Business

With a paddle: Why you need a contract for every project

Are you starting a new client project soon? Stop what you’re doing right now and go make a contract for that project before you do anything else. Actually, read this first. Then go make a contract.

As a designer, it can be easy to jump past the initial stages of a client project and get right to designing. Usually, you’re excited about getting to work and getting all the ideas running through your head down on paper. But rushing to get projects started can come back to haunt you, especially if you don't have a good framework to go by. If you’re doing any kind of client work, you need a contract before you get started. 

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard that before. But we’ve talked to way too many freelancers who go into projects with no contract or written agreement. No matter how boring and complicated contracts may seem, they can save you a lot of headaches and keep you in business. We believe everyone should always use a contract, which is why we’re focused on building a tool to help you build the contracts you need for your projects.

A contract isn’t just some kind of formality that keeps you from getting to work. Here are just some of the many important reasons writing a contract should be high on your priority list:

Protect yourself with a written record Projects often change even after they’re started. Most of the time, the timeline, scope or another big piece of the project will need to be changed for one reason or another. If you’ve covered how to change these things in a written agreement beforehand, they won’t cause a problem.

If you’ve got nothing written down, though, you could end up doing more work than you’re getting paid for. Having a contract lets you keep a record that says exactly what your client agreed to — a certain number of revisions, the process after an approval, when exactly they need to pay you and other pieces of the project that can become a big problem down the line.

Make sure you get paid on time We’ve talked to a lot freelancers, and we hear a lot of horror stories about them being paid extremely late or less than they should. Does this sound familiar?

An easy way to make sure this doesn’t happen to you (or happen to you again) is to make the payment schedule and amount clear from the beginning, in a contract. This way, the client signs off on agreeing to pay you that amount at that time, and it's legally binding (just in case). Here are some common ways to structure your payment schedule:

Half up front, half when the project is finished 1/3 up front, 1/3 upon completion of a certain milestone (usually halfway through the project), 1/3 when the project is finished Full payment due when project is finished.

There are plenty of other ways to lay out a payment schedule, such as invoicing monthly for your hours (this usually works well for long-term projects), but none are necessarily better or worse than the others. You need to use the one that works best for you and your project.

Whichever method you choose to use, make sure to put it in your contract. This way, the client can follow the payment schedule they signed off on and not have to figure out how to pay you when the time comes.

Boost your credibility. Though the sentiment has gotten better, many people outside the design world don’t understand the value of good design. They don’t know how design works and often have misconceptions about designers and creative professionals.

One way to establish right away that your freelance business is professional is by starting the project off with a contract. This shows your client that you mean business and starts the project off on the right foot.

Avoid the “what now?” question As you probably know, many, many things can happen over the course of a project. Often, things happen that you wouldn’t have predicted, like cancellations, additional work, crazy requests and changes to the timeline, among other things. When something like this happens and changes the direction of a project, it leave you and your client asking the question, “What now?”

You’re then stuck navigating through uncharted waters, not sure what exactly to do next. One way to avoid this is by having your clients sign contracts before you start on projects that cover what you will do when one of these situations occurs. You can feel a lot better about projects knowing you’ve got a contingency plan.

In general, contracts start your projects off on the right foot and protect you throughout the project, no matter what happens. Contracts make sure that even if you wind up being up the creek, you’ll have a paddle.

Austin Price

Austin is the lead designer at Krit. He writes about everything from design critiques to sitting on the toilet. You can give him feedback on Twitter or inflate his ego on Dribbble.