A List Apart: Articles: Designing Contracts for the XXI Century
A design contract is like a business card—it comes from the same desk, and bears the same creative mark. But it’s also the business card you hate handing out: a folder of legal gibberish with terrible formatting that reminds the client of everything that could possibly go wrong before the work has even started.
Is this just a necessary evil? Why can’t contracts evolve like everything else?
Actually, they can—and should. Modernizing your contract will not only make it match your carefully crafted brand, but it can also help you reach an agreement faster, and even strengthen your position when negotiating. This is not an easy task. Legal content is a delicate matter, and you definitely can’t start tweaking your contract like it’s a blog post.
Before we start modernizing contracts, we first have to understand their purpose, and how and why they got the way they are. It’s a long journey back.
Five Roman principles of contracts still valid today
The Romans developed a sophisticated system of commercial law that has become the foundation for pretty much all of the Western world’s legal systems. A design contract was probably signed to make the incredible decorations of Ara Pacis. Such a contract would have been created to accomplish something not that different from today’s products of design: defining what must be done, the deadline, the client’s approval, and the price. The concept of copyright did not exist yet, but unauthorized and fraudulent copies of literary works were socially unacceptable. (As for non-literary works, good luck copying those marble statues.)
While our work has evolved, contracts have essentially stayed the same—for a number of good reasons. In fact, several principles are just as important in today’s contracts as they were in Roman times.