Contracts 102

You’ve got your contract template set up with the basics. Now it’s time to think about some of the issues that shift with each project. Whether your workflow looks similar from client to client or you do vastly different things with each project, you’ve got to get the scope defined to keep the design from slipping and tripping its way to somewhere unpleasant.

Possibly the most critical element of your contract with any client is a clear, thorough definition of the scope of the project. This should encompass the actual work you’re contracting to do, the conditions under which you will begin and continue work, and (this is critical) the limitations you will put on revisions.

Get a Handle on the Scope Before it Creeps you to Death

Scope creep is the bane of every designer’s existence. Clients who don’t actually know what they want are the quickest to try to add a little of this and tweak a little of that along the way.

To define the scope of your project, get very clear in your contract as to what exactly the client’s expectations are. Stipulate in writing that changes to that defined scope will require a change order and an additional fee.

Here are some of the things you need to get nailed down precisely:

  • How much will the client provide? Who is responsible for importing and formatting the content of a new website, for example — you or the client? Will you be reworking any existing content, or will the client provide a precise outline or full write-up of what goes where? Approximately how many pages will the site have?
  • What about graphic elements? This includes photos, videos, favicons, and logos. Are you expected to design or otherwise supply them, or will your client provide the artwork? How many graphic elements are involved?
  • Are there any special features the client wants? Try to think of things like responsive design, chat features, password protection, ecommerce, forums, and so on that your client may request later.
  • What role will you have in selecting or establishing the technology behind the website? Are you going to be part of the decision-making process regarding web hosting, domains, and so on)?
  • Will you be providing any ongoing maintenance or hosting services? If so, for how long? (Hint: How about one year? You’ll have a set point in the future when you can negotiate a new contract.) If you’re doing ongoing maintenance work, will you work at an hourly rate or a flat monthly fee? And if a flat fee, what are the limitations you put on that? (For example: “up to 1 hour of phone consultations and 3 hours of input.”)

If it makes sense for the project, you may want to define the amount of time you’ll provide support services like tech support, troubleshooting, and bug-fixing. At minimum you probably need to offer 30 days. You may find it makes sense to include this in the scope of work section, or it may fit well under your warranty.

Here’s a fantastic list of questions you need to answer to define the scope of your web design project.

Conditions for Work Protect you from Slow Clients


Sometimes clients don’t get necessary files to you or take forever to send feedback on your proofs. Having some targeted conditions in your contract will prevent you from being completely screwed in the event of client delays.

First, decide what milestones are important in the project and specify the deadlines for those in your contract. These milestones include any deliverables, including drafts, mock-ups, and the final project. From those deadlines, work backward to establish a deadline for the client giving you what you need to meet that milestone (artwork or feedback, for example.)

One of the conditions stipulated in your contract should state that work will begin on [date], provided the client has sent over everything you need by then.

Now it’s time for a delay clause. This clause will lay out what happens in case of a client delay. You may want to institute a day-for-day extension of all subsequent deadlines for each day the client is late in getting you what you need. For example:

Client shall use all reasonable efforts to provide needed information, materials, and approvals. Any delay by Client will result in a day-for-day extension of the due date for all Deliverables. (source)

Otherwise, include language that says you’ll try to accommodate reasonable delays, but you reserve the right to extend your deadline(s) if they arise. If the project is time-sensitive, make sure the client is well aware of the delay clause.

Another condition you may want to include is the time at which you will stop working on the project until you hear back from the client. It could be as simple as taking the delay clause and adding something like:

“If a delay by Client lasts more than 10 business days, Designer will stop work on the project until delay is resolved and send notice to Client that work on the process has stopped.”

You pick the timeframe. Be reasonable, for both yourself and your client.

Round and Round the Revision-go-round


Revisions can be a significant issue on any design project. Put a cap on how many rounds of revisions you’ll do, but be sensitive to the process. It’s reasonable for clients to want to make some adjustments, but it’s not reasonable for clients to offer you positive feedback all along the way and then request a thousand changes to what you thought was the final product.

When you stipulate the project workflow in your contract, build in significant time for reviews. Some contract experts recommend offering the client two check-ins per week to see how the project is progressing, which should allow for early intervention if something is heading completely off the rails. Set yourself and your client up for success with your revision policy.

Decide on a reasonable amount of revisions to build into the project, determine their milestones, and then state that anything beyond that requires a Change Order and an additional fee. Some contracts also state that any work amounting to more than 15 percent of the total time spent on the project is a substantial change and merits its own (new) contract.

You may want to build in a termination clause that allows the client to terminate the project and pay you for the work already completed at any point that the client deems the design too far off. Of course, if you make a mistake and the client requests that it be fixed, that doesn’t constitute a revision. It’s a correction, and it’s on you.

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