And do it in under a page!
To echo the entire freelancing world: you need a contract. But if you’re like me, that word probably conjures up images of lawyers and 50-page documents written in legalese.
For freelancers, this is a damaging and outdated association, because that level of detail just isn’t necessary. It’s easier than you think to make a great contract all on your own. You don’t have to sign up for some service; you don’t have to Mad Libs some wonky template contract; you don’t have to pay for anything. Just follow these steps:
Step 1: See what’s out there.
By looking over various online templates, you can begin to learn the structure of a contract and develop a framework for your own. I started by checking out AIGA’s Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services, but it turned out to be 80 pages long! That wasn’t going to work for me, so I kept looking.
The important thing here isn’t to find someone else’s contract that will be a perfect fit for you—it’s to see what other people are doing. Pick out a few templates that address the issues relevant to your business. Most of the ones I found were too wordy, too formal, or somehow missed the mark. But this browsing process helped me figure out what to include in my contract.
Step 2: Figure out what to include in your contract.
I see the role of a contract as smoothing out the various bumps that can occur throughout a project. What I learned while looking through other people’s contracts is that not everyone experiences the same bumps. For example, the scale of work I do right now is small enough that it’s not necessary for me to ask for 50% payment up front. I’m also not providing brand management services, so I don’t need to include information about how long I will store files or whether I will charge for updating them later.
I do, however, have prior experience with clients drastically changing the scope of projects halfway through, then being unhappy that the final cost was higher than expected and/or the delivery date was delayed. And as a designer, I do specifically want to address the issue of who owns the InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop files I create. So I included language in my contract to address these issues specific to my business.
As you review sample contracts, think about the type of work you produce, how much you charge, the time it takes you to complete the average project, and who your clients are. What bumps have you encountered in the past that your contract can smooth out in the future? Make a list of everything you can think of.
Step 3: Categorize your list.
Contracts are organized into sections both for clarity, and to make it easy to find particular topics. Start putting related issues you want your contract to address into groups—these will become the sections of your contract.
Almost everyone will probably need a section describing the work or project, a section for compensation, and a section for the completion of the work. Some of the other realms to consider are ownership, privacy, breach of contract, and the timeline of the project. And most contracts end with a generic statement about what signing the contract means. My contract ended up with six simple sections.
Step 4: Write your introduction.
This section will probably sound the most like legalese, but it’s for good reason! The introduction lays out who the contract is between, and lets you take advantage of find/replace. My opening reads (and feel free to copy it):
This contract is signed on DATE by and between FULL NAME (“CLIENT”) and Eric Dale Design (“Eric”) regarding PROJECT NAME (the “Project”). Both parties agree as follows:
Throughout the rest of the contract, wherever I need to mention the client by name, I have written “CLIENT” in all caps so that I can easily replace every instance with the client’s name. And it means that I only need to type out the name of the project once—every other mention will refer to it as “the Project.” Figure out what language you want to use to talk about your business, your client, and the work you’re undertaking, so that you can keep it consistent throughout the contract.
Step 5: Write the first section.
Pick one of the groups of issues you categorized in step 3. Start writing about those issues and lay out what working with you will be like. What should your client expect from you? What do you expect from your client? When? In what form? If you want it to happen, say that it will happen. If you don’t want it to happen, prohibit it. Use clear language, but don’t overcomplicate it to make it sound like a lawyer wrote it. Write what you mean, and don’t beat around the bush—be blunt.
I recommend organizing your contract temporally, so that reading through it mirrors the flow of a project. For example, mine starts with how the project is initiated and agreed upon.
Think through a typical or ideal project, then repeat this step until all of your categories have been written out in contract form.
Step 6: Make it your own.
Personal branding is a big deal these days. I’m sure that your website, logo, business cards, and invoice all match, so why not your contract too? Make sure that your contract has your logo and contact information at the top, and that it uses the same typeface as your other materials. (And if you don’t have a personal logo, I’d be happy to help you with that!)
Your brand isn’t just how your stuff looks, though—it’s also how you talk. You might not think there’s much room for your voice in a text that, when it comes down to it, constitutes a legal document. But I guarantee you can slip in a little bit of what UX designers call “microcopy.” I highly recommend this fascinating piece by John Saito for uxdesign.cc on the subject. It will help you understand what I mean when I say that your contract is a great place to a) show that you’re human, b) sprinkle in some surprise, and c) get a little personal.
Your contract is the perfect place to include just a couple tidbits that accomplish these goals, because your clients are probably only going to read it once. There’s no danger of something clever getting old because it’s seen too often. So try to sneak in a sentence or phrase that remind your clients they’re dealing with a real person who makes a living off of this, and that you care about the details.
You should now have a pretty solid contract! It doesn’t have to be only one page like mine is, but I think that clients working with beginning freelancers could be put off by longer documents. Don’t hesitate to update it, though, and remember that you can customize it for particular clients.
Good luck! Feel free to email me a draft of your contract and I'll be happy to review it.