Writing a contract as a freelance creative can be a stressful process, and many young designers and illustrators can often get caught up doing loads of legal research that they don't fully understand and often doesn't really apply to the creative industry they're in.

In this latest industry insight from the Briefbox team, we'll be taking a look at some of the most important things to consider when writing a freelance contract as a graphic designer and illustrator.

With a strong contract in place and your client's signature secured, you allow yourself the peace of mind to focus on what matters to you, creating seriously cool pieces of design and illustration without constantly worrying about whether you're covered with a solid foundation of legal protection.

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Securing Client Details / International Clients / Payment and Pricing / Deadlines and Deliverables / Limiting Amendments / Self-Promotion and White-Labelling / Artwork Release / Project Cancellation / Additional Resources

Securing a Client's Contact Details

Other than a client's physical or digital signature, the most important thing your contract should include is a client's registered business details. As a bare minimum, you should look to include:

  • Your contact's full name at the company
  • Their professional email address
  • The company's registered business address

Should the worst happen and a client refuse to pay an invoice, all legal documentation needs to be sent via post to a business' registered address as your primary method of communication. We would also advise to send all legal documentation via email also so a digital record of all communication is kept.

If you're in the UK, then more often than not a quick search on their website or a business look-up on Companies House should be all you need to get this information quickly.

Working With International Clients

Working internationally can come with its own pitfalls, especially when it comes to securing money from an unhappy or dishonest client in the event of non-payment. This is why we always recommend securing a higher deposit upfront when working with overseas clients to reduce some of the risk before you get started on your designs and to show the client is committed to working with you.

Typically, this can be anywhere between 25-50% of the total project cost, but for larger projects that comprise of multiple stages (think a full branding and website design project for example), it's worth considering requiring a deposit for each stage of the project separately.

Breaking up deposits this way means that the client doesn't have to take as much of a financial gamble in you at the very beginning of the process, and enables you to build trust with one another much more effectively over the course of the full project.

Payment and Future Pricing

Making sure you're paid accurately and on time is one of the most important aspects of any contract as a freelance designer and illustrator. Before you're able to start thinking about legal action for non-payment, it's important that you have given your client the opportunity to pay any outstanding invoices during their own internal pay cycles. For most businesses, this window typically comes in at around 30 days or so, and is stipulated in a contract similarly to the below example:

The Client shall pay all invoices within 30 days of receipt. Interest at a rate of 10% per month is payable on any balance unpaid after 30 days of receipt.
If payment is not made, the Designer reserves the right to suspend their services or withhold any artwork until payment is received.

Something else to consider including in your freelance contract is the freedom to increase your rates as your skills grow and you become more in-demand.

Remember though that you need to be fair to your client, so make sure that you give your client fair notice well in advance of you increasing your rates. Something as simple as the below should be all you need to include to cover this:

All pricing shown for key deliverables in this commission is final and will remain unaltered by the Designer unless the scope of the project changes, such as the inclusion of any additions or variations which substantially change the nature of the commission.
However, the Designer reserves the right to update their prices and hourly / daily rate in the future in the event that the cost of providing the service increases. In the event of an upcoming price increase, the Designer will notify the Client at least 30 days in advance.

Deadlines and Deliverables

As a professional graphic designer and illustrator, it's important that both you and your client are able to stick to any deadlines that have been previously agreed at the start of a project.

We've always been huge believers that it's better to be honest and plan for a longer project timeline that you know you'll be able to stick to than promise things too quickly and miss deadlines along the way. This not only wastes the client's time but can also make you out to be untrustworthy in the long-term, souring the relationship with the client for any potential future projects.

With that being said, it's important to remember that sometimes things happen and it's rare that any project will ever stay completely on track 100% of the time. In those instances, it's important to make sure that you protect your own time, and that any delay or unspecified work from a client's end doesn't negatively impact the amount of time you had previously allocated to complete a given stage of the project.

We recommend including something similar to the below to help ensure that you're never held responsible for a client's poor time-management skills.

If for any reason the Client fails to provide any required assets, feedback or confirmation of sign-off by an agreed upon deadline, then it is expected that the project timeline shall be altered so that total time allocated for the Designer to complete the project remains unchanged.
If for any reason the scope of the project changes, such as the inclusion of any additions or variations which substantially change the nature of the commission, then it is also expected that the project timeline will be amended to accommodate these changes.

Limiting Amendments

As with any project in the creative industries, it's important to establish some boundaries early on to ensure that both parties know the limitations of your agreement.

Make sure you outline how many amendments are included for each stage of the project, whether you're happy to consider additional amendments for an increased fee, and where you set your own personal limits for what constitutes a "reasonable" amend.

Take a look at this example below, where we've laid out exactly how many amends the client is entitled to, exactly what those amends can be, and when you would need to quote additionally for any amends that fall outside of the initial agreement:

Any artwork created by the Designer may be subject to up to two rounds of reasonable amends requested by the Client at no additional cost at the Designer’s discretion.
Examples of amends that may be considered reasonable include re-ordering elements on a page, replacing a given font family throughout the design and exploring / testing new colour ways.
If the original project has completed, or the Client changes the brief and requires subsequent changes, additions or variations, the Designer may require additional payment for such work.
The Designer may refuse to carry out changes, additions or variations which substantially change the nature of the commission.

Working as a professional designer for over five years in the industry, I've honestly lost count of the amount of times I've had to refer a client to the amendments section of my contract in order to protect myself from a never-ending list of changes.

It is the by far one of the the most scrutinised parts of a graphic designer's contract, and getting it right at the beginning of the process can save you from a major headache further down the line.

Self-Promotion, White Labelling and Non-Disclosure Agreements

When working as a freelancer, particularly when working with design agencies and illustration studios, it's important to ask whether the client is expecting you to complete the work anonymously as part of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

Consider it from the end client's perspective. If they've commissioned an agency for their specific skills and expertise, the last thing the they want to see is that somebody other than the agency they're paying has completed the work instead.

It's crucial that while working a freelance designer or illustrator for another agency, that you discuss your rights with regards to what happens when the project has concluded.

If you are required to sign away your rights to using the work in your own portfolio, then consider charging an additional white-label fee to account for any potential loss of future revenue that might reasonable be expected as a result of being able to share the work in your online portfolio and social media channels.

Think about including something similar to the below when putting together your freelance contract as a graphic designer or illustrator:

The Designer claims the indefinite right to use all artwork for the purposes of self-promotion. Should the Client require the Designer’s involvement in the project to remain undisclosed, then this may be agreed at the Designer’s discretion for an additional fee based on the estimated loss of future revenue that may otherwise be reasonably expected to be generated as a result of the Designer being able to share the artwork.

You'll need to use a little discretion here when working out what this fee should be. While a set percentage fee might sound like a good idea at first, take a moment to think about who the end client is.

For example, let's take a look at the two projects below:

  • A $20,000 website project for a local start-up company with a fairly low turnover and low brand awareness.
  • A $7,000 social media campaign for a multinational household name in the food and drinks industry.

Which of these two projects do you think will benefit you the most when it comes to winning future work for yourself? Which brand's logo do you think will look better in your portfolio?

The key takeaway here is to weigh-up the total value of the project against the value of the end client themselves, and settle on a number that you feel justifies the removal of them from your graphic design or illustration portfolio.

Release of Source Artwork

Something that may surprise young designers and illustrators is that as a general rule, source artwork such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch and Figma files, are never released to a client unless specifically agreed at the beginning of a project for an additional fee.

Clients may try to pressure you into releasing your artwork under the pretence of them paying for the design in the first place, but consider the amount of work you could be losing by handing over the source files for something like a business card or social media frame, which can be a stable source of repeat revenue for freelance creatives as amendments and revisions regularly come over.

It's for this reason that nearly all agencies will charge an artwork release fee for the supply of any source artwork. This will vary greatly depending on the agency, but in my own personal experience, this typically comes in at 2.5 times the original design fee.

Project Cancellation

Sometimes, and often through no fault of your own, a client may cancel a commission midway through the project, and it's important to outline your rights in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

For projects charged by the hour, some agencies will simply invoice the client for the amount of time spent up until the point of cancellation, but this approach doesn't always work for projects that have been quoted at a set fee for the works as a whole.

To prepare for these instances, consider outlining a percentage-based termination fee based on key stages throughout a project. The below example shows two different routes:

If the project is cancelled by the client for through no fault of your own:

If a commission is cancelled by the Client through no fault of the Designer, the Client shall pay a cancellation fee as follows:
50% of the agreed fee if the commission is cancelled at the initial stages but after the project has been started;
100% of the agreed fee if the commission is cancelled on the delivery of artwork;
pro rata if the commission is cancelled at an intermediate stage.

If the client isn't satisfied with your creative efforts:

Should the artwork fail to satisfy, the Client may reject the artwork upon payment of a rejection fee as follows:
25% of the agreed fee if the artwork is rejected at the initial stages but after the project has been started;
50% of the agreed fee if the artwork is rejected on the delivery of artwork.

Remember to also include something similar to the below sentence to ensure that unless otherwise agreed, you retain the rights to all source artwork and copyright of any materials you've created as part of the project.

In the event of cancellation or agreement of rejection, the copyright of all artwork shall revert to the Designer unless otherwise agreed.

Additional Resources 📘

Copyright for Designers - Don't Get Caught Out

'Briefbox's essential guide on copyright law for designers to help you avoid getting caught out further down the line.'

The Illustrator’s Guide to Law and Business Practice by Simon Stern

'An essential guide written by an illustrator for illustrators.'

Graphic Artists Guild Handbook, 16th Edition: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines

'The industry bible for communication design and illustration professionals.'

In-House vs Freelance: Choosing Your Career Path as a Designer

'Briefbox's five-step essential guide to life as a freelancer, and working for an agency or in-house company.'

How Do Illustration Licences Work?

'Alleviating the uncertainty that businesses may feel when commissioning an illustrator and giving illustrators the confidence to use licences.'

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