What is Working on Retainer as a Graphic Designer?

A guaranteed income and long-term relationships

graphic designer working
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Some freelance graphic designers work on retainer. The client and designer enter into a contract that covers a specified period of time (such as a month or a year) or a certain number of hours of work (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

  • Guaranteed amount of work, often given priority over other non-retainer clients.
  • Can usually ask for and get a discounted rate compared to normal freelance fees.
  • Simplified accounting, paying a set amount each week or month for the duration of the retainer contract.
  • Establishes a long-term relationship with a designer, avoiding the need to continually interview and brief a new designer or design team for each project that comes up.

Benefits of a Retainer for the Graphic Designer

  • Guaranteed, regular income over the course of the retainer contract.
  • Specific amount of work for the fee agreed upon in advance.
  • Establishes a long-term relationship with a client for continued work and fees.

Working on Retainer

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

The Contract

As with all graphic design projects, use a contract. The retainer contract should spell out the terms of the working relationship, the amount of the retainer (fee), how often and when it is paid (monthly, weekly, etc.) and what the fee covers.

For whatever the duration of the contract, it should spell out the number of hours, days, or other increments of time for which the designer's time and expertise are being retained. The designer must track his time to be sure the client is getting what they paid for. The contract should specify how and when the designer reports the hours he worked under the contract including overages.

If the client requires hours beyond those agreed upon for the retainer, will they pay at the same rate, will it be tacked on to the next retainer payment or billed separately and paid immediately? Or will those hours be subtracted from the next month's work?

Say the client is paying for 20 hours per month but only uses 15 hours one month. The contract must cover such contingencies. Are the hours rolled over to the next month or is it simply a loss to the client? Or, what if the designer was unavailable due to illness or other reasons not caused by the client?

In addition to money matters, the contract covers exactly what type of services are being provided on retainer. It could be a single, long-term project or a series of smaller jobs that are done on a recurring basis, such as regular updates of sales fliers, quarterly customer newsletters, and yearly work on the client's annual report. It may also be necessary to specify what is not covered such as when the designer will be responsible only for print work and not web-related projects.

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