Sign on the Dotted Line

SignerStarting out as a graphic designer, one of the challenges I faced was trying to figure out how to develop a reasonable, cohesive contract that I could utilize when a client was interested in moving forward with a job.  It definitely isn’t easy and can be downright confusing trying to figure out what you need to include and how to properly word certain conditions.  Some artists I’ve talked to prefer a very open, informal approach to proposals and contracts.  The overall feeling I get is the urge to want to be the “good guy”; the no-pressure artist who’s open and forgiving.  I’m not sure if it comes from the often sterile, by-the-book blue collar background some freelancers graduate away from, or an overall sense of just wanting to be a friendlier face of design.

Some of these contracts are simple estimates, or even just verbal agreements.  There are often no real conditions laid out and terms are “whatever works for you” or “we’ll figure it out.”  I think this usually tends to be the case with trusted entities like friends or relatives, but I’m sure it happens from time to time with larger businesses.  Some of the “contracts in a can” that anyone can download in template format are often a waste of time.  They are designed to appeal to people of any industry and are often incapable of encompassing the various nuances of creative work faced by designers.

Consider the fact that it’s pretty hard to find a lawyer who specializes in creative industries, capable of crafting a proper client agreement.  It’s important that the overall essence of the business feel stays intact even though it’s presented in legalese.  And of course, to get these services, money needs to change hands….usually a nice chunk of it.  Sometimes just a shake of hands and saying “this is how we’ll do it” is quite a bit less stressful than dumping out your savings.  One solution I recommend is contacting Rebecca Prien.  She’s the owner of Counsel-To-Creativity LLC, and has developed a number of legal tools specifically for people in creative lines of work.  She put together a great contract for me that really has my terms covered but it still reads as if I had a part in writing it.  She has a very accommodating payment plan available as well.

What does a contract agreement offer a designer?

• A degree of insurance against getting bit.  This isn’t a big deal when you’re working with someone you trust, but eventually you’re going to work for someone you don’t have a clue about.  This becoming a bigger case nowadays with online global job-posting utilities like E-Lance – your client might be a completely random person in Sri Lanka for all you know.  When you’re dealing with that much of a time commitment, a solid agreement will pay you back eventually.
• Consider the professional image you’re trying to convey.  What does it say to the customer that you pay close attention to the details of your own business dealings?  Good things.
• It’s a chance to organize.  Any components of the agreement can be listed again in your agreement, and this is a chance to emphasize any points of interest.

From the customer’s standpoint, what does it offer?

• You could be walking into a regretable situation.  If you’re going to be forking over hard earned money, you should be sure you’re going to get exactly what you want.  Here’s your chance to read the fine print, ask questions, and negotiate if necessary.  This is a chance for the artist to back up their promises with terms on paper.
• I think there’s a level of Peace of Mind in knowing your designer is taking the time and resources to make their terms known in a detail.  If they’re taking this much time to communicate well, it’s not a stretch to say they’re going to apply this kind of diligence to all levels of the job.
• Having a record can save your bacon.  If the artist flakes out, you have some kind of documentation to make your point stand.

I don’t think any designer is being negligent in not using a contract all the time (I’m one of these people!), but I think it’s really something to have on hand as one’s business continues to expand.  Truth is, a designer may end up losing a job or two because of the terms presented or the inconvenience a customer may feel at having to sign paperwork.  I think that’s a small price to pay considering the time that could be wasted and anxiety that might have to be endured if an informal situation turns toxic.


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