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Why Designers Don’t Give Up their Files

by Jennifer Stewart | Jan 12, 2012 | AdviceDesign

Most, if not all design contracts have a clause regarding what the client owns upon the completion of the branding project. In almost all cases, the client owns the “final artwork”, but the designer retains ownership of the working design files and all non-final design drafts. And as any client who has requested to own all these “working files” knows, designers don’t easily give these rights up. Here’s why.

Most clients believe that the primary reason for wanting to retain design files is so that the client will have to keep going back to the designer for future work – in other words, money. This is certainly a factor, but not the primary reason. When a designer creates something it becomes their baby, they grow attached to it and want to see it grow up strong and healthy. So their urge to manage your brand's future is because they now know it better than most and feel they can best produce future designs ‘on brand’. That's a big factor, but there are legal reasons too.

There are licensing issues for the individual elements used in the document. Design files often contain illustrations, photos, fonts, and other design elements that the designer has either created or purchased the rights to use. The client may own the final artwork that was made with these pieces, but this does not entitle them to outright ownership of each element that went into that final artwork.

While this may seem questionable it’s actually quite helpful to the client. For example, when we design logotype using a $400 font family, our client doesn't have to purchase said font in order to have the right to use that logo. But if we gave them working files, the client would then have to purchase a license to use that font family– adding higher costs to their project. The same goes for image based assets.

Beyond that, design files hold a designer's trade secrets. Giving another designer working files is much the same as a food company giving Kraft the recipe for their delicious new cracker. And like a designer, you’ve probably spent years in your profession, testing methods and learning tricks to make that recipe a-maz-ing! Maybe Kraft won’t steal your cracker recipe, but why would you want to risk it?

Regardless of all the rules there are some clients who definitely need to purchase the design files. This happens most often when a client has an in-house design department that will be entering content into the design or resizing the design based on various chosen media. Often times with this situation many of the assets used in the work are already property of the company (essentially on loan to the designer to create the work), and any others elements will be purchased on behalf of the client by the design studio (the rights they purchase will depend on the intended use of each element).

In any case though, it is common for design firms to charge extra for the working files, at least 50%, if not 100% of the original project price. While this may seem high, keep in mind all the rights they have to pass on to the client, not to mention their trade secrets, which few people would give up for less.

Photo by Marianne Perdomo


Jennifer Stewart is the Office Manager and wanna-be organizational psychologist at Modern Species. For more posts from her, click here.

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No sustainable prosperity or security can be attained at the expense or marginalization of others.- Nayef Al-Rodhan