Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Design Retainers - Part 1

I love being a resource for other designers, and I get a lot of questions every day in the form of emails and DMs about the ins and outs of running a design business. With the exception of “how do you get clients,” questions about retainers are one of the most common things that I seem to advise people on. I personally love retainers, ran my business on them for several years, and they are the only reason that I was able to quit my full-time job. I’m a huge fan, and I would love to provide a little insight by covering some of the frequently asked questions that I get so you can determine if retainers are right for your business as well. The way I use retainers today is dramatically different from the way I used them in 2015, so I will also show you how retainers can evolve and suit different business needs.

A little backstory

I quit my full-time job (I was working as a Marketing and Communications Manager doing 50% design work and 50% marketing) in 2015 and prior to leaving I secured two 40 hour/month retainer contracts that covered my salary and made it possible for me to not have a lapse in my financial contribution to my family. Some people are super free-spirited when leaving jobs and can just trust that the universe will look out for them and provide. I was pretty much the opposite of that – I wanted structure, formal agreements, and guarantees. That’s where retainers came in.

What exactly is a retainer?

A design retainer is an agreement in which a client purchases, for a specific duration of time, the ability to retain and utilize an agreed upon number of the designer’s available hours each month.

There’s probably a more eloquent description of a retainer somewhere out there but the basic idea is that a design retainer gives your client a guarantee that you will be able to provide design work for them, typically at a reduced hourly rate, for a specific period of time each month.

Let’s talk pros and cons

Pros:

  • Value: Retainers are easy to pitch because they provide incredible value to clients. With that being said, at the center of the retainer pitch has to be a strong value proposition for the client, which is typically a reduced hourly rate with a signed contract for an extended period of time.

  • Consistency: Knowing that you are going to have a specific dollar amount coming in each month is a great comfort, especially if you are just starting out or are looking for a quieter season of life where you aren’t managing a lot of inquiries and chasing after potential business.

  • Connection: One neat byproduct of a design retainer is that it often allows you to get to know your clients on a very deep level – you are typically interacting with them daily and it’s almost like you have pseudo-colleagues and are part of their team. This can feel really nice in the sometimes isolating world of running your own business.

Cons:

  • To an extent you are limiting your earning potential when you utilize retainers because you have committed to X number of hours at a specific dollar amount. This makes the hourly rate a fixed rate (you can’t work faster and make more money). This is often considered the major downside of retainers.

  • If your business is relying on multiple retainers, it can be hard to know how far you can extend yourself because you need to keep your retainer clients top priority and be prepared to accommodate them if they go exceed their hours by a bit. So that can make it difficult to know how many additional projects you can take on per month. Typically this is something that you figure out and get comfortable with within 1–2 months of running a retainer agreement.

Prioritizing retainer clients

A lot of the questions that I get about retainers involve designers who are frustrated by something happening with their clients that isn’t going the way they want it to for whatever reason.

I want to emphasize that what you are promising a client when you sign a retainer contract is that you are going to prioritize them because they have made a long-term financial commitment to you. This is VERY important to remember and honor. And if you are uncomfortable with this it’s probably time to come to terms with the fact that retainer clients are not a good fit for you. You can’t tell a retainer client that you need to push back a deadline because you had a new quick turn project come up. They are paying to be a priority and it’s often a large financial commitment. My philosophy was basically – you are investing in me for a long period of time. I am yours and I am here to serve you.

How do you feel okay about this? Get your pricing on point. If you feel you are being compensated fairly it is a lot easier to give yourself freely to your clients.

Okay so let’s get down to the nitty gritty!

How to structure a retainer proposal

I am going to share with you an example of my ORIGINAL retainer structure from 2014. This is the exact proposal that I sent out that set off a chain reaction and allowed me to quit my job six months later. While my hourly rate has changed dramatically, I use the exact same hour/rate structure to lay out retainers today as I did in 2014. I will say that my proposals are a lot happier looking now. I guess I went through a bit of a moody phase!

2014EstimateExample-Retainer.jpg

Pricing: The basic idea here is that the more hours your client commits to, the better deal they get. It has to be appealing for the client when they type "$$$$ x 6 or 12 (months)" into their phone and look at how much they will be paying you for the retainer vs. just working with you on a per-project basis and doing less work with you. In terms of the pricing breakdown, you need to decide how badly you want them as a retainer client so that you can determine how you are going to structure your hourly rate. And you do need to give them an incentive to commit to working with you.

Hours: You get to decide how many retainer hours you want to make available each month. For example, in 2014 I offered a maximum of 40 hours for a term of 12 months. In 2019 when I do offer a retainer (which is pretty rare), I offer a maximum of ~10 hours for a term of 3 months.

Duration: There’s really no wrong length of time here, but I would say that your options are 3, 6, 9, or 12 months. When I first started offering retainers my contracts were all 12 months long. This gave me the consistency that I desired. I also required a 30 day notice to end the retainer contract so that if that did ever happen, I wasn’t left high and dry.


Frequently Asked Retainer Structure Questions

What happens if a client doesn’t use all of their hours?

You will need to decide what terms you want to put in place for each contract, but when I first started I allowed 20% of the booked hours to roll over to the next month. This gave clients a little bit of a buffer when they were committing to working with me for 12 months. You can also pick any fixed number depending on the terms of the contract. (Ex: 20 hour/month contract and you allow 3 hours to be carried over). There is also absolutely nothing wrong with not allowing ANY hours to roll over each month if your schedule just doesn’t allow it.

How to explain limited or no carry over if you get pushback from clients? It puts you in the best position to serve them each month because you don’t allow ANY of your clients to carry over hours. Imagine if Client A carried over a large number of hours and it compromised your ability to finish projects for Client B, who had used all of their hours the previous month. Not fair at all. Be sure to communicate that you have their best interests in mind when explaining your decision making.

If for some reason a client does not use a large portion of their hours, it’s a use it or lose it scenario and you still bill the full retainer amount. I do think that as designers we have a responsibility to try to avoid this, I would always check in at the beginning of every month and ask what was on the horizon and also make a few suggestions for projects I thought would benefit their business. It showed I cared and also that I WANTED them to use their hours. It will make both you and your client feel great. This is also a great way to take ownership and avoid the “end of the month rush” when a lot of last minute projects seem to materialize.

What happens if a client goes over their retainer hours?

Hours in excess of the retainer amount are charged at the retainer rate. You may have to set a limit on how many total hours are available, if you are balancing a large client load. So if you have a 40 hour/month client, you might tell them that you are available for up to 50 hours/month with overage. Or you might just see how it goes. I had several months where my clients came in at 80-90 hours/month. And while it was a lot of work, it was also great!

What types of projects are included in the retainer scope?

There are a lot of different ways to structure this, but I personally never discriminated in terms of the type of projects that were included in my retainers. This really comes back to my idea of client-centered strategy and wanting to create the most value for my clients. I tried to imagine investing in an expensive year-long contract with a copywriter, for example, and receiving a long list of the type of work that was not included in the contract. How would that make me feel? Not good. Nickel and dimed right out of the gates. I do think that there is a time to be more specific about what is included in your retainer, and that might be if you are offering a very short-term contract or a contract for a specific reason (ex: podcast or social graphics only). But if someone is making a large financial commitment to your business, you owe it to them to have their best interest in mind. And if you’re second guessing this, you may need to revisit your pricing to make sure you are charging a high enough rate.


That’s it for part one! Next up is the practical implications of operating retainers in your business: how to track time, minimum billing increments, how to document what you’re working on, how to invoice appropriately, as well as how to gather feedback from your clients each month to guarantee that you are serving them as well as possible.

What questions do you have about retainers? Feel free to leave a comment below or email me at olivia@oliviaherrickdesign.com

The Three Essential Tools I Use to Run My Studio

I want to kick off this post by saying that there are so many different tools available to entrepreneurs and business owners right now. It can be spectacularly overwhelming to determine what fits in your budget and is going to work well for your business. In the past I have used Honeybook, Bonsai, 17hats, Asana, Trello, and have completed free trials of probably 6–8 other tools as well. I have realized that I am a less is more kind of person and there are really only three things that I am using on a daily basis to run my business these days. I am a little hesitant to share the way I do things for fear of sounding like I think that this is the best or only way to run your business which is definitely not the case. This is what works well for me and what I recommend when I am asked for advice. This is literally just my honest take on what I use - I might sound a little overly enthusiastic about it but it’s the product of years of searching for something that works for my business and finally getting there. At the heart of all of this is my commitment to what I call client-centered strategy. I do what is best and easiest for my clients and I am constantly evaluating what is working and what isn’t after each project we complete. Sometimes what clients prefer is NOT easiest for me, but in all that I do, they are my top priority. Let’s get started!

Dubsado

Dubsado is a client management system that I use to keep track of all of the moving parts in my business.

What we use it for:

  • Managing leads

  • Managing projects

  • Contracts

  • Client surveys

  • Delivering design concepts

  • Feedback surveys

  • Invoices and payments

  • Assigning tasks (similar to Asana)

  • Scheduling projects

  • Scheduling calls (Dubsado has a built in Scheduler which replaces Acuity)

What I like about it:

  • Straightforward dashboard

  • Incredible customer service

  • Low price

  • Ability to save canned emails

  • Clients are not inundated with emails

  • Ability to carry my visual branding throughout

What I don’t like about it:

  • Some minor spacing glitches in forms

  • Helpful if you know CSS for coding template forms

A Peek at My Dubsado Dashboard

This is a (slightly censored) look at my Dubsado dashboard. Dubasdo offers a great trial where rather than a specific number of days, you are able to use Dubsado for three full client projects, including contracts, invoices, workflows, and payment processing. It’s literally risk-free, and definitely worth exploring if you are in the market for a CRM.

This is a (slightly censored) look at my Dubsado dashboard. Dubasdo offers a great trial where rather than a specific number of days, you are able to use Dubsado for three full client projects, including contracts, invoices, workflows, and payment processing. It’s literally risk-free, and definitely worth exploring if you are in the market for a CRM.

Proposals and Contracts

I used Bonsai for just over a year before making the switch to Dubsado. I found that with Bonsai when I was onboarding clients I had to send them three separate emails, one for a proposal, one for an invoice, one for a contract, and it was clunky and overwhelming for them. (This may have changed, but was one of the biggest reasons I left Bonsai). Dubsado provides a bunch of great ways around this.

One option is to send a proposal, contract, and invoice at the same time, which allows a potential client to book my services and reserve a spot in my design calendar immediately. Technically, you can set all of this up to happen automatically with their workflow function, but that doesn’t work super well for my business as each of my potential clients receives a custom estimate based on their specific needs. A second option is to use Client Portals which allows you to create a password protected, white labeled hub where you can can keep all of your client’s forms in one place so that they are able to access them whenever they’d like. Finally you can also send emails using Dubsado’s smart links, which allows you to drop in multiple buttons that link to whatever your client needs, from contracts to invoices to feedback forms.

In terms of contracts, Dubsado offers the opportunity to drop in your own contract with smart fields for your clients to sign. I had my contract drafted by an attorney and placed it in my form so it’s easy for my clients to view, sign, and download.

Payment

Dubsado integrates with a variety of different payment processors, including Stripe, which is what I use and love. They are also set up for ACH/Bank Transfer/e-Check payments as well. One of the biggest adjustments for me when I first made the switch to Dubsado was that Bonsai allowed me to pass credit card fees onto my clients (this is not legal in all states, but it is in most). When I was first starting out, this felt appropriate and fair, but I have since moved away from it. I personally believe that credit card fees are part of doing business, and I want to make my process as simple and straightforward as possible for my clients. I never want clients to feel like I am nickel and diming them. When reflecting on my client process I realized that I personally prefer to pay for everything with my credit card the vast majority of my smaller clients do too. 99% of my larger clients pay through their accounting departments, so this wasn’t really relevant for them. The end result is that I have more expenses at the end of the year, but I get paid incredibly quickly and my clients basically have a diverse charcuterie board of payment options available to them.

Leads & Jobs

Moving on – one of my favorite things about Dubsado is how it provides a structure for organizing leads, so we can stay on top of who is reaching out, what the status of their inquiry is (pricing sent, response sent, phone call scheduled, follow up) and when we need to follow up with them next. After we hear a no back from an inquiry we archive them immediately to keep things really streamlined in the dashboard. My assistant Kiara handles all of our follow up emails, and it’s a great feeling to know that everyone will get a response from me and then after a bit of time has passed, will get a follow-up. I cannot tell you how many leads slipped through the cracks before I was using Dubsado. An inquiry would come in, I would respond, and when I didn’t hear back from them oftentimes I would just … keep on living my life! In the past two months alone we have booked thousands and thousands of dollars worth of clients after that follow-up email was sent. People who were just too busy to respond initially, forgot they had reached out to me, or weren’t ready before but were now ready to book. Whether or not you use Dubsado, make sure you are categorizing your leads and following up diligently!

This is a (censored) look at my Leads Dashboard so you can see how easy it is to organize lead statuses (which you customize) and keep inquiries a top priority. It allows me to deliver high-quality and customized service right from the start.

This is a (censored) look at my Leads Dashboard so you can see how easy it is to organize lead statuses (which you customize) and keep inquiries a top priority. It allows me to deliver high-quality and customized service right from the start.

Dubsado also organizes all of our projects, so I can log in and take a look at everything that is on my plate at any given time, and where everything is in the pipeline. It makes it pretty much impossible for anything to slip through the cracks which puts me at ease and allows me to focus on what I am really here to do – design.

I honestly could go on and on about Dubsado if that isn’t abundantly clear. There are so many other things about it that make it my favorite CRM on the market, but to keep things relatively short, if you want to stay on top of your business and make things easy for your clients, I highly recommend it as an option. If you have specific questions about Dubsado shoot me an email at olivia@oliviaherrickdesign.com and I can get a bit more personal than I have here.

If you are interested in trying Dubsado I would recommend you sign up for their free trial. If you do decide you’d like to try it out for your business you can use my affiliate link to get 20% off of your first month or 20% off first year if you pay annually.


Google Drive

Google Drive is a cloud-based storage service that allows users to store and sync files and makes everyone’s life just a little bit easier.

What we use it for:

  • Backing up my computer

  • Delivering client files

  • Content marketing (blog drafts, edits, spreadsheet with promotional plan)

What I like about it:

  • Seamless with email

  • Backs up specific folders that I indicate, saves each VERSION of a document so that if it is replaced over time you can access a previous version

What I don’t like about it

  • Have to pay for additional storage (this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel here – I love everything about it)

Google Drive is really as good as it gets for me – I love the ability to have multiple collaborators working on a live document. I love how easy it is to back up my computer 24/7 without having to think about it. I love that everything is either free or incredibly cheap, from extra storage to the nominal fees for my Gsuite email addresses.

About a month ago I had one of those “designer’s worst nightmare” moments that are going to happen if you’ve been doing this long enough. I was working on a logo project and all of the sudden everything from my artboards (dozens of live logo concepts, illustrations, etc.) was gone. I use keyboard commands ALL the time, and my fingers are often jumping from command to command. My Illustrator had been a little funky after a recent update, so thinking that something weird was happening with the file and I just needed to quit and re-open it, I saved the document and closed it. When I opened it, much to my surprise, and horror, the entire document was still empty. I slowly began to realize that I had Command-A-ed (select all) and deleted my entire document and had literally no way to recover it.

Google Drive uploads a backup of my file every few minutes, but the most recently uploaded version was my saved, empty file. Luckily Drive also saves multiple VERSIONS of your documents, so I could go in and download a version from about 10 minutes prior. I still lost a couple of small elements, but it was nothing compared to starting over completely. Basically, I am a customer for life.

With Drive you can select what folders you want to back up and because I keep all of my files organized within in my Documents folder I can simply select that, and it uploads new versions constantly. And instantly. If I save a version of a graphic and then drag it to my trash, Drive will ask me if I want to keep it on Drive or remove it from my backup there. It is totally mindless, easy to use, and incredibly affordable for a terabyte of storage. I cannot recommend doing this enough. It’s such a great insurance policy for your business and while of course it is not completely foolproof (if someone manages to take down the internet AND I lose my computer, I won’t have access to those working files), it’s a no-brainer for me.

I also use Drive to deliver client files. It’s incredibly easy to do when your files are being backed up automatically, and it’s just an easy way to send over large files without issue. We deliver the Drive link (with universal access to anyone who has the link) to clients after receipt of final payment and keep their folder active for one year, so we can always drop in or add additional files if we work on another job together or they need another colorway or alternate file type. It works out well for all parties.


Adobe Creative Cloud

Adobe Creative Cloud is a collection of applications (used for graphic design, video, photography, animation, ux design, etc.) that are purchased in a subscription-style format. There are over 20 applications included in the full monthly subscription.

What we use it for:

  • Everything I create for clients

  • InDesign: Multi-page or long-format documents

  • Illustrator: Logo design, illustrations, digital design, typography design

  • Photoshop: Mockups, photo editing

What I like about it:

  • Affordable (I pay $32.30/month after locking in a great promo last year)

  • No longer have to shell out $1,500–2,000 for every product update as the software updates are available instantly and as part of your subscription

What I don’t like about it

  • Updates sometimes have issues right out of the gates, so I will wait a few weeks before installing them

Everything that I design and deliver for my clients is created in three Adobe programs – Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. I am in these programs for anywhere from 4–12 hours a day… every weekday!

There is simply no way to run a design business that serves a variety of clients without Adobe programs. I get a lot of emails and DMs from new designers asking me what program they should be designing in, and if they need to shell out $21/month to get a single program, which one it should be. My answer to that question is Illustrator – I think it’s the most versatile of all of the Adobe programs if you HAD to get by with a single program. You would run into some issues (or at the very least, some weird looks), if, say, you packaged up and tried to deliver a 36 page document to a printer as an Illustrator file, but for someone who is just starting out, it’s a great program to get your Adobe sea legs with.

I WILL say that when you are first starting out, just playing around and designing things for fun, you do not need to invest in these programs. You can get your feet wet using Canva or other free online design services. You can learn how to pair fonts and combine shapes and colors. Heck, in high school I spent three years dreaming about becoming a graphic designer and  honestly developed quite a few aesthetic skills while creating “logos” for fake clients in Powerpoint. You can absolutely stretch your creative muscles in a variety of different programs, but when it comes to running a legitimate business in which you deliver files to paying clients, there really is no alternative to Adobe products.

Also – spend some time learning keyboard commands. They will make your life and work so much easier.


So there you have it – a pretty high-level look at my minimalist approach to running my business – if you have questions please feel free to drop them in the comments or shoot me an email at olivia@oliviaherrickdesign.com. If you made it this far, thanks for reading!

Olivia Herrick Comments
How I Handle Copyright Infringement & Stolen Work

If you follow me on social media you may have heard me chat about how I have been struggling with some copyright infringement issues for the past seven or so months. Every once in a while I have shared a bit of a behind the scenes look and have gotten a lot of questions about how I am handling each situation, so I figured I’d do a little recap in case it can help anyone in the future. This is my personal experience and not legal advice - the only person who can provide customized guidance for you in the realm of copyright infringement is your attorney. Honestly, hire a good attorney, it will be the best money you spend on your business and it is less expensive than you’d think.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what I have been dealing with – there are four primary issues that pop up consistently:

  1. Businesses stealing my exact designs (identical, carbon copy) and creating end goods for sale utilizing the stolen design work.

  2. Businesses plagiarizing my design work and creating end goods for sale utilizing the plagiarized design work.

  3. Businesses running paid social campaigns using my artwork.

  4. Businesses using my designs on social media without permission or attribution.


Two things I want to note right out of the gates – the first is that all of the information in this post is in regards to businesses I have interacted with in the past year. Individuals and influencers who use my designs without credit can be frustrating, but I typically lose interest after a quick comment on the post or DM saying “Hi there – please tag me in this!”

The second thing I want to note is that I have learned a LOT in the past seven months, and I have not consistently handled these issues well. Having your work stolen is an emotional experience. I had no idea how much it would impact my ability to focus and do my day to day work. I know that I am not alone in what I have gone through, and that what I have experienced is absolutely minuscule as compared to what artists with large followings face every single day. But I’m going to be honest – it’s all relative, and it’s still a huge bummer! My goal in sharing this information is not to draw attention to my personal experience so much as it is to hopefully provide helpful information, let my fellow creatives know that they are not alone, and raise awareness of the fact that this is a huge problem in our industry.


Overview

Generally, I think there is a lot of confusion about copyright infringement. I have had businesses tell me that as soon as I posted my work online, I surrendered all rights to it (wrong), that if they found it on Pinterest, it’s fair game for their commercial use (wrong), and have had large businesses with huge social media accounts (well over 1 million followers) tell me they don’t credit anyone’s artwork because their social media team doesn’t have time to do so (confusing and kinda morally wrong). I was totally unprepared for the frequency with which people would lash out at me after I let them know that they were using my work in an unauthorized way. Some of the responses that we get make ME feel terrible for asking a company to please stop using my work, as if I have inconvenienced them in some way. It’s a wild world out there, folks.

People sometimes ask me “Why don’t you just let it go?” or “Why do you care about this so much?” – the truth is that when infringement first started to become an issue for me, I definitely did care too much. These legal flare ups would completely consume me, mind and body, for weeks on end. But now that I have been a little hardened by time, I can safely say that I don’t think I will ever be able to just let go of a business stealing an artist’s work. I understand that within the grand scheme of the design industry it happens frequently, but I don’t think we should stop drawing attention to it and allow it to become normalized or accepted as par for the course. There is a way to talk about these issues with heart and tact, and I want to educate and help others understand that on the other side of every graphic you see on Pinterest or Tumblr or Instagram is an artist who worked really hard to create it. I do believe that businesses who share work without credit may do so without realizing that their actions can have severe and lasting consequences for the artist.

Which leads me to one final thing I feel pretty strongly about, which is not putting other companies on blast. I am going to share one example of a resolved incident below, but you will see that all of the company’s info has been blacked out. There may be a time and place for sharing an incident publicly, if you really need to rally the support of your community, but in my personal opinion it should be a last resort.

So here is my process for handling copyright infringement right now. I hope that you never have to use any of this information, but if you do, I hope it helps!

Assess the Situation

The first thing I do is assess the situation at hand. Ask yourself a few questions: What happened here? Who did it? Are we talking about a large brand or a small business? Does it seem to be an accident or is it clear that this company was deliberately stealing my work? This is the time to document everything – screenshot it all, even if you’re not sure it’s relevant. If things are happening quickly, ask a friend/colleague/family member to help document as well, so you don’t miss anything. After I have taken a few minutes to do a bit of Nancy Drew-style sleuthing, I step away from my phone and computer for a while and decide what the best course of action is going to be.

Calm Down

Next, I try to calm down. This is an area that I have made some MAJOR strides in. The first few times that I either discovered or was made aware of a company who had stolen my work, I completely lost my cool. I was understandably furious and my rage consumed me for a good 24 hours. Seething anger while trying to handle a situation professionally = typically not destined for a great outcome.

Contact the Offender

The next step is to figure out how you are going to contact the business who infringed upon your work. These are the four actions I have taken this year:


Send an email.

I take this route when I am dealing with a small business and will most likely be able to get in touch with someone who will respond to me contacting them directly. I typically attach proof of the infringement as well as proof of my work’s publication date. I combine all of the screenshots into one PDF that covers the whole scenario so it’s clear that I have done my research and that there really isn’t much conversation to be had. I also outline the course of action that I would like them to take. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking them to delete an unauthorized use of my artwork, other times I am asking brands to stop selling products that use my graphics and even to donate all unsold merchandise (I have only done this once, and they obliged). Think about what is reasonable and what outcome will eliminate your future concerns. This may be more of a conversation/dialogue as you might take into consideration a solution that they suggest. Also – think about your tone. I am a pretty optimistic person so I typically try to start out with a friendly, understanding, and conversational tone and acknowledge that this may have not been intentional, but hey, you need to stop. Kind of a one woman good cop/bad cop scenario.


Send a cease and desist via an attorney.

This option costs money but sends a very different message. The end goal here is to establish that I am serious about the infringement and want the offender to immediately cease the sale of the product or illegal use of my artwork. Some people will tell you that you should just send a cease and desist letter on your own, but I personally have chosen to avoid this just because I feel like if the situation is serious enough to warrant a cease and desist, then I might as well just go straight to the legal approach. When my attorney sends a cease and desist they do so via email but also overnight a signed letter from the law firm as well. The letter will most likely be written by your attorney but you can definitely add in some of your own personality – in mine we even occasionally include a friendly line about how we understand that accidents do happen.

If you don’t have an attorney that you work with, I would recommend doing a little research online and then hopping on the phone with a few to request an estimate for sending the cease and desist on your behalf. When contacting them, I would have a PDF prepared that explains that situation with detailed images and dates so that they can advise you on whether or not you are in the right. I also prepared a draft of my cease and desist (you can find tons of samples online) to try to keep the costs down. Earlier this year my attorney told me that he didn’t think I had grounds to send a cease and desist and I appreciated the honesty. You want someone like this in your corner!

A few thoughts on what to say when looking for an attorney:

  • Hop on the phone. Get a sense for their personality.

  • Explain the situation and send the infringement document you have prepared.

  • Say that you would like them to review and make redline edits to your cease and desist and then send it on your behalf.

  • Ask what the timeline will be.

  • Ask for an exact cost.

  • If you are interested, ask for an estimate of what it would cost to pursue further legal action.

  • Ask if they offer copyright registration services and what their fee is (if you choose to sue you will need to have filed a registration before you are able to do so).



Send a cease and desist seeking compensation via my attorney.

This is the same option as above, but with an end goal of receiving some compensation for the illegal use of your work. There are a lot of different ways to do this, depending on how your business is structured, but I have only sent an invoice for the licensing fee that they failed to pay when they began using my work illegally. Choosing to send an invoice with your cease and desist is pretty situation-specific, and generally you and your attorney will be able to decide when it is appropriate. I will say that based on my experience the odds of receiving the compensation are pretty low – so you need to decide if it’s a battle you want to fight.


Send a DM

One final option is just to send an Instagram DM. There are a few tiers of issues that I communicate about, but the most common is businesses who have used my work without permission in order to promote the sale of their goods. Typically they are running paid Instagram or Facebook promotions using my artwork. So essentially they are using my artwork, uncredited, for free, to generate revenue. There are a lot of reasons that I take issue with this, one being that I work with clients every day who pay me to create custom graphics for their businesses to use for marketing purposes and as such, someone else should not be able to take work from my website and run ads with it for free. The second reason that I take issue with businesses running ads without my consent is that I am very selective about who I work with. There are certain brands and categories in the marketplace that I do not want my work associated with, simple as that.

When I send a DM, I typically ask for an email address so that I can bring the concern to someone’s attention in a more professional way. Other times I just ask that either a) the ads are deleted, b) the post is deleted or c) I am immediately credited by both being tagged in the image as well as being tagged in the first two lines of the caption (this is important, or brands will bury your handle 45 lines down where no one will ever find it). Instagram has very strict copyright policies, and they are a great ally. This is a wonderful page that sums up Instagram’s basic rules for brands or businesses who are giving you a hard time about crediting your work. A lot of brands are quick to remedy the situation, and one large company who was running a series of paid ads using my Kind People Are My Kinda People graphic at the end of 2018 actually sent me a year’s worth of their organic vitamins as an apology. Made me laugh a little but I appreciated the gesture and the vitamins are honestly delicious (gummy, of course)!

Let it Go

This final step is the hardest part of the process. 95% of my infringement situations have been handled swiftly and professionally – the other 5% of the situations have yet to be resolved – and it really grinds my gears that businesses have the guts to steal someone’s work and refuse to acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. However, for months I let these issues ruin my day and turn me into a pessimistic and paranoid designer – the opposite of who I really am.


So if you’re facing a similar situation I would challenge you to think about this within the grand scheme of things – some of these battles are worth fighting tooth and nail. Standing up for yourself is never the wrong thing to do. But you also have to recognize when it is starting to impact your well-being, and how much money you want to invest in standing up for yourself. The cold, hard reality is that it is not cheap to get people to stop stealing your work. The irony of this is pretty emotionally devastating – paying an attorney to get someone to stop using your work illegally is a little dagger to the heart. But at the end of the day you will know that you have done the right thing and the offender will have to live with their actions. If that’s a weight they want to carry, then so be it.

So that’s it in a nutshell – how I have handled copyright infringement thus far. I want to say that at the heart of all of this is a great attorney. I really can’t advocate enough for having someone you can call when things go awry. I have actually worked with three different attorneys in the past year for different projects. If you’re in the market I would recommend you get some referrals, call around (any legitimate attorney will be able to provide you with similar services, but you definitely want to find someone whose personality jives with yours) and compare prices. Whether you’re forming an LLC, sending a cease and desist, or having your contract reviewed, I really think that solid legal counsel is one of the best investments you can make in your business. When I first started out I thought that attorneys were a total waste of money and that I could piece everything together on my own – even as recently as last year I was using a canned contract from Hello Bonsai. I hired an attorney to review that contract and they literally redlined about 60% of the document. It was incredibly eye-opening for me and the entire process cost me $250. I honestly can’t imagine $250 better spent.

Infringement Example

This incident involved a large ecommerce apparel brand. One of the first things I did was purchase one of the shirts available for sale to make sure it was a legitimate offer and not a scam. The shirt arrived with a private label tag, branded packaging, and a very clearly Image Traced version of my original artwork. (If you aren’t a designer, Image Trace is a function available in one of the most popular design programs that allows designers to convert drawings and images to vector (scaleable) based images that will print at any size). This ended up being important down the road when the company insisted that they had not sold “a single” garment with my artwork on it, but there were reviews online and I had also purchased merchandise. Dozens of end goods for sale using my artwork were available on Amazon, Etsy, Ebay, and their company website. This incident was resolved, but I want to highlight something that the CEO said in her response: “We found the image online and couldn't find any reference of the author, otherwise we'd have requested your permission." Spoiler alert – if they had asked, I would not have given them permission. This is the type of mindset that I want to work to change in our industry.


* Leave a comment below if you have any questions about my experience, I am planning to do a follow up Q&A in the coming weeks.

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Olivia Herrick Comment