What Does It Mean to Work on Retainer as a Graphic Designer?

Benefits include a guaranteed income and long-term relationships

graphic designer working
Getty Images/PeopleImages

Some freelance graphic designers work on retainer, at least with some clients. A retainer arrangement is when the designer and the client enter into a contract that covers a specified period of time (such as a month or a year) or a certain number of hours (such as 10 hours per week) or for a specific on-going project to be performed for a set, usually pre-paid fee.

Benefits of a Retainer for the Client

This type of arrangement provides many benefits for both designer and client. The following are benefits for clients:

  • The designer provides a guaranteed amount of work and the client is given priority over other clients.
  • The client can often get a discounted rate compared to the designer's normal freelance fees.
  • The client knows exactly what to expect in terms of billing, paying a set amount each week or month for the duration of the contract.
  • The client establishes a long-term relationship with the designer, avoiding the need to continually interview and train new designers or teams for each new project.

Benefits of a Retainer for the Graphic Designer

For graphic designers, a retainer contract takes some of the risks out of a freelancing arrangement:

  • The designer gets guaranteed, regular income over the course of the retainer contract.
  • The designer knows exactly how much time to set aside for the client to complete the specified amount of work.
  • The designer establishes a long-term relationship with the client, making it more likely the client will continue to work with them in the future.

Retainer-Based Projects

A designer and client may use a retainer agreement for almost any type of project. Common types include designing a monthly newsletter, maintaining a website, managing ongoing or seasonal ad campaigns, or working on a long-term project such as developing brand materials, a website, or other marketing and in-house documents for a new business.

The Contract

As with all graphic design projects, it makes sense for both parties to use a contract. The retainer contract should include the following items:

  • Parameters of the working relationship
  • The amount of the retainer (fee), how often it's paid (monthly, weekly, etc.)
  • The work to be done for that fee, including the number of hours, days, or other increments of time for which the designer's time and expertise are being retained
  • The types of services being provided, whether that's a single, long-term project or a series of smaller jobs that are done on a recurring basis
  • Which tasks the designer is responsible for, such as only print work (and not web-related projects)
  • How and when the designer reports the hours they worked under the contract

If the designer's commitment is for a certain number of hours, they must track their time to be sure the client is getting what they paid for.

The contract should include a clause about what happens if the client requires fewer or more hours than what's been agreed to. For example, say the client is paying for 20 hours per month but only uses 15 hours one month. Are the hours rolled over to the next month or is it simply a loss to the client?

Or, what if the designer is unavailable due to illness or other reasons not caused by the client? Do they charge less for that period or provide additional hours during the following one?

Or, what if the client requires additional work? Will it be paid at an hourly rate, tacked onto the next retainer payment, or subtracted from future work?

Not all designers or clients will want to work on retainer but it is a valid business arrangement with benefits for both sides.