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Writing the Perfect Web Design Contract

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As your web design projects get bigger and pricier, contracts will become a vital part of your business. For some, having the perfect contract is one of the most important business tools as it determines key factors like price, copyright and the work that's being included in the price. However, some contracts can come off as overcomplicated and can generally lead to frustration and issues down the line. Today, in our continuing monthly series on the "biz of web design", we'll be looking at how to write the perfect web design contract for your own projects.

This article continues on from our articles on finding the right client and pricing your work, today we'll be looking at some tips when drafting out your contracts. It's important to note that different designers need different contracts... so the perfect contract for you might be a bit different from a contract used by a major agency. We'll review the main points that everyone shouldn't miss out on!


What Goes Into a Web Design Contract?

If you're just starting out and you've pretty much just been winging it up until now, you might be wondering, "what's so important about having a design contract?" The short answer is to protect your butt (from liability, from not getting paid, and from being forced to do extra work). A good contract sets out exactly what the project will include: what will happen, what is payable and what kind of life there is for the project after you sign off. Other important project information, like price and copyright, are also detailed in this document. Let's start out tour by taking a look at the most important points!

Web Design Contracts

Making Sure You Get Paid

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for having a contract is setting your quote into writing and explain exactly how it's payable. Some designers hold off and get the full payment at the end of the project. Others prefer to get a deposit up front and the remainder once they've signed off and handed the products over. Your contract makes it clear to your client exactly what they will be paying, when they'll be paying and how they'll pay. It can also form a legally binding agreement to avoid the client from pulling out and refusing to pay up for your hard work.

Any type of payment schedule can be detailed here, including if you are operating on a deposit-first policy, or some sort of Net30-style system, allowing your clients to pay later.

Because you usually don't have to buy huge amounts of materials to work on any given project, web designers usually can work a little more flexibly with their clients as other contractors (like plumbers or electricians), but you shouldn't deceive yourself into thinking that payment should be flexible. Take the time to really nail down these details up front in your contract and you'll find yourself having a lot more leverage with clients who decide to flake out on paying on time.

Copyright Terms: Who Owns the Work?

You might not consider this, but in some countries such as the UK, the designer retains copyright even if the work is for a client. Setting out clear copyright terms is vital, especially if your work is away from the norm and especially if you've used certain elements you've used, or are likely to use, again. Whether you decide to hand over all rights to the client upon full payment, or to retain some rights, you should make it clear in the contract to avoid further, legal dispute.

You may ask why this is so important. Surely it's pretty much the same for any client? Well, instead, consider if you use a custom jQuery script that you wrote from scratch in multiple projects and want to retain copyright for that yourself. Or, what about if you buy in graphics from a site like GraphicRiver where the license only dictates a single use. This is what this clause is for. Defining exactly who owns what when the project is over.

Post-Design Work and Warranties

Some problem clients will refuse to pay up until they are 100% happy with your design, however many revisions are needed. Having a contract can make your client agree to a specific number of revisions so they are legally obliged to pay once you've fulfilled your objective. You may also be contracted to perform extra work, such as maintaining content, which the contract should cover too. You can even set extra "post-design" hourly rates in case you don't fully know what this will entail later on.

Side point: It's important to not generalize these terms from one bad experience. You might have had a client that asked for twenty revisions, but not all customers are like that. In most cases, talking about this portion of the contract before you write it all out can be a great way to clarify everyone's expectations and prevent the horror stories from happening to begin with.

The same thing applies for warranties. You and your client will likely part ways after the project is done... but are you offering a warranty for the work that you did? The difference between a warranty and a revision is that the latter is by client choice, the former is due to an error or something similar. If a client discovers that there's a slight display problem on IE 8, which you quoted for, how long is it until you exclude yourself from dealing with it?

And, finally, what if the client messes up? If they feel like going in and editing the source files, are they responsible for any damage caused? What will you charge to fix this? Try to include something on client-incurred problems in your contract.

Specify Exactly What You're Delivering

Your contract puts into writing what work you're going to be doing so it's important to make exactly clear what you're doing. Are you offering revisions? What are the products at the end: the website? the PSDs? Make it clear what products the client will end up with and a probable timescale. Again, keep it simple and jargon-free so the client doesn't expect more than you are willing to do.

How exactly do you do this? Well, you might want to start by describing the products the client will actually receive and be useable, and what those products are (web pages, functional apps, etc. plus some key features that you've worked on like an admin panel). You should then set out exactly what time is offered away from the initial design process for things like revisions and support.

Cover the entire scope of work and set some numbers on things. Go into depth, but not the complicated depth that we expelled before. State something like the number of different page layouts you'll be creating, instead of a generic "web site".

Confidentiality Terms

There's a big chance that you might want to put a confidentiality clause into your contract in order to cover both the client's and your own business. The project you're working on might be somehow related to an unannounced venture where the client doesn't want you to talk about in public. This article is mainly for client satisfaction, but you can cover yourself, if applicable, by asking them not to air your business practices in public either.

Cover Yourself with an "Acts of God" Clause

Acts of God is a legal term used to describe events that are beyond human control such as naturally occurring, unavoidable flooding or earthquake. The term is used a lot by insurers to define specific coverage terms and you can opt for a similar model in your contracts. If an unforeseen event like an earthquake presents itself, you should state in your contract your potential inability to complete the project and explaining what happens then. For example, you might choose to terminate the contract if an Act of God is encountered, or just agree to delay proceedings until you're back on your feet.

Conversely, you might want to factor in any Acts of God on the client's side under their request that might, to your disappointment, delay payment or proceedings.


Tips for a Better Contract

Now we know exactly what needs to go into your contract, let's take a look at how to make it better and avoid dispute down the line. These tips are generalized to work for everyone, from small one-man operations to big design studios.

Keep it Simple

The contract is in place to make a legally binding agreement of what work is to be done and for what compensation. However, over-complicating it and making it overly complex provides no benefit to the freelancer or to the client. In fact, a complex contract can form more confusion down the line if your client misreads your terms. Most great contracts (even those written by lawyers) are easy to read and make perfect sense to most designers and clients. If it leads to a long resolution process, it might become expensive and time-consuming.

Keep everything simple and at a "jargon-free" level that has mutual understanding. You should also present it in a simple way with as little text as possible, so it's easier to absorb for the client. Both technical and legal terminology should be kept at a minimum so that anyone can understand and there's little space for the client to blame their misinterpretation on your writing.

Define Ambitions and Objectives

The majority of contracts put the final payment as when a mutual agreement of completion is reached. However, while you might have a general idea of the product at as a whole, it's paramount that you define the objectives of the work. You might have tons of ideas for the site, but explaining the agreed products is going to be useful in the long run, should you be unable to fulfill your wishful thinking.

Don't Try To Make Yourself Sound Overly Professional

In the same breath as my "Keep it Simple" tip, I advise you not to try and make yourself look too professional. Chances are, your client has chosen you because you are professional and they don't need extra proof or you showing off. In fact, most clients will get confused with an overuse of technical jargon and pointless extras that they don't understand or are likely to use. This can often backfire and make you look like you're arrogant. Keep things on the same level of professionalism that you want it to be a year after the project is done!

My advice is to keep everything simple and don't put new work on yourself to make you sound professional or try to gain their approval. They've contracted you to do a specific job, so just do that.

Introduce a Cancellation Clause

While your contract is most likely a legally binding agreement, the cancellation clause can define proceedings should their be mutual or unavoidable pull-out of both parties. It can also mean that if the client wants to back out, they are legally binding to any number of requirements including, but not limited to, payment.

Treat Each Client As a New One

Try to write a new contract for each client so as to not make generic clauses that are irrelevant to all but one client. Each contract should be unique and tailored to the specific project in total, rather than just in a few clauses. Each client's conditions might change and having generic terms can inevitably lead to some dispute

Stay Independent

Generally, you want to make sure you avoid work for hire. Work for hire is basically when you temporarily become an employee for the purposes of copyright. As detailed before, your copyright clause is an important one, especially when you are using outside elements in your work. By having a client relationship, and not an employee one, you can set the copyright terms without having them overridden by your "employer".

Review and Research

These are two very important points. Firstly, you should review your contract and at least sleep on it (not literally of course!) before sending it to your lawyer for approval. I'm not just talking about proofreading either. You need to make sure that these terms are what you want and a short period of thought helps to reassure you that the price is not too low or the project too long.

Secondly, then going on to research the details of the contract is key since it means you have a better grasp on the individual details so you can explain to a client what exactly each clause means, to avoid confusion down the line.


Can I Find a Template?

While I did say that each contract should be unique, you might find comfort in starting out with a template first, or at least gaining inspiration from one. A template can allow you to know how a real one is structured commonly in the industry, so yours follows the same standard set of points and structure.

24 Ways doesn't have a template per se, but they do have an article that takes you through each of the key points with example excerpts you can modify for your "killer contract". Zenful Creations also has a pretty generic template up on their site.

QuoteRobot isn't exactly a template. What it is, is an ingenious web application that allows you to create design proposals and quotes with a simple direct emailing system with delivery acceptance notification. It's not a contract, but a nice starting point to build up your terms before you write them out.

Some design studios even let you download their own battle-tested contracts. For instance, Shane and Peter Inc. have a killer design contract that's worth checking out. They even let you download the Word Document to use in your own projects.


Final Thoughts

Your contract is possibly the most important part of the proceedings as it is your own guidance to the work and your written companion if any dispute is raised. It's the legal confirmation that you will get paid at the end of the project and your ticket out of there if certain scenarios are encountered. The contract is very important and you should take note of the tips I mentioned in order to protect yourself and, effectively, protect your client.

What are your contracts like? Do you even use one? Share your experiences in the comments!

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