What to include in your graphic design contract; Advice for design students/new designers

graphic design contract

We all know it’s best practice to have a contract in place for graphic design projects, and while there are generic contracts available for download, an ‘off the shelf’ option may not be industry specific to graphic design, may have irrelevant conditions and may be lacking in some required areas.

Without help, it can be tough for budding designers developing their contract to know what to include.

Outlined here are several points to include and help you formulate a working agreement that best suits your services. Legal jargon, allowances and limitations vary from place to place, so rather than just providing yet another generic document which you can copy/paste, I am instead outlining here the important points to include in your graphic design contract. Use these to create a working agreement tailored for you.

NOTE: I’m not a lawyer and this is general information only, not legal advice. If in doubt, seek clarification from a legal professional.

1) Identify the client fully – the contact person and the company.

In larger organisations, sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. In the event that the contact you were dealing with at the company abruptly leaves, whoever is left to pay the bill may not be aware of, or supporting of the design project that is underway.

If your paperwork is made out to “John Smith” and not the company, you may have issues when “John” is gone. I have had colleagues in the past who when chasing final payment from a company were told that Joe had left and it the agreement was with him personally (which was not the case), so they did not want to pay.

You can avoid this problem by including something along the lines of:

Company X
Representative: John Smith


John Smith
For and on behalf of Company X

With the company and authorised contact clearly outlined on the contract, you shouldn’t have this problem.

2) Include everything on the written contract and specify that it is your entire agreement.

It’s important to include everything in writing and not leave anything up to a verbal understanding.

This agreement is our entire understanding and may not be modified in any respect except in an executed agreement.

By including something along these lines you will have a written reference to prevent any verbal mis-communication or misunderstanding from causing grief for you and the client.

Nobody wants to get into a bout of he said/she said. So keep it all in writing.

3) Payment/billing phases.

This will vary depending on the project. Small projects may require full payment before beginning, mid-size projects typically have a 50% deposit followed by a 50% final payment before delivery of artwork, while an extended project may be billed at monthly intervals. Be sure to specify what is required for your particular project.

If purchasing materials or arranging another service on behalf of the client, e.g. printing stationery, I also specify that full payment for the materials must be made before proceeding.

4) Rights of ownership.

As a general rule, any work a designer creates is solely theirs until they specifically transfer usage rights or ownership to the client. Typically you will want to be paid before transferring ownership of your designs and once paid for the client will typically want all rights transferred to them.

Once original artwork has been delivered by me and is fully paid for by CLIENT, I will assign all reproduction rights and intellectual property ownership of the design(s) to CLIENT.

The one thing you do want to retain after a project is complete, is the right to showcase your work. Be sure to include something like:

I reserve the right to distribute or publish for my own promotional and marketing needs any work I create for you.

Strictly speaking, if you transferred all rights and ownership without reservation, you wouldn’t be allowed to display your own work in your portfolio. It’s important to cover that base.

5) Revisions and alterations.

This is an area that can be a bit tricky. A $5,000 project will obviously allow for more work than a $1,000, so there is no “one size fits all” rule for this. In general, you will want to include the following points:

Any client changes outside of the original brief may incur additional costs.

New work requested by CLIENT and performed by me after a proposal/estimate has been approved is considered a revision or alteration. If the project changes to an extent that substantially alters the specifications described in the original estimate, I will submit a revised proposal to you, and a revised additional fee must be agreed to by both parties before further work proceeds.

I agree to provide a maximum of X initial design concepts and X rounds of revisions, “revisions” meaning the fine-tuning of an already provided concept, not generation of new concepts.

6) Turnaround time.
Meeting deadlines is important, especially if youre designs are part of a larger picture and other activities are waiting on your work. Despite your best efforts though, delays can be caused at the clients end which result in you missing the deadline. Be clear that you’re not responsible for delays which are not at your end.

I will provide estimated turn around times for each design, however the actual time may vary depending on CLIENT’s speed of response to concepts and revisions. While I will make every reasonable effort to meet with specified deadlines, I will not be held responsible for any delays.

7) Legal clearance of materials.

Clients often provide input, supply photos, logos or other materials to be included in design projects. The client should be responsible for clearing any materials against copyright infringement etc. before using them, not you.

CLIENT will be responsible for all trademarks, servicemarks, copyright and patent infringement clearances. CLIENT is also responsible for arranging, prior to publication, any necessary legal clearance of materials I prepare.

8) Errors and omissions.

Obviously you should make every possible effort to ensure the accuracy of your work, but some details may not be noticeable by you. Unusual spelling of names, phone numbers and other client supplied information should be checked at their end.

It is the responsibility of CLIENT to check proofs carefully for accuracy in all respects, ranging from spelling to technical illustrations. I am not liable for errors or omissions.

If you’re arranging printing on the clients behalf, be sure to have written approval of materials before committing anything to print.

9) Suppliers performance.

From time to time a client may ask you to liaise with a third party on their behalf, such as a printer. That’s fine, but given that they have chosen the supplier you don’t want to be responsible for their actions and should protect yourself accordingly.

If you select your own vendors or service providers, you may request that I coordinate their work. If at all possible, I will attempt to do so, but I cannot in anyway be held responsible for quality, price, delivery or performance.

10) Termination.

Some time ago, I was midway through a project with a client when they discovered they could not register the business name we were currently working with. As a result of this and other priorities, the project was put on hold indefinitely.

Though it’s a rare occurrence (I’ve only had it happen that once), it can sometimes be necessary to end a project pre-maturely. In such an event it’s important to have an agreement in place for how to wrap things up so you get paid for the work you’ve done, and the client receives the materials they’ve already paid for.

The term of this agreement will continue for work in progress until terminated by either of us upon XX days written notice. If CLIENT should direct me at any time to cancel, terminate or “put on hold” any previously authorized purchase, I will promptly do so, provided CLIENT holds me harmless for any cost incurred as a result. Upon termination of this agreement, I will transfer to CLIENT all relevant property and materials in my control which have been paid for.

Depending on the nature of your work, the amount of notice required to terminate a project will vary. As I work primarily in print, I specify 21 days notice so that any print jobs underway would likely not have been started, and could be cancelled if required. Though nowhere near this much time would likely be required, I use the extended period as a buffer. This may not be relevant for you, so choose a period of time that suits your work.

As I said, this certainly won’t be a regular occurrence, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Contracts (call them “working agreements” if you want a more user-friendly word) are often viewed with a bit of a negative stigma. They’re thought of by some as a way for the service provider to limit what they have to provide for the client, or give them an opportunity to charge more. That isn’t the case.

Having a written contract in place is as much for the benefit of the client as they are for the designer. With everything in writing, there is little room for misunderstandings and any questions (some which might not have been thought of by the client) can be asked before proceeding.

With everyone having read, understood and agreed to the same set of conditions, you should have a smooth running project.

Do you include anything in your graphic design contract which I don’t? Leave a comment and let me know.