Setting up a Retainer Agreement

The Ins and Outs of Setting Up a Retainer

A retainer is a fee paid for an agreed-upon amount of time or work, usually a month or year. A retainer benefits both the graphic designer and client and should be based on a written contract.

Two people working on a design project

A Retainer Benefits the Contractor

For a graphic designer, a retainer is a safety net, a guaranteed amount of income over time. With much of a freelance income often based on sporadic projects, a retainer is an opportunity to count on a certain amount of money from a particular client. A retainer can establish long-term credibility and trust with clients and even result in additional work outside of the initial retainer agreement.

It also frees the freelance designer from spending so much time prospecting for new clients, so he can work more efficiently and productively on his existing projects.

A Retainer Benefits the Client

For the client, a retainer guarantees that a graphic designer will provide a certain amount of work, and potentially prioritize that work. With freelancers often pulled in many directions, it gives the client consistent hours from a designer. Since the client is paying in advance to guarantee a certain amount of work, clients may also get a discount on the designer’s hourly rate

How to Set Up a Retainer

Focus on existing clients. A retainer is ideal for existing clients with whom you have a track record: you work well together, you have already delivered top-notch work, you like the client, and the client likes you. Never suggest a retainer relationship with a brand-new client.

Pitch it as a Partner. If you've worked with this client before, you'll know what tasks she finds difficult to manage on her own, or any problems she has. Consider how your involvement can help her solve these, so diversify your services. If your focus is design, bone up on social media; if you have no writing skills, pick up some basics.

Determine your rate. And what about your rate? A client will likely expect or request a discounted rate — but this decision is highly subjective, and not all freelancers offer discounts for retainer agreements. If you are an established freelancer and you know your rates are fair, decline a discount and focus on the results you can deliver when negotiating the contract, rather than the price of your services. On the other hand, if this client is critical to you, or you are just starting out, offering a discount can be a wise strategy.

Identify the scope of work. Understand exactly how much work you are agreeing to, and clarify that additional fees will accrue if the work goes over. Never work for free! 

Have a written contract. Get everything in writing and signed. The contract should include the basics, such as the exact amount you will receive, the expected scope of work, the date and schedule on which you will be paid, and anything else that might impact your work. The American Bar Association provides some tips on developing agreements that might be helpful. 

Common Retainer Arrangements

Monthly. A designer is paid a monthly fee, often in advance, for a certain number of hours worked. The designer tracks hours and bills the client for work beyond the amount agreed upon, either at the same discount or a full rate. If the designer works less than the agreed amount, that time can be rolled over or lost.

Annually. A designer is paid a certain amount per year for a specified number of hours or days worked. An annual agreement does not keep the designer on as strict a schedule as a monthly contract, but the same conditions apply.

By Project. A designer is paid to work on a continuing project, for a specified amount of time or until the project is finished. This is similar to working for a flat rate for a project but is generally more common for ongoing work rather than the development of a new project.

No matter what the specifics of the arrangement are, a retainer is often a great way to guarantee some ongoing income, while often giving the client a discount and establishing a long-term relationship.

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