Protect your bottom line. Do not pick up your pen until your customer has signed the dotted line.
I refer to the temptation for many artists, designers and other creatives to jump the gun and start work on a project before there’s a signed contract.
It isn’t unreasonable to make some quick sketches to summarize original ideas as part of a preliminary conversation. But because anything done at this stage is purely speculative, it’s better to limit the time spent until there’s some sort of commitment by the customer.
If it’s difficult to define the scope of a project until a larger amount of preliminary work is completed, look at drafting another agreement covering the preliminary period.
When you start work before the contract is signed, you’re expending your time and abilities in the expectation you will eventually be paid. But with no signed contract, the customer has no duty to go through with the job, make any payment, or assign the job to you if he does move forward.
If the customer himself will not commit to you, or can not commit to moving ahead with the job itself, be skeptical. You might be dealing with a challenging client.
The exact same is true if you’re being squeezed by your customer to drive more and more from you until he commits to you – if he commits to you.
It’s not unknown for a less than scrupulous client to milk an artist because of his theories and ideas, then turn around and have the job done by somebody else.
You may invest plenty of time without getting a penny. With no signed contract, you have little recourse. In reality, in many ways, your experience negotiating the contract is a sign of the total experience you can anticipate with that customer.
There’s another advantage to having a signed contract. The process of negotiating a contract requires that the parties come to an agreement to the conditions of the transaction. If you do it properly you will address several contingencies that might arise. That process alone will nip many possible problems in the bud.
Hence, you’re well advised to have a signed contract in hand before picking up your pen.