How to Write a Solid Freelance Contract

How to Write a Solid Freelance Contract



Congrats! A company wants to pay you to design something for them! don't know anything about pricing or legal stuff. Don't fret! Freelance artist Lizzy Dalton @lizzydaltonart offers steps for building a solid freelance contract in the latest Bee Paper blog.

By Lizzy Dalton

Gather Information About The Project

Often, the first question a client will ask is, “What do you charge?” You don’t want to answer this one right away. Before you give any quotes, get as much information about the project as possible. Ask what they expect the design to look like, what the image is of, what colors, what style, if there will be text, etc. The client might not have a preference for all of these details, but, if they do, you want to know beforehand! Find out if they have any technical requirements or limitations (if the design needs to fit within a template, have a limited number of colors, or is need to be delivered in a specific file format). Any detail you can think of that might affect how much time goes into a project, or what your workflow will look like, ask!

You’ll also want to ask about how they plan to use the design (where they plan to display the image, if they’re using it on products, etc.). This will help determine if they have certain technical requirements for your work, but, more importantly, it will help you determine what rights to the work they’ll demand and its value to the company.

Find Out What Rights They’ll Need To The Image

Many people expect that when a company commissions a work of art, the client owns all the rights to that work to use the image wherever or as often as they please. But, by U.S. copyright law, this isn’t the case. You, as the creator, own all the rights that aren’t explicitly transferred to the client, meaning, they can’t reproduce the image unless you give them permission. For any freelance project, you’ll want to determine what rights to the art your client will require. Many companies will want to receive all the rights to a work, and for things like a logo, this makes sense, as they will be using the image for many applications and will want to do so without limitations. But, in most cases, you shouldn’t transfer all rights to a piece of art if you can avoid it.

The reason for this is because the rights a company receives for your art can have a huge effect on the value of that art. A design that’s going to go on thousands of units of several product lines, be featured heavily on the company's website, and be used in hundreds of advertisements is going to bring in much more value than a design that is only going to be printed on a small run of t-shirts. A start-up that makes a small run of t-shirts may one day become a multinational corporation using your design on everything, and, if they have all the rights, nothing is stopping them from making unlimited profit from your work.

You’ll want to figure out during the negotiation phase exactly what rights the company will receive and put some kind of limit on how they can use the image. For example, you can permit a company to use the image on a certain number of units of a product, or for a set time period. This will help ensure that you are appropriately compensated for the value your art brings to a company.

Decide What To Charge

Once you have a good idea of what the work you’ll be doing and what rights the company will require, then you can start talking about pricing. The biggest question when it comes to pricing art is: hourly or flat rate? Ultimately, it’s up to you. But, I prefer a fixed rate, for a few reasons. A fixed rate motivates me to work quickly and efficiently, rather than rewarding me for working too slowly. It allows me to come up with prices based on what I think the value of the art is, which is not necessarily related to how much time is put into it. I think clients prefer it, because they know exactly what they are paying upfront.

Obviously, there are potential drawbacks to flat rate pricing. One of the biggest drawbacks is when working with picky clients that ask for endless edits, which can seriously hurt your hourly pay. To combat this, I always include in my contract how many sketches, revisions, etc., this flat rate includes. For example, they get 3 concept sketches to choose from, a first draft based on the chosen concept, and 1 round of revisions. If the clients end up asking for more than what is included, I charge an hourly rate for the extra work.

Even if you decide on a flat rate, I recommend thinking of the hourly rate you’d like to make, based on your experience and how you’d like to be compensated for your time. I started with an hourly rate of $25/hour and have since increased that to $40/hour, but more experienced artists can charge up to $100/hour or even more. You’ll also need to come up with an estimate of how long the project will take. Estimating time can be difficult, as many artists tend to get lost in their work, but it’s essential to properly place value on your work as a freelance artist! I recommend keeping track of the time you spend on every project, even the ones you do for yourself, so you can have a good idea of how quickly you work. Don’t forget that a project done for a client will likely involve more drafts and revisions than one you do for yourself. Multiply your hourly rate by the hours you estimate working to come up with a flat rate.

It’s pretty simple to price a project based on the hours you expect to work. For most projects, it’s an appropriate way to come up with a price. But, you’ll also want to consider the value a company is getting from your art. The size of a company, and how they use your image, can have a huge effect on the value of that image. Obviously, this value can be much harder to pin down, compared to determining value based on the amount of work you put into the piece. Don’t be afraid to charge more for an image that’s going to be heavily used and distributed than an image with limited usage. Charge extra if they want all the rights to an image, or to charge more to a large company than you would a smaller one.

Write a Contract

Now, you should have a good idea of what the project entails, what rights will be transferred to the client, and what the pricing structure will be. Now you need to write a contract. And yes, you should have a contract for any freelance project. In many cases, the company will provide one for you. If they do, be sure to read it over carefully. If there are any parts you don’t understand, ask your client what they mean. Don’t be afraid to ask to change parts that you don’t agree with, or add terms that you think are important.

If they don’t provide a contract, you can write one. I know this might sound intimidating, but I promise it’s not as hard as it sounds! A contract is just a written agreement between two parties. You can write it in plain English. You can call it a project agreement if “contract” sounds too formal for you. You can even write all the terms in an email, and ask the other party to acknowledge that they agree. The important point is, you want written record of what was agreed upon for this project in case any disputes arise.

Some of the important points you’ll want to include in your contract are:

  • Project Description. Outline what the project will entail, any specific requirements, and what the final delivered product will be.

  • Deadlines and/or schedule. If there is a strict deadline, you might want to include that the client is responsible for responding to sketches/drafts in a timely manner.

  • The rights that will be transferred to the client. Be sure to include that any rights not explicitly transferred still belong to the artist.

  • Pricing and fees. If charging a flat rate, be specific about what is included in that rate and what extra charges will be for additional work.

  • Terms of payment. For example, when payment is due and if they need to pay a deposit up front.

  • Any other terms that were discussed that you think are important for both parties to acknowledge and sign off on.

For more information, I highly recommend the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. This book goes into much greater depth about all things that I discussed here, provides ballpark price ranges for specific types of projects, and has sample contract templates to help you write a contract.

I hope this post helps you in negotiating your next freelance project!

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