What to Include In Your Design Contracts

If you’re a freelance graphic designer (or any profession for that matter) and do not have contracts or standard terms and conditions that you provide your clients to sign prior to starting a project… well let’s just say you’re silly. You will at some point need it to protect your business, as for the reason I am writing this is due to a recent incident in which my contract protected me.

Building your own design contracts isn’t always easy—there’s much to include, but once it’s written and out of the way it’s as easy as hitting ‘attach’ and ‘send’ in your email. Often at times, client’s ask specific requests so I can easily tailor mine to fit their project if need be.

Instead of covering each and every angle of a design contract, below I have listed the basics and essentials to include in your standard graphic design terms and conditions or contracts. Feel free to add more in the comments below.

1- Project details

In this part of your contract you should state exactly what the goal of the project is, what exactly the client is receiving as a final deliverable and the estimated time frame to which it will be completed.

2- A Definitions section

Defining keywords that the client might read throughout your contract is essential – this way the client is clear about what you are stating and understands what you are referring to. My standard terms and conditions list the following definitions:

  • Agreement
  • Client Content
  • Copyrights
  • Deliverables
  • Designer Tools
  • Final Artwork
  • Final Deliverables
  • Compositions (aka “comps”)
  • Project
  • Third Party Materials
  • Trademarks

3- Length of the proposal

This allows the client to know how long your “offer” or proposal is good for and how long the offer stands if, or if not accepted.

4- Fees and other charges

This is an important one as you might have guessed. This lets your clients know exactly what both you and them are responsible for and when its responsible. In this section of my contract I include:

  • How much down payment is required prior to the start
  • When the final payment is due (prior to the release of the Deliverables)
  • What expenses the client is responsible for – ie: printing costs, PayPal fees, long distance calls, shipping, etc.
  • Additional costs the client is responsible for paying – stock photography, fonts, etc.

5- Changes and “after–contract” additions

I’m certain, if you haven’t already, worked with someone who continuously requests an unreasonable amount of changes – remember time is money and any requests or changes outside the scope of the project must be accommodated for.

Also include:

  • How much you will charge for additional “after-contract” changes
  • How much change constitutes your additional rate – ie: “Client requests changes that amount to a revision near excess of 30%”
  • Additional time charges – The reasoning for this is too prevent clients from taking extra hours of your time or “sitting” on a project. I’ve sent client comps only to get a reply 3 weeks later. Now the time frame of the project has been substantially increased since feedback was required in order to proceed.

6- Client / Designer Responsibilities

Knowing who and what each party is responsible for is important and must be stated up front; ie: printer collaboration, typographic errors, etc.

Also if the client provides you materials to work from and they’re lost or damaged it must be accounted and compensated for.

7- The right to promote your work

You will find some clients who are uneasy about showing “their” work, but remember as a designer it’s your work and you should have the right to showcase it in your portfolio.

8- Confidential information

As a business (and trust me all business do it) we have the right to keep certain information private and between the designer and client. Make sure to provide the same and respect your clients information.

This can be an important area to include if you will be working with other designers and/or contractors and also the relationship between the client and designer; ie: The client and designer have the right to work with others of similar services. In addition, I state that my clients must inform me prior to signing the contract if any other parties will be working on the same project. This will eliminate ‘bidding’ (aka spec work) on projects.

9- Termination policy

Unfortunately from time to time you will have a client that backs out on the project midway through or more. This is important to state what happens in the event of termination and who is responsible for what.

Include that the designer should be compensated for:

  • any advance payment (which is why I typically ask for 50% up front – let’s you know that the client is more serious about the business relationship)
  • a prorated portion of the fees due
  • hourly fees, and make sure to reinstate the hourly rate

It’s also important to state the opposite if you, the designer, are unable to complete the project and how the client will be compensated.

PLEASE NOTE: The above guidelines are only a starting point and should be included in every design contract. They should be adapted over time, modified as needed and specific to each designer.

What are some other essentials that you include in your design contracts or standard terms and conditions?

Discussion and Comments

+ Add to the discussion
  1. John Foy says:

    Seriously in today’s industry design contracts are rapidly becoming an endangered specie. Most consumers go with low-end companies who don’t even provide them a payment invoice “sarcasm” :D

  2. [...] What to Include In Your Design Contracts [...]

  3. Drew Hollings says:

    Have you ever had to send it off via post? Or is email easier and just as efficient?

  4. sam says:

    very useful resource, i completely took number 7 for granted!! thanks.

  5. lono says:

    wow… great and informative article.
    people under estimate the importance of having it all writing.

  6. JMarin says:

    Thanks so much for this post! A lot of great tips. Can you elaborate on this part?

    “» Additional time charges – The reasoning for this is too prevent clients from taking extra hours of your time or “sitting” on a project. I’ve sent client comps only to get a reply 3 weeks later. Now the time frame of the project has been substantially increased since feedback was required in order to proceed.”

    I have project that has been delayed waiting for feedback and approval several times by my client… we are MONTHS past the original timeline we agreed upon… I did not think about including a caluse such as this in my contract – how exactly to you measure the impact of the delay?

  7. Fred mendes says:

    To JMarin
    Hi there!
    We’ve had similar problems with clients. We finished a project by March/09 (as mentioned in the contract) and the client was supposed to have prototyped all the products in 3-months time. It’s been a year and they haven’t even started it. The worse part is that they keep calling us to make small corrections on things that had been previously approved.

    In this case, what we did was charge the extra hours in a new proposal. And it was really important to come clear with the client, be honest and say “we are a small company, and you knew that. Unfortunately we can’t keep working on things that your team has approved unless we check the prices we had settled before”. We have be fair with our companies, I guess.

    Now, when clients simply don’t give feedback on projects, we kindly ask them if they are still interested in developing the product. If not, would they mind if we present the project to another company who might be interested in it. After all, we design products that are meant to be consumed, not to look pretty on paper!

    But of course, it all depends on the client and close you are to them…

    I hope it helps!

    Best regards,


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  9. Graham says:

    Great post Brian!

    When we started out company (well it was just me at the time), I used to think that clients were honest, easy going guys that would never think of doing us in. But I found out the hard way that by not having a contract or charging an upfron fee, I was setting myself up for a lot of dissapointment, frustration and no cash flow.

    I eventually met an attorney at a small business networking event. She specialises in drawing up Terms and Conditions (contracts) for small businesses and she had an intensive meeting with me discussing exactly what it is that I do and the pitfalls I was unaware of. As a result I got a really comprehensive contract that has helped keep the ‘bad ones’ away. We also charge a 50% upfront fee that is non-refundable should the client decide to cancel the project or use another suppler.

  10. nev says:

    very good post thanks

  11. Ben says:

    I like the legality aspect to this post. Thanks for the free advice.

  12. SchoolGrants says:

    This is really good and something that needs to be emphasized time and time again.

  13. Jesse says:

    Great article!
    I have worked far too long without a contract – but no more!
    Do you, or anyone in here, have a contract you are willing to share as a template?

  14. Joel says:

    Wow! Are you able to post a sample document including everything that you posted? It’s definitely a great starting point, and better than having no contract at all!

  15. The details mentioned here about the design contract are good one. I think every body needs to use them i ntheir contracts. Thanks

  16. Boldis Media says:

    Very interesting ideas of contracts for freelancers working with agencies, thanks!

  17. dresses says:

    The details mentioned here about the design contract are good one. I think every body needs to use them i ntheir contracts. Thanks

  18. Really great post, So many points that are a MUST!! Definitely bookmarking.
    Thanks, keep up the good work.

  19. cooljaz124 says:

    Is it weird if i ask you to upload a sample / fake contract to just have a look ? Thanks for the post

  20. Joni Mueller says:

    Start with the AIGA standard contract form. Great jumping off point.

  21. coda says:

    nice advice!

  22. bantai says:

    very usefull info, thanks

  23. Contracts are sooooooo important! I learned the hard way and it came and bit me in the butt. But once I did this (get a lawyer, go to http://www.legalzoome.com if needed). I am sooo much happier and so are my clients. It really benefits both. Thanks for the advice.

  24. Bryan says:

    Great article and very helful for the future :)
    I bet lots of us tried to read the receipt xD

  25. Great Article, Thanks for some of these tips. Some I haven’t actually thought about.

  26. ihumming says:

    great article mate, hope you will share with us again

  27. Even with a contract, it often comes down to whether you as a small business have the time and money to fight in court. Contracts are a must to help keep the project moving in the right direction.

  28. joyandlady says:

    I’m about to graduate from a design program and will probably have to freelance before I get hired. I have a simple question–when you do a logo design for a client, how do they normally prefer to receive it? Would I send them a high resolution jpeg? Or a tiff? I’m just confused as to what format clients prefer for their logo images and what the standard resolution is on the client-side.


  29. Think one thing we all get muddled in with at some point is client delays – nothing worse than working hard, then running into a virtual *busy signal when the end goal is to create something that your client will benefit from :-)

  30. wart removal says:

    Portfolio? Would be a good example to show the works you’ve done. I guess it is included in the project details right?

  31. icute says:

    to have a sample of this contracts would be good, but thanks for the guidelines.

  32. Web Design says:

    Brilliant – sound advice for freelancers who’re maybe too keen to get the deal that they skip the contract.

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello: