Articles - 27th August 2020

On Good Terms: The Power of a Contract

Words by Alec Dudson
Illustration by Will Francis

When you see that this feature opens with a sentence containing the word ‘contract’, you’ll be tempted to stop reading.


Our lives are filled with contracts of varying kinds; increasingly we’re bombarded with terms and conditions for apps or services that we scroll straight past in order to find the checkbox at the bottom. Those experiences mean that the last thing we want to do is put our clients off working with us by sending them a similarly intimidating, formal, and inaccessible document. Contracts are an intimidating reality for the self-employed, but they’re also an essential tool in ensuring that you can do your job well, without distraction, and in harmony with your client.

Not to worry though. There’s a lovely middle-ground where that doesn’t need to be the experience for either party and in the space of a few minutes, I’m going to introduce you to that happy place.

I call these documents terms “agreements”, but others prefer service agreements. I’ve also seen them called terms documents, but as long as the name is uncomplicated and descriptive of the nature of the document, you can call it what you like.

A terms agreement is essentially the same as a contract in its intention but is written in easily understandable language. What you’re aiming for is an outline and breakdown that would allow someone who knows neither you, nor your client or even the nature of your specialism to clearly understand the parameters of the project in question.

This is largely about accessibility. If, like many of the freelancers out there who work some smaller clients, they may not have the resources to engage a legal team to check over contracts. You don’t want to scare off that valuable custom, but you can’t — as I’m sure many of you have discovered — start a project with a few emails or a loose verbal agreement in place without risking a lot of pain on both sides if there’s been a miscommunication or disagreement at some stage.

The temptation when you’re a solo operation is to go on instinct. “They seem like a nice person” you say to yourself, “no need for a contract”. I’m sure many of you have been subsequently plunged into a painful situation where that shared understanding has quickly dissolved once the project has begun. Having a good feel for someone isn’t any kind of guarantee that you’ll see eye-to-eye throughout the entirety of a job, so you really can’t leave these things to chance.

You shouldn’t feel guilty for asking people to check and sign a terms agreement (or any other type of contract for that matter). It’s not a signal of your mistrust. It’s evidence of your professionalism. I work with people I trust, and showing me, the client, that you’ve got your side of things figured out and taken care of is a great way to earn that trust. It’s also important to note from a trust point of view that these documents are legally binding, so you’re not undermining yourself by drafting something that’s easy to understand.

So, what should you include in your terms agreement? Typically, you’ll ensure that there is a clear breakdown of the deliverables, agreed deadlines and the payment terms of the project. They are the fundamental facts of your work together and it’s vital that they’re universally understood and outlined before any work commences.

Beyond that, what you include will depend on your specialism, the nature of that work and the manner in which your fees are constructed. I recently put together an online course for graphic designers that covers terms agreements and pricing in that field, but this is a process that’s incredibly flexible as we’ll see below.

If licensing or usage definitions apply to the project (as they typically do with photographers and illustrators) then you need to include them clearly and succinctly. A quick and easy example of this might be a piece of work created for a client’s Instagram feed. If it proved immensely popular on that account and the client then decided to use it across a broad range of physical and digital spaces, then that would be a huge lost opportunity for you, if you’d essentially sold that work for “worldwide use in perpetuity”. As an illustrator or photographer, it’s rarely a good idea to sell work on those terms as you’re waving goodbye to opportunities for future earnings from the existing work. These could include renewal fees, extensions of the usage license to new territories or new platforms and a host of other opportunities that can be built into your terms.

This doesn’t just have to represent opportunities for you though. It’s also a means of showing your client how their business could grow. If you’re establishing what their goals are and how that relates to the project you’re working on, then you can agree on how the success or impact of your work can be gauged once it’s in use. If it’s evident to your client that you’ve met or exceeded their expectations, it’s very likely that they’ll want to work with you again. If those things aren’t defined in advance, then your work could still have a positive impact, but your role in that success may not be as obvious to the client.Fundamentally, a key learning that I want you to take away from this feature is that contracts are as much about opportunity as they are about boundaries.

But, it would be disingenuous of me to make out that boundaries aren’t important. They’re absolutely vital, and not just for you, but for the client as well. Most of the projects that I hear war stories from did not commence with agreed conditions in place. That is the beginning of their undoing.

A lot of times, particularly on smaller jobs, the client won’t know exactly what they want when they first speak to you. In order for a project to go to plan, some fundamentals need to be put in place, otherwise your idea and theirs are likely to be a universe apart.

Specifying the nature of the deliverables (not their creative outcome) in regards to deadlines, pricing and payment terms, your work hours, who your client contact is and the amount and timing of feedback rounds is a process worth its their weight in
gold. If you can start a piece of work with a comprehensive breakdown that’s understood by both parties, it’s far easier to get the job done and far less likely that they won’t be happy with the outcome. In that regard, a terms agreement is a way of managing expectations in a professional way that can’t be misinterpreted or miscommunicated.

We’ve all experienced those clients who contact you regularly, often out of normal working hours and with a list of new asks or for countless minor adjustments. It’s a process that rarely leads to an outcome that they’re happy with and one that can drive you crazy. Those requests, feedback rounds, whatever you want to call them, are a definable part of the service that you offer and should be treated as so. By setting out when and how often feedback can be given as well as how many rounds of changes are included within the project fee, you directly influence the client’s behaviour.

Think of it like a video game. If you have unlimited lives, you play far differently to if you only have one. You’ll get far more meaningful, well-considered and reliable feedback from clients if they only have limited opportunities to pass that on. If you ensure that they deliver that feedback at a point in the project that works for you, you’re on track to streamline and refine the process for everyone involved.If you’ve not drafted a terms agreement before, or if you do your freelance projects without a contract of any kind in place. I’d urge you to reconsider. We hold a lot of negative ideas about contracts, but this simple little document is actually one of the most powerful means of delivering great work, on time, that the client loves.

If you’re a graphic designer and want to build a sustainable freelance practice, we highly recommend you enroll in Intern’s online course ‘The Price is Right’ where Alec will guide you through pricing your work, negotiating, writing a detailed terms agreement, sending invoices, chasing payment and everything else in-between. It’s just £49.99 and will help you to confidently raise your price, so that you’re getting paid what you and your work is worth.

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