How a design contract can help you manage clients

Discover the key to happier, healthier client relationships.

Neal O’Grady
July 13, 2015

Good client relationships brim with lively banter, crazy stories, and friendship. Bad ones bring headaches and stress. You know the kind. Clients who take ages to pay (or never do), make unreasonable demands, expect endless rounds of revisions, or keep trying to expand the scope of the project.

Thankfully, a good contract can make even the most difficult client much easier to deal with. For the most part, it’s all about setting the right expectations, and sticking to them. Let’s see how.

Put it in writing

First and foremost, you have to put it in writing. Yes, it’s nowhere near as fun as getting to work on your ideas, but it is a lot more fun than wasting your time and losing a client.

A well-written contract protects both you and your client in case there’s a disagreement, a speed bump, or a major problem. It also lays everything out on paper so both sides can weigh in and make sure what’s most important to them is understood and addressed. We’re not going to give you legal advice here, but we are going to cover the high-level bullet points and why they’re so important.

Pro tip: Never reinvent the wheel. Find and customize a contract template to keep things simple.

Here’s what you need to consider before starting a project:

Timeline and milestones: Define how long the project should take and when specific elements are due. If there’s wiggle room, make sure to spell that out too.

Scope of work: Clearly detail what you’re making so it’ll be obvious if/when the client tries to expand scope.

Compensation: Be clear about what you’re charging and when you expect to get paid.

Late payment penalties: Prevent late payments before they happen by defining the consequences.

Conditions for additional work: Lay out what happens if you agree to expand scope, including how much notice you’ll need, and how to handle revisions to your timeline and compensation.

Possible conditions for unforeseen circumstances: Speed bumps and roadblocks happen, so plan ahead for possible changes.

Maintenance: Define how you’ll handle small changes and updates once the project is delivered, including how much you’ll charge, if anything.

Your business hours: Let the client know when they should expect you to be working and when it’s okay for them to reach out.

A few of those warrant expansion, so let’s dig deeper.

Scope of work

This section of the contract should detail exactly what you’re doing for the client. This can vary widely, but here’s an example based on a client who needs a restaurant website:

- All pages (or features) of the site: landing page, about page, contact page, menu page

- Additional versions for devices: tablets, phones, etc.

- Number of design revision rounds: note that additional rounds will require a contract extension, and consider defining what the terms of that extension will be

- Graphic/visual design work: logos, icons, or graphics

- How designs will be converted into a functioning site—if you’re working from mockups (but we always suggest prototypes)

- Hosting: how’s this site getting online. Do they expect you to keep it up for them?

- Maintenance, if any

Be explicit when defining the scope—for both you and the client’s sake. It’s all about managing expectations.

Proposed timeline and milestones

Detail how long you expect the project to take, and define milestones along the way. This adds transparency, gives the client something to look forward to, and helps keep you organized and motivated.

Be honest with yourself when setting a deadline. It’s all too easy to let your desire to please your client override all other concerns and deadlines. Just remember that you have a life outside work, and don’t forget Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

It’s worth remembering that you’re the expert here. You know how long it takes to build an entire website—your client probably doesn’t.

So add some buffer time to your estimates. It could save you some embarrassment, and it will definitely help your client set realistic expectations.

Note: This isn’t an opportunity to quote low and promise high to try to outbid other designers. Dishonesty will only lead to arguments and animosity later on.

Compensation and payment schedule

Before I wised up (a little), and started using contracts and implementing late fees, my clients often took months to pay me—despite me sending over a new invoice every two weeks. To prevent this, always detail your payment terms: how much, when it’s due, and how to pay you.

First, you’ll need to choose how to bill them. You have a few options:

Hourly: Ideal for short-term or infrequent work. Even if you opt to charge a flat rate, it’s easiest to base that rate on your desired hourly income.

Flat weekly rate: You charge a fixed rate based on the number of hours you’re able to work per week and your hourly rate. This can help keep you honest—i.e. working—but beware of overtime.

Flat rate per milestone or project: You charge for completed chunks of work, based either on your hourly rate or an industry standard. Clients often prefer this since it’s easier to budget.

Don’t forget to specify how you want to get paid, whether it’s by check, PayPal, Venmo, or Starbucks gift cards. Keep in mind that some payment methods charge the receiver (you) a fee, so ask your clients to use low-fee options with lower fees (wire transfer, check, PayPal without a credit card), or build the fee into your rate.

You need a retainer

Don’t worry—I’m not taking a jab at your pearly whites. A retainer is just a non-refundable down payment. It reserves your time, and helps you cover any non-refundable expenses that might crop up, such as design assets. It also covers you in case your client changes their mind, vanishes, or refuses to pay you. They’re most common for flat-rate projects.

Late payment penalties

Defined due dates and late payment penalties are the best way to ensure you get your money on time, or at all. I usually add these two payment conditions to my contracts:

Payment is due within 14 days from the billing date

For every week past the due date, there will be a late-payment fee of 10% (or more, though 50% is the usual maximum)

These stipulations will often get clients to pay within a couple days of getting an invoice—sometimes even instantly.

If even these methods don’t work, you may be forced to sue. But that’s an expensive, stressful, and unreliable option. Thankfully, having late-payment penalties in place can give you a way to avoid litigation altogether by offering to drop the penalties if they pay now.

Note: Just because someone is slow to pay you doesn’t mean they’re vindictive. They might just be forgetful, or under financial pressure. Try polite and respectful reminders first, and only pull out the big guns if you really need to.

Conditions for additional work

As the project chugs along, you and your client might discover needs that weren’t written into the contract. No big deal.

Just estimate the time it’ll take to complete, and give them a quote. If they approve, add an addendum to the contract and get to work! If your client pushes back at the additional charges, politely remind them of the original scope you both agreed to. If that doesn’t help, you might offer a small discount to soften the blow. Just try to keep your client happy—after all, extending a current job is easier than finding new work.

Negotiating the price for additional work at the beginning of the project can help a lot. Just be very clear as to what counts as a full design revision. Swapping out a photo shouldn’t count.

Set your hours

If your clients are anything like mine, they’re dedicated and excited (stressed) entrepreneurs. That’s awesome. You want to work with people who are truly invested in their work. But this can also mean change requests coming in at 11:59 p.m. on a Saturday … on Christmas Eve.

Remember: You don’t need to accommodate every request as soon as it comes in. Every business has operating hours, and yours should be no different—even if you’re a freelancer.

Be explicit about your availability from day one. Include your hours in the contract. It’s your time. Don’t let work consume your life.

Also, be sure to keep clients in the loop if you’re going away for a few days. Give them a significant heads up!

Treat your clients respectfully

All of this advice goes both ways—you need to treat your clients very respectfully as well. A happy client will be more cooperative, forgiving, and understanding, and will keep coming back. They’ll also spread the word to their friends.

Find the clients who make you smile

Remember that you choose your clients.

Instead of battling with a client who stresses you out, spend your time and effort on the clients who put a smile on your face. A great client can be a friend—and a source of work for years to come. Even if they pay a bit less than the next person, it’s worth it for your peace of mind.

Ever had a client relationship go sour? How did you deal with them? How do you prevent the same problems now? 

There can be many reasons for a website to exist

I often witness some very unsolicited advising taking place. Some people tend to have premade answers when it comes to websites and more often than not, it comes from a good place. In spite of that, most of them don’t bother to ask anything about the project before weighing in.

left the tomatoes gif
There’s a reason why the tomatoes are on the plate. But how could you know that?

I get it. We all know our stuff. But a website can serve many purposes and unless you were part of the process, you don’t know what it is we’re doing here. And you don’t know the function of every component of that project. So thanks for the input but we’re good.

guy gif

That said, it doesn’t mean that everyone who will give their opinion about our work is out of line. We must always be open to constructive criticism and set the ego aside when it comes to problem solving. I just think we should be smart and think for ourselves rather than to take everything at face value.

Personality disconnect

Just like you, I don’t like to be sold to, and I don’t like when companies try to exploit my inner dumbass. Even though it has become some sort of buzzword, authenticity is what it’s all about — true authenticity that is. It’s what we should all strive for while we make our way through that colossal white noise vortex. 

Perception is the name of the game. We have a say in how people view us, and view our businesses. Even though we can only control a portion of the big picture, it’s our job to nudge that perception to where we want it to be. 

Pro tip: If you’re a brand (or solopreneur), don’t just find another brand to imitate. Truly ask yourself what you stand for and what you want to be. Be as genuine as possible. Define your brand’s personality and then act accordingly. Without any restraint, broadcast who you are to the world.

girls dancing gif
Take it all in people.

If you do what others do simply because you think: “It worked for them, it’ll work for me.” Think twice about that. I know, you know, and everybody knows this would do a disservice to you and your audience. 

For instance, you’re a freelancer and you present yourself as a funny easygoing person. You’re then hired to work in an agency for 2 months but 3 days in, it’s getting pretty obvious you're not funny nor easygoing. Uh-oh! You managed to pull a Plaxico Burress and you’re now stuck in a very unfortunate situation. 

Same goes for brands. You claim to care about the environment and people but then you use an antitheft device on your cars to violate the Clean Air Act. Whoopsy-daisy! Turns out you’re garbage and the environment was way down on your priority list. 

Try not to be on the receiving end of this.

The ones who will make it to the other side are the ones who dared to be different

Most people are scared to break the mould. They say stuff like: “If we talk like this, we could possibly offend blond mothers over 42 who also drive electric cars.” Or: “If we look different from the competition, this could maybe potentially make us lose business opportunities at some point perhaps.” Yes — solid point. Essentially, it all comes down to what type of brand (or person) we want to be.

The truth is, brands willing to take risks will always come out on top.

So with this in mind, I’ll paraphrase my very good friend, Paul Arden: “If you always play it safe, you’ll be the same as everyone else. And that’s seriously bad for business.”

But from the right perspective, times like these afford us a peachy opportunity to stand out. That’s right, I said peachy. While most are content with being bland, I think we should aim higher. Why not try to turn some heads and get some reactions? If we’re ok with people remaining indifferent, we fail. Because indifferent people won’t pay attention to us, talk about us, hire us, refer us, and so on. The Apples and Nikes of the world understand this. They apply it with precision and consistency. So if they can do it, why can’t we? My advice to you is simple: 

Be brave. Stand out. And know that, yes, that will probably alienate some people. Chances are, they weren’t the customers you wanted anyway.

As you were.

Neal O’Grady

Freelance designer, traveler and all-around web guy.

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