Writing Contracts (for people who hate writing contracts)

When you think of contracts, you probably think of lawyers, the court system, and stuffy businessmen in brown suits and little red bowties.

I used to see legal contracts in the same light. But then, something changed: I realized that a contract is just an agreement. If you made an agreement with your son to clean up his room, would it be:

“Jake needs to clean his room by Friday.”

But for some reason, we’re tricked into believing that contracts have to be stuffy:

“Child agrees to arrange all materials in Child’s bedroom in an orderly fashion by the date highlighted in Section 3, Subsection A of the agreement.”

Why do we do this? For one thing, I think that we confuse our contracts with other legal documents, such as Apple’s iTunes Terms of Service – which is distributed to millions of (nearly) anonymous customers that might have any reason to sue. Maybe we feel the need to sound professional and important to our clients, or maybe we think that fancy words like “henceforth” make it less likely for us to get in trouble if something goes wrong.

But at the end of the day, contracts exist to set expectations and settle disputes. Instead of writing a document filled with 24 “henceforth” statements, the next time you need to write a contract, try a simpler approach: use a prewritten, plain English contract template (like this one) and make some small changes to fit your needs.

While contracts can be easy and even fun to write, this wouldn’t be a good article if I didn’t give you some actual ideas of how to do it. If you’ve been participating in our email series, you’ll probably remember when I outlined a number of steps to help your projects advance smoothly. I’ve written a few short excerpts for you to copy and paste into your contracts; feel free to use them as you wish!

Combine these ideas with a premade contract, then edit them to your liking.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. Read the disclaimer on the bottom of this page.

The project will be split into four phases:

  • Preparation: The designer will work with the client to gather the project’s requirements. The client will submit all the content they’d like on the site.
  • Design: The designer will create a rough draft of the design. The client will provide feedback and eventually approve it.
  • Development: The designer will develop the site. The client will be presented with drafts of the site, twice, and will be able to submit revisions.
  • Closing: The client approves of the website as a whole, and the designer puts it live.

The client makes payments at the end of the Preparation, Design, and Closing phases. These payments are detailed later in this document.

Mark’s note: In other words, you’ll gather requirements and content during Preparation. During Design, you’ll create a Lorem-Ipsum-ized draft of the design you want to use (even easier if you use premade layouts). Your clients will give you lots of feedback here. During Development, you’ll actually venture into the Divi Builder and begin copy-and-pasting their the client’s content and making the links and plugins work correctly.

“Limit the number of revisions a client is allowed to make. Ask them to consolidate their revisions into a single document.”

Communication is vital for any project; the better you communicate, the better the outcome of this project will be. After you approve the visual look and feel of the site during the Design phase, the Development phase begins. This is the most time-consuming and costly part of the project, so please understand that you will have a limited number of opportunities to revise our work after the Design phase has ended. However, your design package includes two opportunities for sending the designer your revisions:

  • In the middle of the Development phase, Designer will showcase [his/her] work. You may submit a single Word document with up to five revisions at this time.
  • At the end of the Development phase, Designer will showcase [his/her] work. You may submit a single Word document with up to five revisions at this time.

Designer will make these changes for free unless they add complexity to the site, in which case [he/she] will contact you with an estimate of the added cost.

Have clients submit their finished materials at the beginning of the project.

This is a professional project and should be a priority to both the client and the designer. As such, you agree to do your part to make sure Designer receives all the help necessary to make the project a success. This means that before our work begins, you’ll need to submit all of the content you’d like us to put on your website. This includes text, images, videos, colors, and so on.

Your excellence in this area is one of the aspects that can make this project a success. The finished materials help us deliver a site that perfectly fits your content and captures your brand in exactly the way you intended. Once you send your finished materials, our work will begin.

Mark’s note: collecting all materials up front is one of the guidelines that completely transformed my practice. There are too many clients who own 350px by 200px photos of their products, only to express disappointment when the photos don’t fit on the fullwidth background I originally promised them. Additionally, many clients are not able to visualize how their copywriting will fill out their pages, and so on. Collecting all materials before the project will often lead to incredible discoveries about how your client needs the design to flow to fit their content. Even though it’s scary at first, it ends up in much better websites. I strongly suggest trying this out for your next project.

Define how communication is going to happen throughout the project.

Communication is extremely important throughout the project, and we want your voice to be heard. Email is the best way to get in touch with us, but during certain phases of the project, Designer is available for communication between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM, Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Thursday, via Skype. If you’d like to discuss something, please email at least 24 hours in advance with several times that would work best for you within these timeframes.

Project Begins: email or a scheduled Skype call
During Design and Development: email only
Presentations of Developed Site: Skype only
Follow Up: email or a scheduled Skype call

Ask clients to approve and agree on your initial design before moving forward.

During the Design phase, we’ll work with you to create a rough draft of your final site. You must approve this draft before we can move forward with development.

After your approval, the design cannot be revisited without revising the total cost of the project. What is paid for is done, so please address any of your concerns before the Development phase begins.

Decide who should be responsible for fixing minor errors after the project is finished.

At the end of the project, you will pay $XXX for access to our client training system at [Designer’sWebsite.com/training]. The training will teach you how to manage and make minor revisions to your website, such as changing images, text, writing blog posts, and so on.

Mark’s note: Of course, I recommend training your Divi clients with the training system we’ve already prepared at The Client Class.

Decide who gets the final say on design.

Before we begin, you need to know that I take your success very seriously. You’re an expert at your practice, and I’m an expert at my own. That being said, we may have disagreements on certain aspects of this project. You’re welcome to voice your concerns, but please respect my informed decisions as a professional designer and allow me to make the final call when it comes to matters of design.

Mark’s note: I’ve noticed that clients with lower budgets often try to control more of the project, while clients with higher budgets let you have more freedom with the design choices. I’ve always found this funny. Nevertheless, if you’d like to raise your rates, consider some free resources to help: The Divi Designer’s Guide and this post on pricing your work.

Incentivize the client to stay on schedule throughout the project.

While you have a business that pays your bills, this project helps us pay ours, and we hold you to reasonable standards: we ask that you submit content, communicate, and make payments on time. The project is scheduled to take [X weeks/months] as evidenced by this schedule:

[add a timeframe of each of the designer’s/client’s deliverables here]

This schedule can be amended before the contract is signed. Please contact us if you would like to make changes.

If you are late on a deliverable or payment addressed in this schedule, your account will be considered negligent. If this happens, we will raise our hourly rates to 2.5x our normal rates, which becomes $XXX, to make up for time lost. Alternatively, you can end the project by [insert your own reasonable terms here if a client needs to end the project].

Mark’s note: You’re operating a business – not a charity. If your client goes unresponsive or doesn’t send a payment, you’ll take a huge financial hit. Work together to agree upon a reasonable schedule. Then hold them to that schedule.

Create a payment schedule to increase your cash flow and make it easy on the client.

Thanks for reading this far! In this section, you will learn about the payment schedule for your project. Designer splits payments up into multiple installments. This simply means that you will pay in smaller amounts, often. This is the schedule Designer will follow:

Project begins 25% of the project cost
Design approved 50% of the project cost
Site launch 25% of the project cost

In other words, to begin the project, you’ll make a payment of 25% of the estimated project cost, which is $XXX. Designer will then work with you to design your new website. Once you approve the general look and feel of your new site, you will pay 50% of the project cost: $XXX. Once this payment is made, Designer will enter the Development phase. And after your site is exactly how you had imagined it (or better), you will pay the final 25% of the project cost: $XXX.

Once this payment is made, Designer will [enter how you’ll close the project]. Designer retains control of all of [his/her] work until the final payment, 25% of the project cost, is made. Designer must be given payment for their work after each deliverable. Work will not continue until the payment is received.

Mark’s note: I’ve kept this version very simple so you could edit it to fit your practice! You might have a completely different cost structure, and that’s fine. The general goal of this section is to make sure clients don’t go delinquent. Split up the cost of the project into smaller payments, and have the client pay after each phase of your work is finished. Do not continue working if the client doesn’t pay you; for instance, do not start the project until you have the client’s down payment in your bank account; do not launch their site until they’ve paid all of your costs. After all, you’re a professional that’s helping them get what they want.

I recommend taking payment online, but you can also use checks. If you use the latter, make sure you’re able to cash the check (some clients request designers “not to cash the check until the project is finished”, but this is generally a bad thing).

There are a few additional things you should make sure to address, in great detail, in the contract. They are:

  • Project Scope
    What does the project entail?
  • Payments
    Where and when will payments be made?
  • Ownership
    Who owns the rights to the final project?
  • Deadlines
    What are the designer’s due dates? What are the client’s due dates?
  • Completion
    What single event marks the successful completion of the project? In addition, how will the project end if one party needs to cancel early?

Here’s an optional plan of action for you:

  1. Develop just one “base contract” for your projects: basically, a unique document that you can reuse with each client. For instance, print out Contract Killer 3 (it’s fairly short and simple), then go to a coffee shop or somewhere nice to treat yourself. While you’re there, retype Contract Killer 3 in your own words, changing around their services to match your own.
  2. Now try adding some of the ideas I’ve highlighted above whereever they fit best. Type these in your own words, and make changes to fit your practice and style of work.
  3. Because I’m not a lawyer, I can’t give you adequate legal advice on every step in the process; I can just give you some ideas. To make sure you’re protected, I ask you to get the document from Step 2 checked by a lawyer. I know this might seem intimidating, but lawyers can actually be friendly people – you may be able to hire one online (look for a legal freelancer, even!) and pay them for a few hours to ask if there are any other measures you should take to ensure the validity of your contract.

After following these guidelines, your contract will hopefully be:

  • simple for both you and clients to comprehend
  • easy to read, due to the lack of legalese
  • effective, due to a mutual understanding of what’s expected from both parties
  • legally sound, because you got it checked by a lawyer

And when this happens, your projects can only get better.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and I only pretend to be one after I’ve watched too much Law and Order: SVU. Please consult a legal professional before adopting these recommendations into your own practice, and please make informed decisions on your own part instead of adopting these ideas without question. These are just some things to think about.

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