Please don’t sign a design contract without asking these questions.

Before you sign a design contract, make sure you know what you’re signing by asking these 10 questions. Thankfully, the contracts I use protect both me and my clients by setting expectations and clear procedures.

1. What does your usual timeline look like? Is the process included in the design contract?

It’s important for both parties to be clear on the predicted project timeline since this sets expectations and boundaries for things such as office hours, overtime, milestones and communication turnaround. Do you understand what the designer will send you at each stage of the process? What are the milestones? How do revisions work? Getting clear on all this ensures a smoother process and gives you a taste of what communication will be like.

If your design team is able to articulate a clear, easy-to-understand timeline it means they actually have a process. The clarity of this timeline can be a good indicator of how the communication process will go.

Being in agreement on the timeline is probably the most important part of the design contract.

2. Do you have any references from past clients?

When you hire someone new for your team, you want to check their references. The same goes when you hire a designer or a design team for your project, even if it is for the short-term. What is it like to work with this designer or team? You want to know what you are getting into when you enter this relationship. You can end up with an amazing final product but if the other party is mercurial, it’s not going to be much fun.

3. How does the design contract say you will you keep us informed about the project’s progress?

How often will you be informed about the project’s progress? Who will you hear from? Establish a clear communication plan in the design contract, indicating who is the point person on either side of the project so that both teams are in alignment with each other. This could look like a weekly video call, a quick email update, or a conference call. Some firms loop their clients in to project management such as Basecamp or How comfortable are you with that? What happens if additional conversations need to be held? Which brings us to the next question…

4. Every project gets complicated at some point. How do you handle that?

Misunderstandings are inevitable, and getting back on the same page is a critical. Most of the time these sort of things are smoothed out in the initial discovery session or the first draft.

But other times, things happen that are out of either party’s control: somebody gets sick, or the whole world shuts down due to a pandemic, or a vendor is unavailable. These sort of things happen on either side and nobody is to blame. How can you quickly resolve the issues? Make sure a strategy is in place for good communication.

5. What role did you or your team play and kind of responsibilities you had on the projects in your portfolio?

Understand that each project has multiple contributors and sometimes multiple teams. What did your designer do on that project that impressed you? How were timelines handled? What complications arose? Maybe they didn’t do the specific thing that you like so much, but they learned something important from it just from being part of the team.

6. What results did your design work get?

It’s not enough for the portfolio to look great. Great designs need to perform well. Keep in mind that not all results are quantifiable, but if the designer or studio can’t cite anything at all, it means they have no clue what the work accomplished, and it might be wise to move on. While it would be great to hear that the new packaging design doubled sales, sometimes a small increase is enough. Progress is still progress, and failure is a better teacher than success.

7. Does the design contract say who will I be working with from your team?

If you’re working with a team, you need to know who you will be working with from that team. With an agency or studio, it’s usually an account manager or account executive, depending on what they call the person who takes your feedback to the creative team. Usually, the creative team is busy doing the creative work not just for you, but other clients as well. If it is a small firm, you might be giving creative feedback to the creative director herself, who relays that to her team. If you’re working with additional parties such as print vendors or manufacturers, who will coordinate with them?

In addition to knowing who to talk to about creative feedback, be sure to find out who you need to talk to about administrative tasks such as billing.

8. What am I paying for?

Every firm has their rate sheet detailed differently. Understand what you are paying for and when. How much is due up front? When are final fees due? Are royalties involved in those fees?

Be sure you know many designs you get in the first round, and how many rounds of revisions you get after that. Both sides can get really frustrated if they aren’t clear on this up front.

9. What happens if the project gets cancelled?

In keeping with various fees, what happens if the project gets cancelled? Most firms have a cancellation fee, which is usually half of the final fee. It’s not fun, but projects do get scrapped. How does this get handled?

10. What will you deliver, and how will you deliver it?

Lastly, what gets delivered by the final project deadline? Sometimes you get a finished physical product. Or, you’ll get the final, working (editable) files sent via FTP. (In the old days we used to put them on CD or DVD, but I haven’t burned one of those in 5 or 6 years.) Most of the time you’ll get a press-ready PDF, or a zip file with various logo files in it, or a JPG, or PNG for your website. Or it might be a working website, with monthly reports. The deliverables vary from one project to another.

So, don’t sign a design contract without knowing what you’re getting.

Take the time to look it over carefully and ask the right questions, and you and your designer will have a great relationship. Remember, your designer isn’t out to get you. She wants to create something for you that you’ll be happy with.

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