How To Spot A Sketchy Client (Plus A Contract Template)


Many things about our business make one glad to be creative; and there certainly are things that destroy the very soul and one’s will to carry on. Client interaction can either lead to strong relationships that last a lifetime or make you feel low and worthless.

We look at our designs as our own children, and why not? We create our work from our mind and very being. We have an emotional attachment to our work. But we also need to earn a living from that creativity, and there lies the door to our problems and aggravation.

The question arose on a blog about how to screen a client. Perhaps talking about it in terms of how to spot a sketchy client would be a bit much, but like any freelancer, I need to dump my anxieties on those who sign my paychecks. From corporate clients to the single-owner businesses, clients are our lifeblood… and they can be a cruel, cruel mistress. No wonder we drink.

How to Spot a Sketchy Client

The number one recommendation of many is to have a strong contract. True, this legal instrument can be easily ignored by clients, who know full well that you may never collect. The contract spells out the terms and rights — terms that will soon be tossed aside by the client (I swear, almost gleefully at times).

The contract is usually the deal-breaker for me. If they refuse a contract, you know you’ll have nothing but trouble ahead, particularly with regards to getting paid. Walking away, then, costs nothing and empowers you. Taking something from the client’s office as you exit makes you feel even better: a pen, a desk clock, the coat hanging on the door (as though you brought it). Call it “Travel and compensation for expenses.”

Let’s say you now have a draft contract. After many conversations, calls, emails, meetings and such, you send the contract to the client to sign, but they refuse to sign. You’ll hear so many reasons, and they are all entertaining. Here is a classic exchange of mine:

Me: Here’s my contract. Sign it and we’ll begin.

Them: We don’t need a contract. You can trust me.

Me: Oh, I do trust you. But if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, then I’ll need legal documentation to collect from the company.

Them: I won’t get hit by a bus.

Me: It could be a slip in the shower. That’s the number one kille…

Them: I don’t sign contracts!

Me: How did you get phone service or office space or equipment?

Them: I could hire an art student to do this with no contract and for less money!

Me: Then why did you contact me?

At this point, I’m usually told to get out.

One client agreed to a contract but wanted to tack on the phrase “… and anything else needed” to the end of a laundry list of services included in the quoted fee. I pictured myself sitting in a retirement home with the client still demanding design work and being unable to bill them until they had “anything else needed.” That, of course, went nowhere. All in all, a substantial waste of time.

What to include in a contract

Designers ask me about my contract. It’s a hybrid of the AIGA1, GAG and common sense changes for the sake of digital-signature contracts. Tad Crawford, the well-known attorney for artists’ rights, has a book2 with form and contract templates, which I highly recommend.

When a client and I have agreed to a creative brief, I tell the client that I’ll send confirmation. Semantics seem to alleviate the fear of the word “contract.” Quite simply, the contract, as stated, is deemed to have been accepted once the job commences (I email to confirm that they have received the “confirmation,” and I keep all emails pertaining to the contract and to the client confirming their acceptance), and it is legally considered a digital signature when the client responds in the affirmative to begin the project.

Client: ________________

Primary Contact: ________________

Project: _______________

Date of Project: _________

Project Deadline: ________

Purchase Order #: _______

Your Name: _____________

Invoice #: _____

Creative brief: [Include the approved creative brief that you wrote. This is an important part of the contract!]

Fee: [This is where you lay out all terms of the sale, even if it is repeated in the contract terms below: how much, how many hours, what rights are sold or transferred, how many revisions, the hourly rate for those revisions, etc. It doesn’t have to be in legalese, just as complete as possible so that you don’t have to sue to get paid for something you didn’t have in writing.]

1. Payment
All invoices are payable within 21 business days of receipt. A $50 service charge is payable on all overdue balances for reissuing each invoice at 45, 60, 75 and 90 days from the date of original invoice. The grant of any license or right of copyright is conditioned on receipt of full payment.

2. Default in payment
The Client shall assume responsibility for cost outlays by designer in all collections of unpaid fees and of legal fees necessitated by default in payment. Invoices in default will include but are not limited to fees for collection and legal costs.

3. Estimates
The fees and expenses shown are minimum estimates only unless an hourly fee has been agreed upon. That fee will be ________ per hour and the designer shall keep the client apprised of a tally of hours within a reasonable period of time. Final fees and expenses shall be shown when invoice is rendered. The fees and expenses shown are minimum estimates only unless the quote and/or invoice is clearly marked Firm Quote, otherwise the below stated hourly fee will be payable on all time over that which was quoted with a minimum in 30 minute increments.

4. Changes
The Client must assume that all additions, alterations, changes in content, layout or process changes requested by the customer will alter the time and cost. The Client shall offer the Designer the first opportunity to make any changes.

5. Expenses
The Client shall reimburse the Designer for all expenses arising from this assignment, including the payment of any sales taxes due on this assignment, and shall advance the Designer for payment of said expenses, including but not limited to Stock Photography, Artwork and/or material needed for the project.

6. Cancellation
In the event of cancellation of this assignment, ownership of all copyrights and the original artwork shall be retained by the Designer, and a cancellation fee for work completed, and expenses already incurred, shall be paid by the Client. Cancellation fee is based on the hours submitted, if the project is on an hourly basis or a percentage based on the time estimate for the entire job. A 100% cancellation fee is due once the project has been finished, whether delivered to the client or not. If the project is on an hourly basis and the project is canceled by the client, the client agrees to pay no less than 100% of the hours already billed for the project at the time of cancellation plus a flat fee of $250 or 50% of the remaining hours that were expected to be completed on the project, whichever is greater.

7. Ownership and return of artwork
The Designer retains ownership of all original artwork, whether preliminary or final, and the Client shall return such artwork within 30 days of use unless indicated otherwise below. If transfer of ownership of all rights is desired, the rates may be increased. If the Client wishes the ownership of the rights to a specific design or concept, these may be purchased at any time for a recalculation of the hourly rate on the time billed or the entire project cost.

8. Credit Lines
The Designer and any other creators shall receive a credit line with any editorial usage. If similar credit lines are to be given with other types of usage, it must be so indicated here.

9. Releases
The Client shall indemnify the Designer against all claims and expenses, including attorney’s fees, due to the uses for which no release was requested in writing or for uses that exceed authority granted by a release.

10. Modifications
Modifications of the terms of this contract must be written and authorized by both parties, involving the implementation of a new version of the contract as a whole following standard procedures of documentation and approval.

11. Uniform commercial code
The above terms incorporate Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code.

12. Code of fair practice
The Client and the Designer agree to comply with the provisions of the Code of Fair Practice (which is in the Ethical Standards section of chapter 1, Professional Relationships).

13. Code of fair practice
The Designer warrants and represents that, to the best of his/her knowledge, the work assigned hereunder is original and has not been previously published, or that consent to use has been obtained on an unlimited basis; that all work or portions thereof obtained through the undersigned form third parties is original or, if previously published, that consent to use has been obtained on an unlimited basis; that the Designer has full authority to make this agreement; and that the work prepared by the Designer does not contain any scandalous, libelous, or unlawful matter. This warranty does not extend to any uses that the Client or others may make of the Designer’s product that may infringe on the rights of others. Client expressly agrees that it will hold the Designer harmless for all liability caused by the Client’s use of the Designer’s product to the extent such use infringes on the rights of others.

14. Limitation of liability
Client agrees that it shall not hold the Designer or his/her agents or employees liable for any incidental or consequential damages that arise from the Designer’s failure to perform any aspect of the project in a timely manner, regardless of whether such failure was caused by intentional or negligent acts or omissions of the Designer or Client, any client representatives or employees, or a third party.

15. Dispute Resolution
Any disputes in excess of the maximum limit for small-claims court arising out of this Agreement shall be submitted to binding arbitration before a mutually agreed-upon arbitrator pursuant to the rules of the American Arbitration Association. The Arbitrator’s award shall be final, and judgment may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof. The client shall pay all arbitration and court cost, reasonable attorney’s fees, and legal interest on any award of judgment in favor of the Designer. All actions, whether brought by client or by designer will be filed in the designer’s state/county of business/residence.

16. Acceptance of terms
The signature of both parties shall evidence acceptance of these terms.

Designer: __________________

Date: _____________________

Client: _____________________

Date: ______________________

16a. Acceptance of terms
The action of the sending and receipt of this agreement via electronic method will hold both parties in acceptance of these terms. The Designer as sender and the client as recipient will acknowledge acceptance of these terms either through an e-mail noting acceptance or acceptance is acknowledged at the beginning of any work on said project. Electronic signatures shall be considered legal and binding.

This contract is held accountable to the legal system of [country] and any applicable statutes held therein.

Disclaimer: the inclusion of this template does not imply any legalities or responsibility on the part of the writer or Smashing Magazine. It is included solely for information purposes as an example of one professional’s contract. The laws in your state/country/dictatorship may differ. Check the Web for more information on your local laws.

Here is an OpenOffice document with the sample contract3 (.zip).

What Does Your Time and Effort Cost?

But why let it get to that point? Drafting a creative brief and adjusting a contract take a good amount of time and effort. What is most often ignored is the process long before the contract/argument/threats stage. There are red flags and tell-tale signs to look out for when discussing a job with the client. (Just as when you are being interviewed for a full-time position, you are also interviewing them.) How do they communicate? Do they constantly interrupt you and boast? That kind of personality will tend to micro-manage and belittle you, after which they will try to cut your bill in half because they “did all the creative work.”

Red flags are those little bells that go off in your head, or the saliva you produce as you get ready to vomit. One red flag I like is pulling up to a prospective client’s business address and finding that the building doubles as a crack house. Not getting out of the car at all saves me a great deal of time and effort.

If you make it to the reception area, look around. Any awards, plaques or licenses? The tell-tale sign of a summons from the courts pasted across the door? Are the people who walk in and out smiling or bleeding? Unhappy employees mean you will not enjoy working for the client either. If you see a pile of mail on the reception desk, are there envelopes marked “Final notice”? Is everyone well mannered and respectful? Were you kept waiting more than 15 minutes after your appointment time? Is the office neat and clean? If it’s disorganized and filthy, that’s how they will treat you.

The quiet shy client will ask 200 or more people (and animals) for their input on the design and then request all of those things from you. Charge hourly and you’ll be able to retire on the change this client rolls up… if you get paid, that is.

The overexcited type wants to be your friend and hang out at a bar during meetings. Because they are also a raging alcoholic, they won’t remember what they approved or what they asked you or what you told them. If you have a contract, they won’t remember it and will argue that it doesn’t count.

The person who flips through your portfolio like a Las Vegas card dealer is looking to hire a pair of hands to execute their ideas. Go hourly, and make sure to keep the client informed of the hours as you go along, so that they understand why they have a $20,000 letterhead after you’ve had seven sleepless weeks of work.

The corporate art director will be easy-going and have a contract all ready for you. After you’ve signed away all rights and future children, and you’ve delivered the job, they will be as helpless as you to see through a timely payment, so why bother mentioning it? The invoice is passing through layers, and when it reaches the accounting department, you must bear the corporate-mandated pecking order of payment. Freelancer rates just below cockroach exterminator on the list of payees.

I’ve gone through all of these episodes. We all have. So, what do you do? The saving grace is the comfort I get when a client smiles, tells me they love my work and want me to do “something different,” when they do everything on the level and pays me a fair rate in a reasonable time. It happens enough to keep me from quitting the business some days, but the other personality types sure do test my patience the other days.

Further Reading



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Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices and telling frightening stories that make students question their career choice (just kidding).

  1. 1

    June 8, 2010 11:44 am

    this shit is so funny! Very well written I thought. hehehehehe
    but sadly also true…

  2. 52

    Great info, but your stock contract language is basically straight out of an old copy of the Graphic Artists Guild’s Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines.

    You might want to give credit where credit is due, since the Guild has been advocating for artists’ rights for many decades, and our industry’s ability to rely on laws to enforce our rights is (in the US, anyway) largely due to that nonprofit’s many years of hard work.

    • 103

      I served many years on the GAG board and drafted a lot of the language and practices used today. The GAG doesn’t deserve the credit — the ordinary people who volunteer their time to make it all happen deserve the credit.

      I mentioned Tad Crawford, who drafted all the legal mumbo-jumbo. There is a link to his books and they are a must for anyone in the freelance field. Tad was the driving force behind the legal initiatives of the GAG and, again, credit where credit is due.

      But the guild is also soft on clients and after the infamous, “Ask First” campaign (Joint Ethics Committee), I beleieve, asking advertising agencies to not just scan sourcebook pages for storyboards and presentations, and to at least “ask” the copyright holder first, was a fail of huge proportions. It should have been entitled, “Swiping is illegal and we stand behind any and all infringement lawsuits.”

      My contract, although based on the Crawford GAG contract, has a little more bite and is a bit more updated. If you can get anything from it, great!

      Thanks for writing.

  3. 154

    I’m pretty sure someone made a request for this article… And I’m glad this was posted, especially after that “There is no such thing as a bad client” article. Thanks SM.

    • 205

      Sorry it took a while. I was in the bathroom…which is my office, bit I was distracted.

  4. 256

    @Speider – Great Article and Contract Sample!

    This information is extremely useful. Will be reviewing our contract/agreement documentation in the morning and updating accordingly. I’m sure some of the points you make will only further improve our legal bound for both us the supplier and client!

    Thanks again! ;)

    • 307

      That’s the point I always make to the client — the contract is in place to protect their rights as well. Transfer of rights has to be in writing. Plain and simple. Tell them you could always go insane down the road and claim they never bought the rights.

      It’s never easy. Keep the faith!

  5. 358

    Loved the details and points made. Customers forget while we are here to help serve and create for them there is no SLAVE on our foreheads ;)

    I am with you on no negotiations over your contract. It is there to protect you and spell out the terms period.

    I was lucky enough to spell our client responsibilities out the gate, heard horror stories from friends years ago-memory can serve you well.

  6. 409

    I think it depends on the country you;re in. I moved back to Toronto Canada 8 years ago from Los Angles and there is a stark difference in clients (Bad or Good). The best red flag to look for is a client that does not embrace email, he/she leaves instructions on your answering machine.

    • 460

      There is a big difference between the American Market/laws and elsewhere. You do need to cross reference the contract with local laws, your discipline in the creative field and how far you wish to push a client.

      As for odd communications, many years into the computer boom in publishing, I was told a client wanted the “mechanical” pasted up with rubber cement because he “liked the feel of the board in (his) hands.”

      There are millions of odd stories out there. It gives me subjects for articles such as this.

  7. 511

    Great Articles.. Many new points i came across..
    Thanks a lot.

  8. 562

    That’s a pretty poorly written contract.

    In item #3, a pretty important item, you contradict yourself within two sentences.

    Item #4 asserts that the designer is in complete control of the project when you say, “The Client shall offer the Designer the first opportunity to make any changes.” No careful client would accept such language, and no competent designer should include such language.

    Item # 8 is poorly written and as such totally unclear.

    Items #14 and #15 are pretty much red flags for any serious client. Really? You want you client to indemnify you for the results of not completing your assignment on time? I’ve been on both ends of the client/provider spectrum, and as a client, I would totally balk at such a provision.

    As a designer and web developer, I would be seriously concerned about the impression this overly-long and poorly-written document makes.

    • 613

      In all due respect, you are saying that passages written by a noted expert in artist’s rights and attorney (not me) was wrong. I don’t want to get into arguments but in this case I would have to defer to Tad Crawford/Graphic Artists Guild and the effectiveness I have seen with this contract, for myself and others. I do not agree with your assertions nor apparently do many of the posters here, as professionals. I also have to question how you are interpreting the passages you mention. Passage four says nothing about the designer being in complete control of the project. It is a passage to assure you as designer, that the client will not take your work and hire someone cheaper to “finish it.” It’s a serious problem designers face.

      Passage 8 seems perfectly clear for credit lines. Again, I don’t see your point. The same goes for passages 14 and 15. Would you accept an assignment without that protection? If a client has a problem with assuring you that you will be paid or have the right to collect monies owed at their expense, then why bother? There are a lot of people who need design out there, there are fewer that are willing to pay for it. If, I, for example are fooled and work for someone who knowingly will not pay for the work, I at least want a contract for an avenue to compensation.

      Have you ever seen a contract for car or house insurance? We all have, but how many times do you read it? It is a masterpiece in contractual double speak. The contract starts with everything that is covered, which is everything and then lists exclusions, which is everything.

      Thanks for your concern and post, but I would reread the contract and consider how it can help you, either through additions to your own contract or the knowledge that your contract is perfect as is..

      • 664

        Pardon me again, Matt and all, but I have to address this opinion as it may sway others or plant doubts. To all I say you must read and understand the terms, the local laws that will possibly effect terms and that this is a legal document. You can use this, as the disclaimer states, as a model for information purposes. Even if you are handed a “sign or goodbye” contract by a CLIENT, you must understand what you are signing away.

        Client negotiations are a delicate dance of social graces, business, compassion, creativity and patience. It does, of course, involve at least two parties.

        Passages 14 and 15 are bottom line rights. What if a client ignores you for weeks and calls you Thursday to inform you that the presses run Friday? You say you can’t get it done by then and the client informs you he/she expects you to pay for press time because you “didn’t give HIM enough notice.”

        The client calls your office and “told someone” to make a change and it wasn’t done and now he/she is being sued for naming his/her company “IBM” and you never told them not to name it that.

        After a month of silence, the client calls and is ready to go because the campaign is due to the printer in two days. But you’ve taken another assignment and it pays very well and will be a repeat client. Do you drop it and finish the other assignment in two days?

        As for dispute resolution, this is the preferred manner in the corporate world as it makes good business sense. Staying out of a trial saves an immense amount of money as well as worker hours that would be tied up with depositions and appearances. If you’ve ever been subpoenaed and have to appear at a trial, it can take days of sitting and waiting.

        Also, keep in mind this is all from payment default. You’re afraid of hurting their feelings because they didn’t pay or want to handily place the legal responsibility on you, which of course carries financial responsibility? Not me, brother.

        Thanks again for your points. I appreciate your participation.

        • 715

          Thanks for clearing this up….also great post and very helpful…Some people on here feel a need to criticize everything… :)

        • 766

          I presently work in a client-side setting, and actually have to review contracts pretty frequently, so I am just showing you how I would react from that point of view.

          I see that I misinterpreted point #8: “Credit Line” can mean a couple of things. I would replace with “The designer must be credited in a byline.” But that’s just a misreading.

          I think #3 could be re-written for clarity. At first it says “The fees and expenses shown are minimum estimates only unless an hourly fee has been agreed upon.” That’s fine. Then, two sentences later, another condition is added to the exact same sentence: “The fees and expenses shown are minimum estimates only unless the quote and/or invoice is clearly marked Firm Quote.” So which is it? These sentences should be combined, because saying “unless” with two different conditions is confusing.

          My problem with #4 is that it seems to contractually obligate the client to stick with you for revisions even if your work ends up terribly off the mark. I think you could read it like this: “You promise to give me another chance if I really screw up.” That is not to say that there is not a valid protection underneath that, but something still makes me uneasy about it.

          My objection to #14 is that it indemnifies the designer for intentional or neglectful acts on the designers part. That doesn’t sit well with me. While it does offer the very important protections you mentioned, it also could read like this: “I know you have an important deadline that might have legal ramifications if not met, but I’m reserving the right to screw things up for you on purpose and not have to pay for it.” I would seriously consider removing the part about intentional acts of the designer.

          #15 is fine, I see what you mean.

          Hey, if you feel like we’re going down a rabbit hole here, and you think its fine to post this contract as a good starting point, knowing that many hundreds of people are going to copy and paste it, then by all means, delete my comments. I don’t think the fact that the contract is based on the work of a famous contract-writer makes it any less valid for me to be critical. While I’m sure a lot of readers of Smashing Magazine are working with high power corporate clients, where this contract would be appropriate (but wouldn’t they have contracts already?), I’m also pretty certain that there are a lot more readers who are just starting out, and I think this contract is just too defensive to be used in a small business setting.

          • 817

            There’s no reason to delete your comments. You present a side of doubt that naturally someone would raise. I’m afraid I have to defer to the contract and the knowledge of those who wrote the contracts from which it is compiled.

            You are right that corporate clients will have their own contract. I’ve mentioned that several times. As for the smaller clients for which this agreement is based, they will not have a contract and may very well be frightened of obligating themselves to a freelance for rights and payments under the law. Then why trust them?

            Legally, you could handwrite simple terms on a piece of paper and that would stand as a legal document but what terms would be left out? Legally, starting a job is a legal verbal agreement which only guarantees that you are DOING a job for which payment is due, but there is no time constraints, rights of copyright, etc. spelled out within that agreement.

            If your firm doesn’t have their own contract for freelance work, then they really, really should. Perhaps you should take the passion you feel for the subject and create a contract for your firm (with the help of their legal department). It would be the best for all parties involved.

  9. 868

    do thanks for the great info, but it’s really hard to comply for newly starting freelance designer in a small city. but I’ve downloaded the design contract sample and definitely will use it when I become a famous graphic designer :)

    • 919

      Famous has nothing to do with it but I understand your position. Try downsizing the contract to a simple “invoice.”

      Your local office supply store will have a generic book of invoices that tear out and have a carbon duplicate. The familiarity of this form will not frighten small clients as they see and use the same every day.

      Hand fill out the “creative brief” with an full outline of the job, deadline, fee, transfer of rights and when/how you expect to be paid. Have them sign it, rip out their copy and chances are no one will blink but you will have something in writing.

      As for suing someone in a small town, it’s always better to work out a deal. I had a client who lost an original piece of art from an illustrator in my studio. While the client was ultimately responsible, I was responsible for exploring every avenue to either find it or pay for it’s value, which at that time was the cost of the assignment. The junior level art director, who was a mess both mentally and physically, thought he would be fired for losing “another” piece of art and I worked it out so I could bill him a little extra each assignment until the total of the original art was paid off. Worked out for everyone. He kept his job, the illustrator was due a payment for his original and getting further assignments. Win-win.

      In a small town, barter what you can and walk away with a smile.

  10. 970

    Awesome read, i’ll definitely bookmark this and use it on my next freelance project…

  11. 1021

    This is a very good article. Thanks.

    Another useful technique for spotting a potential sketchy client is to search for the client by company name and owner’s names in the courthouse records for the counties where they reside and/or do business. If you find them named in law suits with vendors, clients, and/or employees then don’t walk away… RUN.

    Naturally, I learned this useful technique the hard way.

    • 1072

      I’ve also found, even in cities as big as New York, that word gets around about bad clients. It’s the small, self-proprietorships that escape reputation and they are the ones that demand a contract such as this, if not even more terms.

  12. 1123

    You do realise that .odt is already .zip’ed content, no?

  13. 1174

    I just write ’em with pretty words and someone else uploads. Give them a break, please.

  14. 1225

    Thanks to everyone for reading and participating in the discussion. I hope I’ve made the point of the importance to have SOMETHING in writing, some agreement and some protection in one of the few businesses that relies on a certain amount of trust. Educate yourself, compare contracts with other professionals and when every freelancer tells a client that there is a contract involved, the united front will make it easier and much more pleasant for all of us to do business.


  15. 1276

    Thank you! Very useful for my start-up business!

  16. 1327

    Just wanted to say thanks for a great post. The first few paragraphs, in particular, are great. I’ve become a little desensitized to the number and length of smashing articles lately, but this one caught my eye with it’s slightly more heartfelt and honest introduction.

    I’m not a designer, but as a Director of Client Services and former Project Manager, the same rules apply. I’m constantly trying to keep emotional investment in check when advising clients, but it was nice to hear someone point out we have every logical reason to become tied to our advice.

    Great post! I hope to see more on the subject of client relationships. Always a good addition to the mix.


  17. 1378

    @Katie – Thank you. The next article, which should be live soon, deals with “design-by-committee.” I think you’ll like it.

    I have another awaiting that explores ourselves as our own worst enemy in protecting and strengthening our business. I expect a lot of negative responses but that’s how I write them; don’t just read my words — debate and discuss them. The best information comes from those who live it every day and we all gain from sharing.

  18. 1429

    This is one of the better articles I have read here. Stop giving the guy grief before you run him off.

  19. 1480

    Lol! Don’t worry, @Kevin. This is nothing compared to what I get for my political commentaries. A good variety of comments here. Nothing nasty, just opposing opinions.

  20. 1531

    A friend of mine who runs his own design agency charges 70% upfront from the big advertising agencies, for the simple reason that they hardly pay up on time.

    They hate him, but he isn’t losing any money or work.

  21. 1582

    The lack of Digg button is rather annoying. I would guess you get a decent amount of traffic from Digg so I’m not sure why the button is nowhere to be found.

  22. 1633

    Nice article and great to emphasise that we need at least *something* in writing. I have a couple of points though:

    1. Make sure you understand your contract, not just fire it off to clients without reading and fully understanding it. If you don’t know it inside out, many clients will come back at you and you will end up with contractual egg on your face.

    2. I had my Ts & Cs, freelanc subcontractor agreement and proposal documents professionally rewritten after discovering that my “downloaded off the internet” documents wouldn’t protect me at all under UK law.

    3. While there is lots of info in your Ts & Cs, assume that people won’t read or understand them. The “worst” clients don’t understand that they will only get one concept design, that they don’t receive title to the work until full payment, or that if they cancel they don’t get a refund. Make all this clear up front verbally before they sign up.

    Hope this helps – I have just been through all this myself!



    • 1684

      As half the comments in this thread are mine, I did mention somewhere that is important to understand contractual terms, not only of our own but of the ones we receive from clients.

      The fact that you downloaded a contract that was not in conjunction with English Common or Copyright Laws is why I mentioned checking your local laws before issuing any contract.

      The original Graphic Artist’s Guild contract called for a percentage each month on overdue balances. Even within some state laws in the U.S., the practice of collecting as a credit agency created problems (hence my simple re-invoicing fee and re-invoicing schedule which covers the effort and costs within legal boundaries).

  23. 1735

    I think it’s pretty useful for any entrepreneur – not just for designers. Thanks!

  24. 1786

    Please don’t steal a client’s coat as you leave his office. You might call it “travel and compensation for expenses”, but the police call it “petty theft”.

    • 1837

      Best to leave it just inside the property line for legal reasons and let the client wonder how the coat got outside.

      Officially, I was kidding about stealing something. I hope people understand it was just for the sake of humor to break up what is a very serious subject.

      I would never advise anyone to get up at the end of a meeting that was obviously a waste of time because the prospect wouldn’t talk on the phone and somehow thought getting you face to face to explain the opportunity he/she is giving you to do for free, and place your bag or case on the edge of their desk, on top of papers or a laptop and then pick up a little extra with your own bag or case. You should never do that.

      Also, do not, under any circumstances, ask to use the lavatory on the way out and take a painting from the wall or all the rolls of bathroom tissue.

      I think that covers it.

  25. 1888

    I had a potential client come in this morning to talk to me about doing some work. He was referred to me by one of my existing clients. The potential client was creating a new company and did not have much of a budget.

    “If you will work with me at a reduced rate, I’m sure there will there will be much more work in the future.”

    I reached in my files and pulled out my “Future Work” contract. I explained to the client that this agreement was simply restating what he had just said.

    1. I get an exclusive right to all marketing, sales support, branding, presentations, trade shows, prepress and web projects for one year. In other words, I get the exclusive right to all creative and promotional projects for a whole year.

    2. In exchange for this exclusivity, I will provide all services at a 40% reduction of my open and published rates and I get the exclusive right to hire all subcontractors and outside services (like printing and programing) with a 50% reduction in my normal markup.

    3. After one year, I get an additional two-year exclusive contract at my normal open rates plus an extra markup to “make up” for the losses while building the company.

    4. The client may exit the contract at any time by simply paying the difference between the discounted rate provided to aid the new company and the published open rate. These differences will be listed on every proposal, invoice and statement.

    5. I retain the ownership of all materials and rights until paid for in full at the published open rates.

    The potential client paled as I explained the contract.

    “Isn’t this exactly what you offered?” I asked. “If I was willing to work at a reduced rate now, I would be able to make it up later, in the future, as the company grows.”

    After the potential client left, I called my existing client. We both laughed at the drama and he apologized for his referral. He did tell me that he had informed his friend that we were the best in the area and well worth the expense.

    I’ve never had a potential client sign the “Future Work” agreement.

    • 1939

      I’ve done the same. It seems we don’t understand our roles in helping a startup get a visual brand. As near as I can figure it out, from past pitches made by startups, paying for accountants, office space, phones and internet, while signing contracts on all are not negotiable as part of the start up, but giving the company a brand and marketable asset is…if there’s even money to be negotiated. And they wonder why most businesses fail in the first year.

      I just don’t let it get to that point. Some do ask for a referral to another designer. This is when you reply with one of the clever names Bart Simpson uses when he prank calls Moe’s. When the client repeats it back, laugh loudly and hang up.

  26. 1990

    Hey Spider, nice article and such graceful sense of humor, enjoyed every single word of it!

    I have a specific question, how much do you charge a client that wants to obtain full ownership rights, instead of exclusive usage rights? How do you get to that number?

    Thanks in advance!

    • 2041

      Speider Schneider

      June 18, 2010 8:25 pm

      Thanks, Marie! I’m afraid the days of holding on to the copyright are over. Normally, with corporate identities, it is always a buyout and fees and terms are either up to what they offer or what you will accept or hold out to get.

      I just made a very fair bid on a job with a small firm that has been in business for at least a year and are expanding. Even the fair fee was too much for them. I doubt a negotiation on rights was going to take place.

      In cases like Wes has described above, with start ups wanting to promise more work down the line, you might be able to create their logo but, because they need a hefty discount (or, gasp, free!) is to offer an assigned copyright for a two or three year period, which assure you will reap their promise of “future work.”

  27. 2092

    Yes, I agree that holding on to copyrights when designing corporate identities is a lost battle, but what about other design disciplines, like web icons, web design, print design and so on… I can understand why a client wants to have all copyrights over their logo, but what about these other design disciplines?

    • 2143

      A design is a compilation of several people. The writer, designer, photographer, perhaps a designer who did the logo that is being used in a design, etc. The entire package can’t belong to several people, so firms will own all rights and there is never a question of someone denying use down the line.

  28. 2194

    From a web designer’s perspective you make valid points. But what about from a client’s perspective? What guarantees can a client expect from a web designer-developer?

    I realize there are high-maintenance clients that cause grief and frustration to legitimate businessmen-women. I deal with these kinds of clients every day. The big difference between what I sell and what web designers-developers sell is my merchandise is tangible—people actually walk out of my store with what they paid for—and web stuff is intangible: at least until a finished website is delivered.

    I have tried for 10 years to find a reliable and reputable web designer-developer in my area. I have spent thousands of dollars and put forth thousands of hours of my and my staff’s time to develop an online presence. My expereince has been disappointing, if not depressing. If I had the same experiences with electrical contractors, telephone companies, IT companies, insurance companies, and every other type of company necessary to run a brick-and-mortar business, as I have had with web developers, I would be out of business.

    The so-called web development experts I have hired did not deliver what they promised. Instead, they provided second-rate work, which left my website in a perpetual state of disorder. I would hire new web development experts who would badmouth the previous experts, telling me how incompetent the previous experts were. In case you’re curious, I wasn’t hiring my nephew (or third-world-country designers) to work on my websites—I paid top-shelf hourly rates.

    I’m sure all of the web development experts I have hired consider me a “sketchy” client. I squawked when these experts did not deliver what they promised—and yes I did pay all my bills.

    The problem I see with the web development-design business is an abundance of so-called experts and a scarcity of true experts. Licenses are not required to hang a “Web Developer” shingle and there is no accountability in this field. All of the web developer-designers I have hired seemed to learn on my dime—none of them had the “go-to” capability a business owner seeks to get a job done.

    I wish the good web developers would create a co-op website where potential clients could go to find reliable and responsible experts to service web development needs. This co-op site could use a rating system (one to five stars) to evaluate the performance of the web developer-designers listed. If feedback for a particular developer turned negative he-she would be removed from the site’s listing.

    If you are a really good web developer and you know you are one, you should get paid accordingly for your work. If a contract would insure you got paid for what you were entitled, no legitimate client should object. On the other hand, the client needs assurance, too: Like payment for Like services.

    If anyone reading this comment wants to see the scope of my website projects and show me what you have to offer, please send an email and I will send the details. Hopefully, everyone reading this comment will not write me off as a “sketchy” client.

    • 2245

      Sorry to hear about your problems finding a reliable professional. I think you’ll enjoy an upcoming article entitled, “Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?” (sometime in the future…lots of articles in the queue in front of it – so keep checking in). There are many…too many people out there that bill themselves as professionals but are simply not. Referrals are the best source or seeing work you admire and want for yourself. But, as for both parties, a firm agreement on expectations and partial payments can keep things on track.

      There are, unfortunately, sketchy clients and sketchy vendors. The first project usually spells out the relationship. Sometimes it’s a learning curve for both parties and the second project runs smoother.

  29. 2296

    Chris Lorensson

    June 23, 2010 4:21 am

    Great article… there have been several like this now, but as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier.

    My personal sticking point is on ownership. I understand the ‘common practice’ reasoning for charging more for rights of an original design, but I disagree with this on an ethical basis. I have a policy of giving all the original build files for everything within the project to the client on a disc upon final payment.

    I think of it like they’re buying a product – but the build files are just as important to the project as the live website itself. I don’t want to manage rights. I’ve never needed to manage rights, and I think that – as just a common freelance web designer – withholding rights is just a can of worms with little or no benefits.

    Would love to hear thoughts on this..

    • 2347

      There are kill functions and such a web designer, developer, etc. can use to enforce payment, although one just got sued for killing a site for non-payment and was found liable for lost revenue while the site was down. Yikes!

      For print, often one must let go and wait the 30 days to, ha, get paid — some people, for the whole amount because 50% wasn’t collected before starting. Maybe you’ll get the money despite a contract that makes rights transfer and usage contingent upon payment. I’ve never heard of anyone who said, “forget the payment. Just pulp the pieces you’ve produced and cancel any shipments or production runs.” Can you imagine the silence with which such a statement would be met?

      I just don’t know of any situation where all rights aren’t transferred with the exception of George Lucas keeping Star Wars merchandising rights and the guy who did Calvin and Hobbs but he didn’t want any more money so he never merchandised anything and then retired.

      Pay me and let me move on, I say.

      • 2398

        I definitely agree with the “pay me and let me move on” philosophy – all rights are transferred upon final payment and that’s the way I like it.

        My contract is significantly longer than yours, with all kinds of clauses in there to protect myself & my business as much as possible, while still protecting the client as much as possible (without putting myself at risk, of course). I’ve never had a problem getting clients to sign it, but it definitely helps to go over the contract face-to-face so you can answer any potential questions or misinterpretations right on the spot.

        @West Gates – I love the idea of that contract. I’ve never thought of that before, but have done plenty of work at reduced cost after being promised more work in the future, only to never hear from the client again. Even if nobody signs it, it still identifies the clients who are just saying that to get a discounted rate

  30. 2449

    Hey speider, can you tell me what is the process form the point the clients contacts you to that first down payment on a project? or what works well, that clients respond to?

  31. 2500

    perfect – thank you. exactly what i was looking for!

  32. 2551

    I just let go of a very bad client. It didn’t feel better but it had to be done!

    If you get a lot of bad clients it can really dissuade you from continuing in this line of work.


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