I work as a freelancer as well as full time digital art director. The biggest and most immediate difference between the two positions is that working as the art director; I have more layers of confusion added to client conversations. In any case, dealing with difficult clients requires poise, patience and transparency. Over the years, I have developed my own strategies for dealing with difficult client issues as well as adopting some preventative measures shared to me by colleagues and from various sites. In this first of a series of posts on dealing with difficult clients, I’m going to go over contracts.

The most important preventative measure you can take to practice yourself is to have a contract in place. I can’t stress enough how important this is. In my opinion, you’re not a professional if you don’t have one. A contract is the binding agreement between you, the designer, and your client. In its basic form, a contract spells out that you and the client agree to the terms for what services you are to provide for an agreed upon price in an agreed upon time frame. As a freelancer, a contract can take many forms. If you have a particularly involved project, your contract could be part of your proposal. A good proposal includes the scope of work for the project and all of the parties involved (you, the client, and any third parties that will have an active role in the project such as contractors, vendors, and researchers) with details on their roles. The proposal should include a timeline for the project with milestone dates established as markers of progress. If the project isn’t too involved, your contract could simply detail what you will do, in which case your contract becomes more of a purchase order. How a signed contract protects you in difficult situations with a client is that it can protect against scope creep, or the subtle and eventual asking for more or different work outside of the scope of the project you initially had a contract signed for.

Case for a purchase order: I was contracted once to recreate stick figure drawings for heavy machinery warning labels. You know, those fun illustrations depicting horrible death or dismemberment if you use the machines wrong? The client provided me with all 100 different warning labels as .jpeg’s and needed them as vector format. I simply had to recreate each one exactly as they were. I had a month to recreate them all. In this case, I wrote up a one page contract in the form of a purchase order; since I was providing a sole service that required no further explanation or design thinking. What this purchase order protected me against was if the client decided to send me ten more .jpeg’s, I would have to amend the purchase order for time involved and therefore cost. The purchase order also clearly stated when I was to receive the illustrations from the client so that I could begin work. This project was easy enough and didn’t require a long, litigious contract.

Case for a signed proposal and contract: I was contracted by a home improvement company to develop a brand name. The project was very involved and had many stakeholders that would play key parts in the development process. The project included the development of a brand identity, so logo, typeface, palette and corporate style guide were some of the basics. I worked with a copywriter and marketing consultant to develop the language for the brand, from tag lines and copy. The company needed a website that helped qualify leads as well as allowing them to spin up franchise sites from the same template, so this required a content management system with interactive forms and data collection. Everything from vehicle wraps, advertising, apparel and social media policies were developed. There were multiple people in the company that I worked with on various parts of the project, thus requiring sign offs and approvals from multiple individuals and above them all was a project manager who oversaw all of aspects of the project and had final approval on all matters. In this case, I needed a proposal that detailed the scope of work, my services and those whom I brought on the project t( and subsequently, needed to sign their contracts), a timeline of deliverables and fee schedule that had been agreed upon at the time of signing.A solid contract will clearly delineate the work and expectations from both parties. It really is your first line of defen

se when a client begins to question your process and begins to add or change items in the contract. A good practice to adopt to include into your contract and timeline is regular check in’s with the point person for the client. Regular check ins, just to give project status updates is a good way to keep the client in the loop, warn if there are any issues that arise and generally keep them in alignment with your agreement.

Your payment and terms in your contract is probably the most divisive section. When the client signs your contract, they are agreeing to your terms for payment. These terms can include deposit, payment plans, markups, operating costs, and methods of payment. What many young designers will tempt to do is to assign an hourly rate to their work. There lies an inherent danger with that route. Many times, the one to one ratio of hour worked equals a predetermined, usually arbitrary, cost of that hour. It’s dangerous to assume that there won’t be any issues throughout your process, on your part or the clients. A better way to price out a project is to take what you think you would like to make on the project, and add in one and half times those in billable hours for incidentals and any potential pitfalls in the process. There is no exact formula on how to do this, so I have a base method to get you started.

Figure out a base rate, go check out yourrate.co and fill out the form. This will give you a base rate in which to get started with. This isn’t to be taken just a face value, just remember that it’s a great starting point. I usually round up to the next “0” dollar amount, so $85 becomes $90. This basic starting good gives you a good number work off of. Take a look at the project and comb through to come up with enough details to figure out how many hours you think this is going to take. Again, I take that number and round up to the next “0” dollar amount, so 25 hours becomes 30 hours. Next, I figure out what sort of buffer I need to build into the project. This is dependent upon how comfortable you are versus what difficulty you have with completing the project, plus difficulty with client. Take that project at 30 hours; I might bump that up to 40 hours with a ten hour buffer. Why the extra time? Always bet that something is going to take you longer then the time you originally think. If you come under budget, great! You’ve increased your profit margin. If you go over what you initially thought, you’ll be happy with that buffer not killing your profit margin. I use Astuteo’s web development project estimator to add everything and give me a good estimate.

A good rule to live by is requiring a deposit. You can set your deposit to whatever you like, but make sure it’s substantial enough for the client to understand that work begins upon receipt of the deposit. However you break up your payment schedule, make sure to get a deposit and require final payment within 30 days of completion. There are many schools of thought on how to bill your client and that will be saved for another post. What is important that the cost reflects what you have agreed upon in the contract so that an unruly client understands exactly where you are coming from.

Do you need a lawyer to write up your contract? No. Should you get one? Possibly. It really depends on the project and what is all involved. If you have to work on sensitive material and sign a non-disclosure form, you might want to have legal counsel review everything. There are many ways to go about writing up your contract, everything from writing very serious legal terms to plain language “I will do this work, which entails this and this, for these fees” kind of talk.

Now, something you want to make sure you have legal counsel on is when they have you sign a contract. Undoubtedly, when you have a contract you supply to a client, they will have a lawyer review it especially for larger business work. Many times, when you are given a contract to sign, there are many clauses and addendums that will make no sense to they project. You want to make sure that the work you provide to the client doesn’t hold you liable for performance or has a clause that negates you getting paid for some extraneous issue that is outside your control.

What resources are there for you to get started with creating your own contract? There are many resources and forums, but below I have a list that you can start checking out now to help you get started.

AIGA Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services – This agreement allows you create customized terms and conditions for different types of design services, from print to digital, interactive to illustration. It’s built in a modular capacity to allow for easy editing and tailoring to suit your needs. The contract was developed by Shel Perkins and Associates in Berkley, California.

The Collective Legal Guide for Designers (Contract Samples) – A collection of legal documents curated by the design community. This list is quite extensive and covers a wide variety of work for UX designers, mobile application development, contracting another designers for your project and even cease and desist letters.

Useful Legal Documents for Designers (PDF/DOC) – Another great collection on Smashing Magazine’s site. These ten documents cover Intellectual Property (IP Assignment), Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), Consulting Agreement and a few other forms.

Your Rate – yourrate.co is a great jumping off point for freelancers to figure out a base hourly rate. It’s a simple form that gives you a rate that you can then use right out of the box or as a base to pricing out large projects.

Astuteo Web Development Project Estimator – Astuteo has a great tool that helps freelancers price out a large project. It’s fields are initially setup for web development, but each field is editable and you can add on more. Using your rate you get with Your Rate, you can plug in hours and rates figure out how much a project could cost.

Invoice-o-matic – This helpful tool from Free Agent is let’s you create an invoice that you can use as either part of a contract and proposal or as a purchase order. It’s very simple to use, similar to Astuteo’s project estimator with editable fields. What’s more is that you can use the system to email the client directly from the invoicing tool and after 30 days you will receive a reminder if you have been paid.

LegalShield – LegalShield basically works like legal insurance. You pay a monthly fee and you have access to a lawyer at anytime. You get quite an impressive array of services with your membership, from contract reviews, business consultation, debt collection advice and even defense counsel for trial. For the freelancer, this service makes the most sense