Designers: This Is What You Need to Know to Negotiate Your Best Contracts


As a designer, client negotiations offer the chance to create value for your services. Designers who focus on their pricing alone stand to lose out. It pays for design professionals to approach client talks with a clear strategy.

Designers can prepare to talk to clients by planning ahead and reinforcing mutual benefits. Role-playing using a contract negotiation platform can hone your negotiation skills for better contract outcomes. When negotiating design contracts, the following are some of the essential clauses you might want to focus on.

Scope of Work

In a design contract, the scope of work matches the expectations of the designer and the client. The scope of work spells out the obligations and the conditions of the contract.

The contract should state what the designer needs to do to fulfill the terms of the agreement. You will need to define the goals of the project and provide a summary of deliverables. The scope of work should also define project specifications.

For example, deliverables may include wireframes. Wireframes track the progress you’re making and act as a referral point for collecting milestone payments.

Similarly, the scope of work also spells out the conditions the client needs to fulfill for the designer to perform their job. For instance, your web design contract may include a clause stipulating that the client must approve the creative brief before a particular date for the designer to fulfill a deadline.

Another example is where the client must respond to proofs within two business days with written feedback. Otherwise, the project timelines delay by a day for each day the client doesn’t respond.

Performance Timelines

Most creatives know that it’s not easy to develop a timeline for a design project. There are plenty of variables in the design process as well as in the back-and-forth communications between the designer and the client. However, a common mistake in creating contracts is failing to set up performance timelines.

Timelines are best divided into chunks, resulting in milestones. Because time is a critical and limited resource for both the designer and the client, the two need to agree on the timing of deliverables.

For example, it’s obvious the designer can’t produce a usability report before testing a visual mockup. There will be nothing to test on users, right? Yet, how long after the visual mockup should the client expect the usability report? One day, three weeks? Agreeing on the performance timelines clarifies expectations while giving the project the best chance for successful completion.

Payment Terms

Setting designer rates often starts with the classic dilemma: Should I charge hourly or per project? It all depends on your preference and the client’s policies. Whatever choice you make, you may need to negotiate the details of the payment terms. For instance, will the client pay at the end of the project or on completion of set milestones?

If you agree on hourly payments, you may need to negotiate on how to track billable hours. You may also need to agree to the minimum and maximum billable hours.

Whether you’re billing hourly or per project, you may want to insert clauses about discounts, penalties, and bonuses. For instance, if you deliver a project ahead of schedule, do you get extra compensation as an incentive? Do you offer the client a discount for early payments? Are there penalties for late deliveries?

As you negotiate payment terms, keep in mind the degree of difficulty involved in the project. Also, consider how long the project is likely to take. You may charge a lower per-hour rate for long-term projects compared to short-term projects. You may also charge higher for a one-off client and lower for a continuing client.

Dispute Resolution

If you’re in business long enough, you will likely encounter a dispute of some sort at one point or another. The previous points in this article work to proactively avoid conflicts and manage positive relationships. Unfortunately, even the most proactive contracts between the most personable people can result in misunderstandings.

We live in a litigious society. So, as a service provider, you want to avoid civil cases against your clients. We also live in a digitally connected era where even a small dispute can result in reputational damage across multiple platforms. Often, the process of resolving disputes can be costly in terms of time, money, stress, and reputation management. You can proactively reduce these costs by carefully considering how you will resolve any arising disputes.

Negotiate with your client to insert clauses describing the dispute resolution process. There are three main dispute resolution processes to consider. Arranging them in order of least to most expensive, the three options are:

Mediation: Work with a pre-agreed neutral third party to arrive at a settlement.
Arbitration: Contract with a referee who will deliver a binding ruling.
Litigation: Formally file a lawsuit in a court of law, including small claims court.


Every designer needs to practice and master the art of negotiation. Working with clients involves constant negotiation, from clients who haggle over the scope of work to convincing a skeptical client over a specific design for a project.

While many designers are confident of their design skills, many may not be fully up to speed with contract terms and conditions. Knowing what to haggle over and how to negotiate for the best terms may require expert guidance and regular practice.

Author: Nick Blanton is a long-time content creator and editor. Through his writings, Nick brings the best and most important negotiating lessons to a business audience.