Professional Design Practice :: Lesson 5 :: Invoicing Clients

At the same point each month, every month, an employed person receives a wage packet from his payroll department, and his his bank account is credited with his salary. Safe in this knowledge, he can plan his finances around this fixed point.
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For the intrepid freelancer things are a little different, for he must send out invoices to his clients, and then wait to be paid. So far so straightforward, but there are several factors to consider with regard to invoicing, which I’ll be taking you through below. After all, getting paid on time is what keeps us all afloat, and what freelance designer doesn’t desire that?

First Things First

In-voice:: noun:: a list of goods sent or services provided, with a statement of the sum due for these; a bill

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This week’s article is all about bills, no pun intended, honest… Platypus image © Jersey Shooter.

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Detailed, ‘transparent’ and designed inbrand. Example of invoice © Hotson Studio.

Let’s get some basics out of the way. Your invoice’s list of services should correspond directly with the services you agreed to carry out at the start of the job. Additional good practice would be to include the original contract offer (in whatever shape or form) itemising the services you’d agreed to for your client’s comparison. Your invoices should contain the name or studio name (if applicable) of the person providing services, which, for the freelancer, usually means himself. If you haven’t already provided your client with your bank details, include them somewhere on the invoice.

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Be scrupulously transparent about costs, both forseen and extraneous, and leave nothing hidden when invoicing your clients. Image used with permission of © Jen Hamilton-Emery.

More than One Way to Skin a Cat…

It’s perfectly reasonable to design a billing template yourself using a package like Adobe InDesign, (see example above) then generate your invoices from this template whenever you need to bill someone. If you care about how your invoices look and work (you should do; they’re part of your suite of materials) then this method allows for the greatest creative control and freedom. If you feel this is the way to go then take as much time over it’s design as you would your letterhead or logotype.

Increasingly though, people are using other means to generate their invoices. MacFreelance is a piece of invoice and billing software made especially for creative professionals, and can allow freelance designers to create very professional-looking templates. MacFreelance and its competitors all come with features for including your own logotype and allow some, limited control over the design of documents. Many are also laden with additional bells ‘n’ whistles for monitoring project developments and carrying out billing administration.

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Subernova offers users a “simple and enjoyable way to create and send invoices and estimates.” I’ve used it in the past. It’s not half bad.

Subernova, ‘project management and team collaboration’ software gives users the chance to create ‘insert here’-style invoices super quickly and like MacFreelance comes with additional features for setting project milestones, tracking time, keeping tabs on late payments, setting deadlines and more. A recent development also worthy of note is that Subernova is now syncable with iCal.

For freelance designers who receive most of their money through PayPal, you can now create and save billing templates and store them within your Paypal account. These work in much the same expedient ‘insert here’ way as Subernova.

Extraneous & Unforseen Costs

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Picked up any extraneous costs on your journey? Image © Tom Skinner.

Certain extraneous costs should be carefully listed, firstly in the original service offer or estimate, then relisted in the invoice. Extraneous costs, or ‘further expenses’ can include courier/delivery fees, model fees and proof purchasing expenses. To the extent that not all expenses are foreseeable, when embarking on a new project you should also try to negotiate that the client assume all responsibility to remunerate extraneous costs. You might word this line into your original service offer: “The client or commissioning party has to reimburse the commissioned party for all extraneous costs actually incurred.”

Setting Deadlines & Client Transgressions

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Educate yourself as to your legal position, but treat late-paying clients with courtesy. Image © Mark Flisher.

The persisting problem of late payment is probably the largest non-creative cause for concern experienced by the freelance graphic designer. Freelancers are unlikely to take legal action against corporations for obvious time-based and financial reasons. The freelancer might also ask himself “why risk losing the potential repeat work by being litigious?” Safe in this knowledge, clients need not worry excessively over paying you on time and in accordance with the terms laid out on your invoice.

Exceeding payment deadlines can put a strain on a small freelance business, not to mention the strain placed on the client/designer relationship. Freelancers need cashflow to survive just like any other tradesperson and chasing after late payments is a regrettably guaranteed part of the freelancer’s lot.

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A slow response to pay a freelancer’s fees from a seemingly lackadaisical client can leave many a designer stressed, frustrated and unsure of what action to take. But there is a system to follow. . ‘Lackadaisical client’ image used with permission of © Chelsea Steed

The time period you should allow to elapse before sending out your first reminder shouldn’t be all that long, between 2–4 weeks after the exceeding of your payment deadline is about right. It’s good to know where you stand from a legal perspective, though difficult for me to look into every country’s law practices. In Great Britain, one month after receiving an invoice and having not paid, a client goes into arrears and is obliged to pay the designer for damages caused by delay. Should a disagreement arise, the designer will have to prove the successful delivery of the invoice. The damages, with regard to defaulted payments, is the interest which the designer must pay to his bank throughout the duration of the late payment and for the amount owed. Legal counsel costs may also be charged for here.

It’s important to outline the legal implications above, but reaching a hostile legal situation can more often than not be averted, or wholly avoided. In ‘How to be a Graphic Designer without Losing your Soul’ Adrian Shaughnessy advises freelancer’s to handle the unfortunate chasing role not with aggression, but with courtesy and respect. “…Approach the individuals concerned with the utmost politeness; make friends with your clients’ finance departments, they are rarely the villains. When you get a cheque in the post call and thank them. Designers like to have their work praised, and so too do clerks in accounting offices.” His quote pertains to style over law, but both are worth paying attention to in equal measures.

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Repeat: “courteous not agressive, courteous not agressive…” Image courtesy of © Keri Minard.

Summary

The more precarious position experienced by freelance designers over full-time employees, within the context of getting paid, is part and parcel of the life we have chosen for ourselves. For those who send out invoices, benefits include the ability to charge higher design fees and a sympathetic attitude from government tax departments with regard to our annual expenditure and investments. Impediments include a less predictable financial life and, the big fly in the ointment, the tiresome task of chasing late payments.

When it comes to billing your clients, project as professional an appearance as possible through the design of your invoice, include all your relevant terms & conditions and make it a rule to be wholly transparent about costs. Keep track of invoicing dates and deadlines, and should any late payment situations arise, remember to handle your clients in a well-mannered and friendly attitude. It’ll more than likely never happen, but you’ll have recourse to the law should you need it. Follow the advice above and you’ll be doing all you can to ensure a financially secure existence with good clients on board who pay on time, conditions necessary for producing great design and being a happy bunny!

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Learning to invoice professionally whilst being aware of where you stand legally makes for happy freelancers! Image courtesy of © Flavita Valsani.

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