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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 Link

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 Link

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? Link

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 Link


Footnotes Link

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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

    Hey guys – cheers for that but the link failed!!

  2. 5

    Wow, nice. Definitely bookmarked. I need to get a nice detailed contract going, as it’s one thing that I’m lacking these days.

  3. 6

    hello! thanks for the great info but when I click on “OpenOffice document with the sample contract” I get a 404 page. just thought you should know. :)

  4. 7

    Great, I’ve been looking for a contract template for a while now!

  5. 8

    Excellent overview! I’ll be putting a few additions into my standard contract that you have pointed out.


  6. 9

    The best laugh I’ve had all week … at least its good to know that other freelancers suffer through these same types of clients too.

    Thankfully, I’ve just concluded a project for a truly awesome client – the type of person you wish you had as a client for every project. If it weren’t for some of the great clients I’ve had the good fortune to work with, I think I would’ve quit being a freelancer a long time ago!

  7. 10

    Very useful, and a really nice read. I really love the writing style of this post. Full of subtle humor yet still sharp content!

  8. 12

    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.”

    Who’s the sketchy one?

    I keed, I keed.

  9. 14

    This has been bookmarked and tweeted. Have been looking for a post that offers a concise overview on things like contracts, as a designer that is starting out in the profession, this article is extremely useful. Thanks!

  10. 15

    Great read, very informative! Thanks for the sample contract as well, as I need to tweak some things in mine currently.

    Thanks again!

  11. 16

    Great article! There are sketchy people all over this business and the intarwebs and some are easier than others to spot. Knowledge is power.

  12. 17

    thanks , wish i had this couple months ago!

  13. 18

    Finally something useful on Smashing.
    Well done.

  14. 22

    I glad readers have found this useful. Feel free to post further questions and I’ll at least attempt to answer them every day or so. Please do check out the sources for contracts I’ve posted. The contract I use is very print/service oriented. Web design has certain particulars that would demand a different payment structure and delivery as well as billing terms and safeguards.

    • 23

      you should probably run this by a lawyer again – for example, you purport to have UCC Article 2 govern, which applies only to the sale of goods, but you’re using it for services.

      these terms also won’t fly with any sophisticated customers – it’s horribly one sided. there are sophisticated customers who do reasonable contracts, but what you’re offering up is just as bad as big companies’ pro-customer approach.

      it’s fine to have your own terms and start with a wishlist, but don’t kid yourself (or others) into thinking you’re in the middle of the road here. the problem with your approach is that it just begs for negotiation from anyone who actually knows what a contract of this type should look like. are you prepared to negotiate? wouldn’t it be easier to actually take a balanced approach and start at the middle?

      • 24

        Good point. In another post I commented on how my version of this mostly Graphic Artists Guild template was a bit more “biting” than the guild version. I have had no negotiations except for a few of the examples I’ve mentioned. When I work for large corporations, I sign their contract. There is no negotiating, although I’ve used the terms to my advantage on at least three occasions.

        Smaller companies either don’t want to face a contract or try to negotiate an invoice that just says they are ordering it and buying it outright. That calls for a decision.

        Mid-sized companies usually have a boilerplate contract and I have questioned several, only to be told the legal department was out that week. Must’ve been flu season.

        If a negotiation protected my rights, as well as the client, then negotiation works and my contract will have an addendum written into the creative brief section, where most of the rights negotiated will appear with the job description.

        As for the sale of goods, often hard goods are purchased and then transferred, as with the person who asked about purchasing fonts for clients.

        Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  15. 25

    “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). ”

    Strictly speaking, this is illegal, but I understand your motivation.

    • 26

      Legalities sometimes rest in the eyes of the beholder and the jumbles of Latin hidden somewhere in books. That’s my flimsy defense.

  16. 29

    Bratu Sebastian

    June 7, 2010 4:54 pm

    Great article, I really had a lot of problems with my clients that made me learn all this the hard way.

  17. 30

    Great content…even better sense of humor!

  18. 31

    Amazing! I wish I’ve seen this article two years ago when I was just starting. Thanks~

  19. 32

    Great list and contract template!

  20. 33

    A great start for a contract, thanks! Open format was a nice touch as well.

  21. 34

    I’m just starting up now, I was planning on starting a contract this week. You guys are great.

  22. 35

    Good start! One additional thing I have in my client agreements is when content is due and/or responses to concepts. I spell out under “Client Role and Responsibilities” when all the content for a site is due and how long they have to look over designs and get comments back at each phase (14 days). That has cut out the temporarily disappearing clients (you know, the ones who don’t have the money to finish so they procrastinate on final approval) and the ones who don’t plan ahead for composing their content. I also suggest that clients work with a writer. The thought of paying the writer’s fees seems to motivate :) In short, if the project gets held up waiting for the client’s contributions the balance becomes due in full.

    I’m happy (I get paid on time and projects are staying reasonably on schedule–woohoo!) and my clients seem to actually be happier with this. I also suggest sticking to your contract. You’re not doing anyone a favor by being lenient, it can just make you seem confrontational if you do decide later you want to enforce something. Sticking to your agreement punctually helps you come off as just being professional rather than doling out punishments.

    • 36

      Yes, there should be a time period in which the scope of the work must take place. I’ve been lucky so far and the one time it happened, the client would have a short burst of energy, then pay me for the piece done, then disappear for a month, give me one more piece, pay, disappear, etc. It was like having a monthly paycheck, so I didn’t mind.

      The creative brief should have a time schedule for the project. If you are bold, it should state that the fees go up after the deadline. I’ve also heard of people who make a quote with a deadline on it still being valid. I suppose that motivates the client.

      Thanks for posting this!

  23. 37

    #1 way to spot a sketchy client: anyone who contacted you (or who you contacted) via Craigslist. Remember folks, if you want to make less than 12,000 a year get your gigs from CL which is a better place for buying used tshirts and getting raped than for getting freelance work.

    • 38

      “$15/hr is an absolutely unreasonable rate. I’ve got a friend who makes Flash websites, she’s going to do it for me for $100. If I had known you’d charge for mockups I wouldn’t have called.”

      Sometimes Craigslist is the best way to hustle for work, but the amount of educating the client you have to do is often barely worth it.

  24. 39

    I have a similar contract that I use, but this contract has let me think about adding a couple (very helpful) details. I enjoyed the humor as well! :) One of the best articles I have read in a while. Thanks so much!

  25. 40

    Wow, thanks for the article! I’m thinking of going freelance or probably do just part time jobs, and am wondering what to include in a contract if ever I am to make one.

    Thanks a bunch!

  26. 41

    Michael Taylor

    June 7, 2010 9:41 pm

    well tips are interesting and informative. i think sketchy people are everywhere, difficult to get rid of them..:s

  27. 42

    Edward Nigma

    June 7, 2010 10:23 pm

    Just had an article on “bad” clients that do not exist
    And it is also all about a contract! =)

  28. 43

    Cre8ive Commando

    June 7, 2010 10:35 pm

    Always gotta be on the lookout for dodgey clients … =)

  29. 44

    Thanks a lot for a great article. I’ll translate this contract to my language. I’ve allways ( 10 years now ) worked without contracts ( some exceptions on large projects ) But this makes it easy to get signed contracts on small projects.

  30. 45

    Creating websites is more than just design. As a developer, I feel marginalised and grouped into ‘Web Design’ when I don’t do any design at all.

    Articles like this with “the designer” splattered across it are missing the point. Sure for a freelancer, but you’ll find that someone who can design and develop to professional standards are few and far between. If you get over your own ego.

    I’m a developer, not a designer. I do web development. I build things that people design.

    • 46

      @David – actually my contract is for print related products, which is why I commented in this thread that web designers, or developers, would need a different set of rights, payments, etc.

      “Titles” in the new digital age are still evolving and clients/consumers are still slightly clueless about what a title/brand/position may actually do. I gather the “design” community is still trying to figure it out, too. A designer is not a programmer and vice versa. You shouldn’t feel marginalized but I truly do understand and have been there, but am too embarrassed to talk about it.

      Many of the posters here found a useful tool and that was the purpose of the article. If it inspired you to tighten some loose areas in your business or just double check for loopholes, then I am happy to have sparked something.

      Thanks for your post.

      • 47

        Yes, it’s certainly a valid article. It just struck a tender nerve with me! :)

        • 48

          Try being married to my ex-wife and you’ll lose every tender nerve very quickly.

  31. 49

    Great article. i had to learn the hard way with dodgy clients and now try to spread the word for newer creatives. I have released my website agreement for everyone to use. I hope it helps:

  32. 50

    any chance of a german version of this contract. I do speak english, but maybe there`s a german version in the drawer…

    would be nice.

    btw: great Article, thank you

    • 51

      @Georg – I’m afraid I wrote it in English and must apologize for not being able to supply a German language version, or any other language for that matter. Like most Americans, we are barely taught our own language in school, much less a means to better globalization. There’s an article in there, somewhere.

      If you find someone who can translate the terms, keep in mind German law for certain aspects such as re-invoicing fees, copyright/transfer, etc. Most of the contract is common sense business. Good luck!

  33. 52

    Great article, well worth a read/bookmark.

    In point 5 of the sample contract you mention a transfer of expenses for stock photos and such to the client.
    How do you feel about fonts and transferring the costs of buying these?

    I know it is a much debated topic, but I was just curious to see your standing on this.

    • 53

      If you have to purchase a specific font for a client, and this happens to me all of the time, they get to purchase it, but legally they own it, it is delivered to them and you have to uninstall it when you are done with it. On the other hand, you might purchase it and charge them a small fee.

  34. 54

    Dominic Watson

    June 8, 2010 2:41 am

    “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.” ”

    haha, been there before and never again! :D

  35. 55

    Stacy Schilling

    June 8, 2010 3:48 am

    The best way to emphasize that you need the client to sign the contract is to simply say, “Please return to me the signed and dated Contract along with your deposit and any files you have ready, and I can then begin the job.”

    If a client is really serious about working with you, they will sign, date and return the contract with their deposit.

    If you hear crickets chirping, then you’ve most likely lost the client because of either having to sign the contract or, the job cost too much money for them.

  36. 56

    Couldnt agree more

  37. 57

    Thanks guys! I began to think you forgot all about my suggestion regarding the legal aspects – you guys rock!

  38. 58

    Tobby Smith

    June 8, 2010 5:07 am

    Great Article!

  39. 59

    .. and the classic exchange continues:

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

    Them: I don’t shower – ever.

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

    Them: Everything is stolen!

    Me: Then why did you contact me?

    Them: You sounded like someone who could do anything and everything for little money- that’s all!

    Me: What would you do next?

    Them: I am going to send this work offshore to a smaller company or a needy freelancer, who would never say- a contract!

    Me: Do you trust them?

    Them: No, but I sign no contracts.

  40. 61

    I much prefer Andy Clarke’s contract at

    • 62

      Andy’s contract illustrates a point I made in one of these posts about having SOMETHING in writing. Even a handwritten note saying “$xxxx for a webstie to be delivered in ten days” would be considered a binding contract if somehow signified by both parties. Intent and actually executing the work is considered a verbal contract but it leads to “I said, he/she said.”

      I won’t comment on the legality of some points as he tried to make this as reader friendly and as unthreatening as possible. I would be curious to find out how clients react even to this as a binding agreement. This is an example of feeling comfortable with your own contract and the way you do business. As long as it protects your rights legally, then use whatever form of contract suits you.


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