The dotted line: what to look for when reviewing a contract

We're talking contracts

We’re talking contracts here today! Unlike those mile long license agreements that you just scroll through and click “agree” on with glazed eyes (oh no, or is that just me?), if you’re paying a service provider for their work, you are going to want to print their contract out and sit down and do your best to read and understand it.

Unfortunately, contracts don’t hold up well in court unless they’re written in that legal type of language where you’ll be referred to as The Client. Things will be seemingly repeated ad nauseam, and situations that would likely never happen will be gone over in great (boring) detail.

Soldier through

Soldier through! A contract exists to protect both parties in the event that things go wrong. If everything goes right during the project, you’ll never need to worry about or refer back to the contract. However, it’s good when signing the contract initially to know what to expect if things do go wrong. Make sure you’re protected (and expect that the service provider will be protected on their end as well – contracts are a two way street).

Protect yourself

If anything is unclear, ask for explanation. If anything is a deal-breaker for you, suggest an alternate wording (and be prepared to have your own attorney draft the change, to be sure the language will hold up in court). The attorney we work with won’t write any language for us that is against our interests, so it may make more sense to do this yourself than to ask the service provider to make the change for you. Be flexible here, but don’t sign anything that you don’t feel comfortable with. A contract is serious business.

If your service provider doesn’t have a contract for you to sign, be wary. Consider that someone who wants to take your money without having you sign a contract may be a shady character, or just very inexperienced, and you may want to go with someone more professional. If you do want to work with this person, regardless, I would strongly suggest that you draft a contract, covering all of your bases. I know that sounds like a lot of work, but if you’re paying good money, you will be so glad you did this if things go wrong.

Pay attention

Here are some areas of a contract and/or proposal that you should pay close attention to. I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice! I am also unfamiliar with the details of contracts for other types of agreements, so this will have a graphic design and web development slant to it. You may find that a photographer or copywriter will have a different type of agreement.

PricingYou’ll want to check the contract to make sure there isn’t a way that your service provider can end up charging you more than you agreed upon in the beginning. It’s common to allow for a bit of leeway (for instance, our contract says that pricing is an estimate, but we’ll require client approval before adding substantial cost to the final price), but if the contract is vague here, or specifically allows the service provider to bill you whatever the heck they want at the end, ask for this section to be adjusted.

Also be sure to see if there are any actions on your end that could result in additional charges. I’ve heard of some professionals charging the client by the day whenever the project is delayed on the client’s end, so you’ll want to be prepared for that if that’s the policy. In our contract, asking us to re-do previously approved work allows us to start billing our hourly rate, if approved.

Contracts may cover the payment schedule as well, and reading this over will prevent late fees or other unpleasant surprises.

TimelineYour project proposal or contract should contain at least rough timeline information. Be sure this is clear, so you have recourse if months have gone by with no results from your service provider.

What's includedMake sure you know exactly what you’re getting! Now and again, we have an unpleasant moment with a client, and it’s always because something wasn’t clear at the beginning. For instance, if you are paying for just “site design,” how many pages will be designed? Which ones? Will you be adding content to the website, or will the developer? Will your existing blog posts be transferred, or will you have to start from scratch?

If anything that you’re paying for is vague, be sure to ask for more information about it. Don’t rely on comments made during email exchanges or over the phone – if you talked about an important feature, but don’t see it on the contract, ask to have it specifically listed. Something that seems obvious to your service provider may be left out of the contract, and you’ll end up getting less than you thought you were paying for if you don’t get clarification.

Ownership & rightsKnow what you’re purchasing and what it can be used for. If you’re having someone design a logo for you, ideally you’d purchase all rights to the logo design – to be able to use it on your marketing materials, your website, print materials, and on things for sale.

Particularly with certain types of design, such as illustration, having someone create something for your project doesn’t immediately give you the right to use it in any situation for an unlimited time period. Often, you’ll buy the rights just to use the illustration on your website for a time period such as three years, or you can pay more to be able to use it for marketing materials or in a print publication.

The contract will let you know what rights you are purchasing to the work you commission. It should also specify whether you have the right to alter the files (change colors, layout, type, etc.) as part of the agreement. Don’t assume that because you paid for it, you can just go hog wild! It will depend on the type of product or service and what’s in the contract.

RevisionsIf the design, photos, copywriting, or other service is not quite right, do you get to keep asking for changes until it’s perfect? Find out what the revision policy is. Most service providers have a number of revisions that they include in the price. At Aeolidia, we plan for three revisions of each part of the design, and beyond that, we’re happy to keep working on it, but charge an hourly fee.

ScalabilityFor a website project, be sure you know who will be responsible for managing the website once it’s up. Will you be able to update your content yourself, and add new pages, products, and information without incurring further fees?

ConfidentialityFor some types of projects, you will be sharing a lot of private business information with your service provider. Check to be sure the contract makes it clear that your service provider can’t share that information with anyone not working on the project or make it public in any way.

ResponsibilityContracts may cover who is responsible for printing errors, problems on websites, and other such unexpected troubles. Make sure you understand the policy here, and feel comfortable with it.

CancellationOf course, you want and expect everything to go well, but make sure you know what the policy is if you decide to cancel the project – will you receive a refund, or owe further payment? Will you have the right to use any of the completed work?

You made it

Whew, you made it! Sign that contract and send it in – now the fun can begin!

Do you have any questions about contracts or other types of agreements? Any horror stories to share or tips I missed? Please let us know in the comments.


  1. such excellent advice! WRITTEN AND SPECIFIC contracts in ANY field are vital. It is so easy for misunderstandings to occur with verbal or vague contracts, with both parties feeling put-out. If you understand specifically what is and is not included, and how costs are calculated, everyone finishes happily, and happy customers (and providers!) make for future happy customers, through fabulous word-of-mouth.

  2. Right, Julie! Especially if the client and service provider don’t live in the same town and can’t discuss face to face. It’s easy for assumptions on either end to cause trouble down the road, if everything isn’t spelled out.

  3. Kim says:

    So true – GET A TIMELINE – in writing. I have learned this the hard way and am still waiting for my dream website after paying for it 1 1/2 years ago. No matter what size your business is – make sure you have a contract for any work that is super important to you! The timeline is sooooo important because sometimes things come up that weren’t anticipated and this can really save you in the long run! Great article Arianne you really hit the nail on the head!!!

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