5 Tips for Design Contracts

Make sure you have a mutually agreed upon contract before you start
photo by AP/Kathy Willens

As word broke last month that Tobias Frere-Jones was suing his business partner Jonathan Hoefler for 50% ownership of the $50 million type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones, one detail in the story stood out as particularly distressing to me.

Frere-Jones’ suit is based entirely on a verbal agreement between the duo and a press release by Hoefler’s wife years ago. How is it that a man who brought an estimated $3 million worth of typefaces, including Gotham and Whitney, to the company failed to realize his intent of ownership with a written contract? Sadly, Frere-Jones would have a better chance at claiming that ownership had he simply created a contract at the time he joined Hoefler. 

Written contracts are imperative to projects big and small to ensure that everyone is on the page. While the internet is full of free templates for design contracts, its important to make sure that you, as a designer, tailor the content to fit the needs of both you and your project. Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind when writing up your contract:

  1. Explicitly state the project timeline and final deliverables. Be as comprehensive and as clear as possible to when milestones will be reached, what the final deliverables will be, and if there will be any longer-term maintenance. 
  2. Establish payment parameters. Clearly state that you will enforce the timely delivery of deposits and invoice payments within a set time period. It’s also a good idea to include a kill fee, in the event that a project gets axed by the client before the project is completed. 
  3. Outline client responsibilities. It takes two to meet deadlines, so be sure to get your content delivered on time. It’s also important to establish a means of contact and who exactly will be approving your work as you move toward completion.
  4. Maintain your right to display the final deliverables in your portfolio. It’s important to let the client know that you would like this project to represent you to future clients, and discuss this early on to avoid problems ahead. Also, stating that you retain the right to unused drafts or sketches will allow you to reuse them later on. 
  5. Leave a paper trail. You never know if or when the shit will hit the fan. Be sure to have a clear record of what the client agreed to and what work you provided. Pro bono lawyers that work specifically for those in the creative field are available, so make sure you keep everything just in case. 

For a more in depth guide to design contract writing, take a look AIGA's Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services.  

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