In this article, I argue that it's not only unfair to take all the risk for design work, but it's also not a sound business decision on agency’s part.
Unlimited design revisions: good or bad? Learn why and how to protect your agency
This question has originated on Designer News where Paul Mist asked this:
When setting a contract with a client do you offer unlimited or a set number of design revisions? Why? To some the idea of unlimited revisions says "we want to get you the solution you like", to others it says "we're not confident enough that we can get this right quickly". What do you think?
Here’s my reply.
Why the unlimited revisions guarantee is bad for fixed-price projects
Our web development agency used to have the unlimited revisions guarantee in our contract too, but sometimes it turned against us. Almost all of our projects were fixed-price projects, and sometimes a low four-figure project disrupted schedules we assigned to other bigger projects.
My reasons for offering this guarantee to clients was because I thought I'd sell more services and land more clients this way. I had low self-confidence in my pricing and I was actively making up marketing “features” to justify our price (which wasn’t that high anyway). The truth was that most clients did not ask “what happens if I don’t like your design?”, but my low self-confidence drove me to overdeliver on terms of service that were harmful to our agency.
It’s harmful because good design does not depend only on the designer. Good design is a result of so many things that involve the client, including communicating business goals, expectations, and measurement criteria to the designer. You could argue it’s the designer’s job to extract that crucial information from a client, but the extraction process does not always go according to the plan.
For example, some clients are notorious for:
- not cooperating
- failing to communicate clearly
- not giving feedback on time
- not bothering to answer designer’s questions
- meddling with design work (playing the designer, making the designer their string puppet)
- disappearing for months just when you need them the most, etc.
For those reasons, designers need to make their clients feel that they have skin in the design game too. Clients get some skin in the game when they know they will lose something valuable - time and money and potentially some reputation points - if they obstruct the design process in any way.
That’s what you need a good design contract for. Let’s see how to protect yourself.
What to include in your design contract
Limit the number of revisions in your design contract.
Some clients assume the maximum benefits for them unless your design contract states otherwise. ”But I assumed, and it’s logical, that you’d work on my design until I’m satisfied” - you don’t want to ever hear that again.
For example, you could define in your contract that this fixed-price project includes:
- one major revision, following a detailed feedback session with the client;
- two to three minor revisions of the approved major revision.
In this case, define examples of major and minor revisions as detailed as possible. A major revision could include a complete redesign of one page (usually a homepage), and minor revisions could include changes up to 10% of the delivered work.
This is just one possible way of limiting your revisions - you could limit them based on hours spent working on revisions, if you prefer that.
Assume that every client will use the maximum number of revisions, and charge accordingly.
Don’t forget to charge for services you promise to your clients. Design revisions are a service just like any other.
If you charge for your services as if you’d nail your designs in the first try, you’ll be running an unprofitable business. You’ll also develop an unhealthy attitude toward clients. You’ll think they don’t respect you as a professional because “they just don’t get design”, and you won’t enjoy your work.
You need to make your design game winnable every time you play it.
The promise of a maximum profit margin that you earn from getting the design right the first time will drive you to deliver your most excellent work. Your clients will pay more, but they’ll get designs of highest quality. But even if you don’t nail it the first time, you’ll still be profitable.
Define in clear terms what happens if the client does not want to accept your work.
“Liking a design” is a subjective category. Don’t leave a hole in your contract that your clients could use to ask for money back based on not liking your design. They had plenty of opportunity to look at your portfolio to assess your skills before hiring you.
I don’t like how the house that you’ve architected for me turned out. I want my money back.
Nobody said ever to an architect. Why should designers suffer financial loss then?
You have the right to clearly state that “not liking a design” is not a valid nor accepted ground for contract dismissal because it’s a subjective statement. You can clearly state that the client has no right to their money back based on that complaint. Yes, say that in your contract.
Instead, don’t allow the client to give up on you after your first try. Say that if the client has issues with your work, he or she has a contractual obligation to give timely, abundant, and written feedback to your first design proposal. This feedback must contain specific points as to how and where exactly does your design fail to meet mutually agreed-upon expectations and business goals. In that situation, you need to write those expectations and business goals down in a special document before starting a design project. You’ll need that document later.
What happens next in this process is that you’ll focus the client on details that you need to know about to make the design right. If there were any misunderstandings before starting the project, you’ll get those out in the open now. You’ll get into a productive conversation with the client about the function of design, expected business results, business problems that design aims to solve, and so on. This is a much better position to be in than discussing “not liking” what you “drew”.
As soon as you have a couple of useful pieces of feedback from the client, start working on them, one by one. Change one thing and ask the client if this is better. Chances are it will be. You want to take them back to the path of positive thinking, and all it takes is just one YES from them! For example, there might be a problem with that huge image you used in the background or in the header; once you change that, the whole feel for your work might change drastically for the better.
Then start working on the second piece of feedback and look for approval for that. Make the client approve one by one on that (finite!) list of changes, and gauge their behavior after each iteration. If needed, make those changes in real-time in front of their eyes, and make them see how easy it is to fix design if both parties cooperate. If they genuinely seem to want to make this design work, you’ll know by the way they treat you.
If nothing you do seems to please them, not even multiple revisions to one simple design element, offer them three choices:
- they can pay extra for additional design revisions, possibly done by another designer in your agency (yes, there is a chance that it’s not them, that it’s you - and that this design project is so important to them that they’d be willing to give it another try)
- they can hire another agency for design work and continue working with you on other items in your quote. It is less likely that they’ll agree to this if they absolutely hate you, but the only way to find out how they feel about you is to give them this option.
- they can cancel the contract and get a small portion of their money back. This is the last option you want to offer (unless you hate the client; in that case, give them their money back as soon as you can). In that case, they can’t use any of your work, and you won’t be delivering any creatives in any format.
How much money you’re willing to pay them back is up to you. Personally, I believe bad design projects are a shared risk. It’s not entirely your fault, nor is it entirely theirs.
In that light, 50% of the amount they paid you for design as an advance fee sounds fair. If they paid you an advance fee for additional services, such as installing WordPress or creating content, don’t immediately offer them to drop your agency altogether. Just because it didn’t work out with the design doesn’t mean that they have the right to ask for money back for other services.
In those cases, it helps to have already started working on those services. Our agency’s contract states that clients can’t ask for money back on any services that our agency has started working on. I remember a client who wanted their money back for the whole project because they didn’t like our design. But we were already 95% done with the rest of the project, and we could prove with past email conversations that we rendered the services. They withdrew their request and we successfully launched their project (including the revised design). They’re still our client.
Define what happens if it’s you who wants to cancel work on a design project
In my career of thirteen years as an agency co-founder, there was only one client that I wanted to strangle with my bare hands, and maybe half a dozen more who I wish I never heard from again. It happened only once that we wanted out of the project before finishing it.
Most of your projects will be salvageable, at least to the point that you can deliver your design and tell the nasty client that you can’t keep working with them anymore.
Create an escape button for bad design projects in your contract, so that the worst client of your career cannot hold you hostage on a nightmare project and make you finish it.
Since you’re charging all clients for all the revisions - whether there will be any or not - you should be financially covered for that one nightmare situation in which you want out ASAP.
That’s why I suggest you pay this client back 50% the amount that they paid you for design so far. That’s exactly the same amount as if the client asked for their money back themselves. For example, If they paid you a 50% advance fee, you’d be returning half of that, or 25% of the whole design deal.
If clients ask you about this contract clause in the sales phase, reply like this (one response should be enough):
- This clause does not exactly incentivize your agency to cancel the contract on a whim. It’s because you’d be losing 75% of the expected money on this design project, after putting in at least 50-75% of the effort (most of your hardest design work you must do at the beginning of the project).
- Your agency is reputable (the proof is in your portfolio). Reputable agencies use such clauses only in distress, to protect themselves from people who deliberately want to harm them, ”and I’m convinced you aren’t anything like that.”
- How many times did it happen in your agency that you had to sack the client by invoking this clause? Tell them how rare this really is, and what were the special circumstances in which you had to do it. People accept your position when you give them real numbers.
The situation in which you’ll want to invoke this clause will be so intense and extreme that your peace of mind and the ability to move on will be of much more value than the money they already paid you, or promised to pay you in full. You’ll know they’re a rotten apple soon after they nastily disapprove of your first major revision, or the second major revision (that they’re paying for extra). Their behavior will be off the charts compared to people you’re used to dealing with. It will be your call whether to continue with this client or to cut your losses.
Make them sign off the exact design revision they approved
As soon as they say that they accept your design, send them a document, formally titled “Acceptance of design proposal” or something like that. They have to sign that document (or confirm via email that they approve it - whatever is rexognized by law in your country as acceptance). This document states that the client has accepted the design, and that you will bill them your hourly rate for all additional revisions.
You need this clause because clients do change their minds for various reasons. It’s futile to be mad at them for that - you cannot control what they think. A professional makes it easy for their clients to avoid dissatisfaction in situations like this by charging for revisions by the hour.
How to make your limited revisions work for you, instead of against you
Charge for an extra revision as if it was extra cheese on a pizza.
It's like ordering a pizza with extra cheese: extra cheese is billed additionally. Want 10x more cheese than is included in the price? Pay 10x more.
It helps to let the client have an option to pay for additional revisions. Sometimes clients value an abundance of ideas and revisions more than they value their money.
To make this work for you, you must create "extra major and minor revisions" as items on your services price list. One major revision = $xyz. One minor revision = $yyz. Don’t offer a refund on those. I swear that this won’t help you one bit unless you create it as an service option, just like “design” is a service option you sell.
One added benefit to doing this is that extra revisions might even land you more deals because not all your competitors thought of this option. Clients will not automatically assume they’re allowed to use this option unless you mention it explicitly.
Create an awesome content piece and describe your design process.
Why not design a shiny infographic, a pretty blog post, or a slide deck to talk about how design is done in the 21st century? Say why unlimited revisions are harmful, and how it’s not in anybody’s interest to make the project longer than necessary. Let your content teach your clients how the design process really works, and how much it depends on the client. Emphasize the importance of doing all the things right before starting a design project.
One more reason why clients sometimes say they don’t like your designs
I believe most clients are of good nature. But sometimes clients want their money back because stuff happens in their businesses which they can’t control, and which has nothing to do with you. This unforeseen stuff forces them to get back as much cash as possible, quickly. In those situations they might see you as a bank in which their money is locked up, the money they now desperately need (to pay their taxes, their employees, something more important than design).
You don’t want to be the first victim of their unfortunate circumstances, so you don’t want them to play the “I don’t like your design” card against you. That’s why your design contract can never allow your clients to get any money back for “not liking” your designs.
Clients who want to get out of your contract for reasons that have nothing to do with you will use every hole you left for them in your contract. Don’t make my mistake: there is no need to give them all or any of their money back if they don’t “like” it. How you draft your contract is up to you (and your lawyers). Time is the only asset you can never ever get back (not according to the laws of physics that govern this universe), so your work has a high cost.
How to decrease the chance of clients not liking your designs and asking for money back
Clients cancel contracts while it’s still “cheap” for them to give up on you. That usually happens in the early phase of your relationship. The longer you’re working with them, the less likely it becomes that they’ll cancel your contract.
But since design is a highly subjective category, it makes it a high-risk service. Nowhere does it say that you have to start with this highly risky phase first; why not make design last in your development process? Why not work on strategy and content first, the content management system second, and design last?
In projects where design is pushed to the end of the web development process, the client has already invested a lot in a relationship with their agency. For example, you successfully completed the business strategy together, as well as content, architecture, mockups, and applications. Even if the agency fails to deliver a spectacular first design draft, the client will cooperate and try their hardest to make the design work. They will have almost zero motivation to cancel the project based on subjectivity because they’d be nearing the launch date of their project. Launch dates make people focus on what really matters. I bet you’d love to have more clients who only focus on what matters, instead of bike-shedding you to death.
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