at the top of the contract, possibly below the header, that states this task. We can be as specific as possible by stating “2009 Marketing Brochure Design”, for example, so the Client knows from the top what this agreement is all about. If there is more than one design task in a particular contract, we should state these as well.

For example, “2009 Marketing Brochure Design” could be on one line and “2009 Sales Sheet Design” on the next. We can then address these tasks separately later in the contract. The point is to be as specific as possible and not to assume anything. If the project is to be offered all in one “package”, it’s not necessary to prepare a separate agreement for each portion of the package, unless the Client needs it that way. It’s just important to address them separately in the body of the document.

Contract Length

There are times when a well-detailed, rather lengthy, contract is called for. At times, however, a “short form” contract will suffice and will get the same message across. Many freelancers or firms use “short forms” and “long forms” of contracts, depending on the task at hand. If the design calls for a quick business card, for example, and we’re familiar with the Client and have worked with them before, we can use a short form. It is still extremely important not to omit any important detail or assume anything, once again.

Rule of thumb: If it’s a new Client or a project that calls for a lot of items to be done, go for the long form. Long forms sometimes include a background of the Client’s company or organization, a description of prior communications, and the current communications task, if applicable. These items are always good to include so the Client knows that we know just what they do and just want they need from us for this job. Objectives of the project may be included as well so the Client knows that we get what they want to communicate to their audience.

A Final Word

Contracts and agreements are legal documents and need to be detailed enough so all parties know what is going on and all parties are all on the same page. In future installments of this series, we’ll go over the remaining portions of a design contract, including the detailed elements of the offer and the ever-important fees we’re going to charge. There will also be a discussion on the standard and customized clauses contracts should contain so we cover ourselves. One thing to remember, if we don’t put it in the contract, we can’t assume we can do whatever we want to get the job done. Our time is valuable and needs to be communicated as such.

Next: What to Include (and Not) in Client Contracts →

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