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Write a Contract for a Desktop Publishing or Graphic Design Business

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How to Write a Contract for Your Business

Freelance designers need to learn how to write a contract.

Contracts are standard operating procedure for businesses. Even small desktop publishing businesses and graphic designers just starting out need to know how to write a contract. Your contract is an agreement between you the designer and your client to provide design and desktop publishing services. You and the client need to be in agreement as to exactly what specific services you are providing, when you'll finish the job, how much money is involved, and ownership of the completed work.
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: A few hours to develop a contract template; 30 min. to write a contract using your template

Here's How:

  1. Start with a sample contract or template.
    You can write a contract on your own pulling elements from some of the samples and templates available online; however, you should have a lawyer look over any contract you plan to use. Use the contract samples to find the exact wording you want to use for the sections and clauses described below as well as a format for names and addresses, date and signature lines, which state laws apply to the contract, and other standard elements.

  2. Describe the project.
    A part of the freelance design contract should include a Project Description of what specific services you are providing and the specifications of the final project to be delivered. The details may be included as part of the detailed estimate.

  3. Specify date of completion.
    As a minimum the contract should stipulate the estimated Completion Date. You may also include interim production stages. This section would also describe circumstances and liability in the event the schedule must change.

  4. Account for acceptable delays.
    Some Events that Affect Delivery that are beyond control of the designer include delays by the client in signing off on proofs, changes (Author's Alterations) made in the content (other than mistakes by the designer), delays caused by the printer or other third parties out of the control of the designer, and other unforeseen catastrophic events.

  5. Estimate the cost of the project.
    Prior to presenting the client with a contract you will have prepared a detailed job quote or estimate outlining the specific elements of the job and associated costs. Based on the client's approval of that Estimate you'll then present them with a freelance design contract to sign. Within the contract (or an attachment made part of the agreement) include either the total or break it down into labor, materials, and other specific costs.

    Also see:

    Setting a Flat Fee and Estimating Desktop Publishing Projects
  6. Set out how you'll get paid.
    The Payment Terms section covers deposits, when final payment is due (upon delivery, within 30 days of receipt of invoice, etc.), discounts (for cash/early payment), and any other payment options you choose to offer.

  7. Ask for a deposit.
    Part of the payment terms will be the stipulation as to how and when an initial deposit is paid. Requesting a deposit from clients is standard trade practice for designers and should be spelled out in the contract.

    Also see:

    Get a Deposit
  8. Include a kill fee.
    Commonly referred to as the kill fee, the Cancellation Fee is a payment that helps insure you get paid for work done prior to a client cancelling a project.

    Also see:

    Include a Kill Fee in Your Contract
  9. Cover other expenses.
    Some Miscellaneous Expenses for which the client (or sometimes the designer) is responsible may be set out in separate clauses. One of these might be Author's Alterations, that is, changes or revisions that the customer makes that result in additional costs not covered in the estimate. Charges for turning over original artwork, print overruns, and the cost of samples for the designer's use may be specifically addressed in the contract.

    Also see:

    Get Samples of Your Work
  10. Decide who owns the artwork.
    While you will deliver a finished product (such as a brochure or a Web site) to the client, whether or not you turn over your original digital files upon completion of the project needs to be set out in the contract. It is not uncommon for the designer to retain Ownership of Artwork. If turning over the originals, an additional cost may be charged, in part to at least cover media costs and the time required to transfer the files to disk.

    Also see:

  11. Claim ownership of prelimary design work.
    Generally the designer retains Ownership of Preliminary Designs. It should be in the contract to provide protection in the event the client cancels the project after you've provided some initial designs for approval. The contract may provide for return of preliminary designs and additional fees if the client fails to return the artwork upon cancellation.

  12. Get permission to use design work promotionally.
    In the ownership clause or elsewhere in the contract you can retain the right to use preliminary designs as well as samples of the completed project in future marketing materials (such as your graphic design portfolio), design competitions, or other uses.

  13. Add additional clauses.
    Include indemnity provisions, warranties, provisions for loss of materials in transit, and confidentiality issues as you and your lawyer deem appropriate.

  14. Write a contract template.
    Create a template with those sections that will probably not change from client to client including:
    • Events that Affect Delivery
    • Payment Terms
    • Miscellaneous Expenses
    • Ownership clauses
    • Additional clauses specific to your business

    Leave blank spaces for clauses that must be tailored to each project:

    • Project Description
    • Date of Completion
    • Estimate

  15. Customize each contract.
    Each time you write a contract, start with your boilerplate template and tailor it to the specific needs of the job. Sometimes standard clauses may need to be stricken or re-written for special projects.

Tips:

  1. Never work without a contract.

  2. Substantial changes to the project description after work begins may require you to write a new contract or an addendum requiring approval and new signatures.

  3. Ask your attorney to review the contract template you create before utilizing the new contract with clients. Incorporate his or her recommendations.

  4. A contract is only one type of form you may need to use or understand in your freelance design business. Consider these:
    • EULA is a legal agreement you must follow with your software, fonts, and images used in your design business.
    • RFP or Request for Proposal is how some designers bid on jobs or receive bids from service providers (commericial printers, for instance) on projects.
    • For any photos you use in client work you may need to obtain a Model Release or a Property Release.

What You Need

  • Sample Contracts
  • Detailed Estimate

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