How to Set Up a Design Contract When the Scope Is Still Undecided

by Tiffany Butler,

Paper airplane flying in the sky

image from Getty

You don’t have to have all the answers to get a design contract off the ground.

I’ve had more than one client come to me in a state of overwhelm about a big project. “I’m not even sure yet what I need you to do for me. I just know I need help,” they said.

You’ve probably been in this situation yourself—trying to get an agreement in place when the scope of work is more than a bit nebulous. The inability of a client to clearly define the scope might have stalled an opportunity for you, or killed it altogether.

[Related: How to Navigate Design Contracts for Smooth Client Relationships]

This happened to me twice in the past year—each time with a potential new client. We could have gone ‘round and ‘round trying to define a very specific scope of work, but the reality is that we couldn’t, because we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

Guess what? You can still take the first step.

Here are two ways you can move your contract forward, even when you’re not sure exactly what that final product will look like. These approaches worked for me, and my two new clients were up and running in no time.

Keep it loose

Draft a loose description of the services you’ll provide, and establish a shared understanding with your client of what would generally fall inside and outside those parameters. If you’re managing a creative project, for example, does your scope include managing client team members or other outside service providers? This approach works best when you have an established relationship, or at least a very strong mutual rapport (i.e. you “speak the same language”).

Keep it small

Break the project into small pieces you can bite off incrementally with minimal risk. This allows you to tightly define the scope and test the water before committing to a larger contract. If you’re redesigning a large website, for example, you might start with a discovery phase that results in a competitive analysis and recommended sitemap before moving on to content creation and design development. This works well with new clients you haven’t worked with before, or with existing clients you are serving in a new capacity.

Keep it loose or keep it small—either way, you win!

When your scope is loosely defined, costs can be estimated as a range in accordance with the number of variables involved. This allows you and the client some flexibility as the work product becomes more clear, without having to renegotiate every single modification along the way.

When your scope is small, you can price incrementally for any future phases of the project (based in part on what you learn from working with the client on the initial phase). This approach poses minimal risk to you in terms of underestimating a large project, and allows the client the opportunity to gain more comfort and confidence before hiring you for future phases of work.

One foot in front of the other…

Resist the urge to shy away from projects that might be difficult to nail down in great detail at the contract stage. While there are certainly red flags you can and should investigate before going further (unreasonable budgets or unrealistic timelines, for example), some of these nebulous opportunities can turn out to be good ones!