The Structure of Retainer Deals for UX Designers

I want to say this upfront (as many people will disagree with the approach), but I don’t generate written contracts. I’m not litigious in any sense—I’m relational. I tend to believe that business relationships generally end when my effectiveness ends, so I work on conflict resolution and then, if that doesn’t work, acceptance. I’ve been screwed before, yes. But then I take the loss as a tax write-off and move on. I value my time and money much more than to want to spend it on lawyers or in court. Please do make agreements via email so you can have them on record, though. Conversations are easily forgotten. Cheers. -Matt

I approach retainer deals in two ways: 

1. Client pays an ongoing monthly standard rate (with flexible hours).
AKA The Classic Retainer. For example, I might say $2000 a month for approximately 20-24hrs per month. Any work in excess of those hours is billed hourly. Monthly rate is collected in advance of the month where the work exists (almost like rent on an apartment). The advantage of this agreement for the client is the flexible nature of the agreement and the guaranteed time they’ve blocked out of my schedule (you might call it a priority). Retainers are for no less than 1yr periods of time. 

2. Client buys blocks of hours.
In this agreement, the client buys “blocks” of 10hrs each ahead of time @ $1500. Then, they use that block until the time runs out (almost like a gas tank). The advantage of this agreement is the ability to use the time over smaller projects in a short duration without wasting time/effort getting quotes and reorienting, plus they don’t have to commit to a full retainer. Why is my lowest number of hours 10? That’s the smallest project I’m willing to accept. You have to decide for yourself and keep adjusting over time—I used to take tiny stuff when I got started just to get my feet in the door.

I’ve been running my retainers in these two ways for about 10 years with rare exception (usually large project rates). Avoiding pitfalls like overbilling or surprise billing is required…but you’ll find clients are best behaved (sometimes even happy, gasp) when they are well-served and know like they’re getting a fair deal. Always be checking in with them to make sure the relationship is going well.

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