Nothing is worse than putting your heart, your time, your cost of materials, and so much more into a project, only to have crickets in response to that final invoice.

Through my years of making a living in design, I’ve learned a few essentials you absolutely must have in place to ensure you are getting paid for your work.

Must Have #1: A Clearly Defined Scope of Work:

Before I ever start a project these days…heck, before I even send over a first invoice or agree to take on the client at all…I make sure both my client and I have a clear understanding what what is included in the price they are paying.

A handy tip here: Your clients likely does NOT work in your field. Don’t assume she knows “how it works”, what the looks like, how much time or effort is involved in each step and what the industry standard is for getting the job done.

Some areas you’ll want to consider addressing when you spell out the scope include:

  • the amount of time included in the price- and what the timeline for the project generally looks like
  • the amount of material included- what you will supply and what the client needs to supply
  • your availability and preferred modes of communication
  • how many rounds of revisions/edits/ touch-ups the client is entitled to
  • a precise description of the services you WILL provide, and if it comes up a lot, a notation on what you will NOT provide. (For example, as a web designer, I spell out for every client that I do not provide copywriting services or advanced CRM system setups- it surprising how many clients have assumed that since its all “computer stuff” that I must be good at it!)

Make sure everyone understands and has signed off on the scope to avoid awkward misunderstandings later!


Must Have #2: A Contract

Signing off on scope isn’t enough. You absolutely need a formal contract signed and in place before your start your work. I’ve met creatives who worry that bringing legal language into a client relationship brings “bad energy” into the interaction.

In fact, I’ve found it to be the opposite! A contact makes it clear that you are a professional, you care about your work, and you care about making sure your client will get everything she is entitled to.

I have my lawyer create my client contracts- if you don’t have a business lawyer yet, you may want to look online for some templates to get started. (This is a great set!)


Must Have #3: A Payment Structure

One of the biggest mistakes I used to make when I started out in design was asking for a 50% deposit up front and the remaining 50% when the website launched. This led to horrible months with nightmare clients dragging out the design process far longer than it should have taken, simply to avoid that final payment.

If you can, ask for payment up front. If that doesn’t quite work for you and your industry, tie the payments to specific dates, rather than project milestones. (For example, a final payment for a website could be due at site launch OR 70 days after the project start date, whichever comes first.)

When you’ve decided on a structure, stick to it! A project taking longer due to extra client requests should never interfere with you putting food on your table.

Must Have #4: Clear Communication

Having a great client relationship depends on your clear communication throughout the process. Let a client know when you’re getting close to an agreed-upon deadline, or if a requested edit is out of scope. Let her know if there’s a payment date coming up and where she can expect to see her invoice. Make sure there’s an understanding of where you are in the process, what edits, revisions, or retouches she’s entitled to and what happens if she elects to hire you to take on work not in the original scope.

All of this open discussion about money avoids the client getting an unexpected overage bill or you quietly resenting doing extra work for free.


In the comments below: what has been your biggest struggle when it comes to getting paid for your creative work? Or what advice would you give another creative who hasn’t quite worked out a payment flow yet?