Design Myth

Show me some mockups, then I’ll sign the contract

Written by Stephen Emlund

This myth is perpetuated, not only because clients may request spec work, but also because designers may want to work more casually. Spec work is any work a person completes without a contract that outlines the project and payment. When both designers and clients are apt to work without a contract, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. You’ve also got the current state of the design industry – one that needs to grow out of it’s teen years – a time when they took lots of risk and did things they later would regret.

Full-time employees in an organization are paid hourly or are salaried – and are generally working at their employer’s brick and mortar business. Full-time employees sometimes even sign some sort of contract at the beginning of their employment. When a freelancer engages in work with a business, organization or person, they don’t have the same structure and framework built-in. Because of this, they are left to appropriately and professionally preface the working relationship with an agreement that outlines what work they will complete, what they will be paid and the terms of the agreement. Without an agreement (or contract as some call it), the freelancer AND client are engaging in a high risk, working relationship. Did you catch that? The client is ALSO at risk. This is because, if there is no agreement, the designer could just as easily not complete their end of the deal just as much as the client can ruin the project for the designer.

Implicit vs explicit contracts

We make implicit contracts all the time. These would be verbal and fast-paced – primarily because the product or service we receive is provided within minutes, instead of weeks or months, as is the case for freelancers. When we go to McDonalds, the contract we make is that we will pay the cashier 100% of the cost for the menu items we choose. Minutes later, we receive what we paid for. For freelancers and clients, the exchanges of goods and services for money is not so instantaneous or simple… so a verbal agreement just won’t do – unless you like risk and tension. How do you ensure that both parties can agree on a complex service with many phases, such as a new website? The answer is an explicit contract that is put in writing!

A contract is what you need to start building trust between all parties. No contract, no basis for trust.

—Mike Monteiro in Design is a Job

OK – so you’ve presented a contract to the client and they are reluctant to sign on the dotted line… If a client is not willing to sign a contract prior to work being completed, it could be one of these reasons:

  1. They don’t have the money to pay for the project
  2. They don’t understand how to work with service providers, like designers and developers
  3. They think they won’t like the work you create

Let’s think through these reasons:

They don’t have the money to pay for the project

This is the worst reason of all, and probably the least common. If they don’t have the money to pay, but want you to do work anyway – that should be a red flag. They don’t respect your time and don’t understand how business works. There is no excuse for this behavior and any professional should run as fast as they can away from this working relationship.

They don’t understand how to work with service providers, like designers and developers

This is a genuine reason for not wanting to sign a contract. Most people will never purchase design or development services in their lifetime. This may be their first time doing this. If you get this drift, you should seek to educate them. Explain how the project will unfold and what the design process will be. Of course, these two things should be covered in your contract, but you could also have a conversation to answer any questions they have. Also ensure that they have reviewed your portfolio and contacted your previous clients so they can be sure that your project together will be successful. When they are confident in the quality of your work and your prior designer-client relationships, it should put them at ease and lead to a successful working relationship.

They think they won’t like the work you create

If they are unsure of the quality of your work – you should check that they have reviewed your portfolio. If they like the work in your portfolio, then the next question might be whether their project represents a departure from your typical design style. If this is the case, you have to do any and everything you can to put them at ease. Maybe your portfolio includes projects under various design styles ranging from corporate clients to small businesses, just not the style they are going for – which may be for a rock band. This is a genuine question to have. Try outlining the differences between the projects/styles that you HAVE completed. Although the differences may not be too great, there are probably some differences that can help ensure that you are multi-faceted. Additionally, maybe you have done some personal projects that fit the style they are going for – and you could share those with them. This is where you have to put your salesman hat on. Do everything you can to put them at ease.

Not convinced?

If you still aren’t convinced that having a contract is a good idea, realize that contracts add much clarity to the designer-client relationship that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Here are just some of the benefits of having a contract. A contract:

  • defines the ground rules for the project
  • defines the deliverables and cost of those deliverables – probably the most important aspect
  • defines copyright ownership. If designer retains rights, which they should, this can ensure that derivative works are not created (If it’s a logo, the client should be given copyright ownership after final payment)
  • Brings to light any gray areas. Presenting a contract helps you define those gray areas better. It makes for a healthier designer-client relationship to discuss these gray areas up front rather than in the 11th hour. Remember, it’s all about clarity?

In summary, designer-client relationships should not be a roller coaster of emotions where your interactions are worthy of  the pages of ‘Clients from Hell’. A contract can prevent much of this friction. After all, you are engaging in a professional, working relationship, not a middle school fling where hearts are broken…

…and you write off girls forever

…and feel like there is no hope in life at all

…oh, sorry – back to contracts.

What others say

“A contract doesn’t keep things from going wrong. It merely addresses what should happen when they do. Most importantly, a contract can’t make the project go right. There is no substitute for a solid client relationship coupled with good quality work – those are what make a project go well.”
—Mike Monteiro in Design is a Job

The truth

A contract should be initiated before any design work is started. The contract should define the ground rules, deliverables, cost, copyright ownership and much more. Completing design work without a contract is the best way to introduce unneeded risk, tension and confusion to the designer-client relationship.