Can we talk about graphic designers providing “easily editable files”?

How I feel when clients ask me for an easily editable file

Because sorry, but no, you don’t own the master files and, no, you can’t just have them.

As designers, we get your pain point here, we really do. In a couple months, you may need to make a couple edits to that brochure design, or change the image on that magazine ad. You feel like you bought a design and you feel like you should be able to change it as needed so it can be re-purposed.

Unfortunately, we cannot just deliver you “easily editable files” (our master files). It’s more complex than you realize and there are legalities to be considered as well.

Here’s the short and skinny:

  1. You don’t own Adobe Creative Suite or Sketch Designers use professional software to create amazing designs for you. So even if you "have an eye for design" and feel like you could “tweak” our designs, you will not be able to edit the files we deliver to you without owning the software we used. We pay $49.99/month to Adobe or $99 for Sketch for the right to use their software. You’d need to start paying for these and download all the programs we used in order to "tweak" our designs.

  2. You don’t know how to use Adobe Creative Suite or Sketch Mastering Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Sketch, and whatever other piece of software we used to create your design took us several years in college, tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition, and years of real-world industry experience. It’s unlikely you'll be able to quickly master these same skills over the weekend.

  3. We don’t want you to mess up our design Unless you fully understand and have thoroughly studied visual movement, visual hierarchy, alignment, balance, the rule of thirds, contrast, repetition and you stay current on the latest design trends by reading blogs and articles from industry leaders on a regular basis, you probably don’t have what it takes to maintain design integrity after you’ve “tweaked” the original design. We’d like to feature the project in our portfolios, boast about the awesome final output we created, and feel pride in the artwork we created for you. We can't do this if the design is no longer representative of the original artwork.

  4. We would like to avoid loss of income Believe it or not, creatives have bills to pay too! Can you think of any other professional who would willingly remove any chance at recurring income from their table? Me neither.

  5. It’s easier (and probably cheaper) to have your designer make changes and updates As a follow up to the above, most designers are happy to make updates to previous designs created for you. This helps them continue to put food on the table. Some changes can be really quick for your designer (even as quick as 15 minutes). It is a lot more affordable for you (and respectful to your designer) to simply hire them to make ongoing updates. I've made design updates for clients for as little as $37. A lot less expensive than buying and learning design software, buying rights to the master file, and spending hours (days even) trying to reconfigure the original design yourself.

  6. Finally, it is worth noting that under US Copyright Law, you do not own the copyright to the master files, the designer does As the client, you are purchasing the final deliverable artwork only (there are some exceptions, like if the designer signs a work for hire agreement or is a full time employee). I was lucky enough to have a client who is a commercial attorney point out to me that “your clients do not own the copyright in the design. The copyright always resides with the creator and will never be owned by any of your clients unless (1) they contract with [you] as an independent contractor, AND (2) the work falls within one of the 9 categories outlined by the Supreme Court in its 1989 case Community for Creative Nonviolence v Reed. In most instances your client will not own [master files] unless your client separately contracted for ownership of the master files. They too should be considered yours… This right can be contracted away, but your copyright probably cannot.”

All in all, it’s a lot easier to establish a great relationship with your graphic designer and engage them on an ongoing basis to make design updates for you.

A few common analogies designers use:

  • You don’t get a custom pantsuit made, then ask the tailor for the pattern and some scissors in case you want to make some changes.

  • You don’t go out to eat, then call the chef a month later asking for the recipe, a sampling of the spices, and for all the kitchen tools used to prepare your meal so you can recreate it.

  • You don't get a professional haircut and color, then expect the stylist to make continual trims and touch-ups forever. Nor do you try and do that shit yourself and expect the same result.

All of this being said, if you REALLY want to obtain ownership of master design files, many designers will negotiate a price with you to purchase those (a separate cost from the original contract). Plan on paying around 300% of the original design fee — the designer will need to set up the file in an easy-to-understand manner and package up all fonts, images, icon packs, etc. It’s worth noting that designers will often purchase licenses to use certain fonts, images, or icon packs and it is unlawful for them to resell those and make money off of them — you’ll need to plan the cost of all of that into your purchase as well.

There’s one exception to master file delivery, and that is related to logos. When you hire a firm to create a brand and/or logo mark for your business, you should (and usually will) receive the master files as part of the original contract. This applies only if you’re working with a professional agency or professional freelancer (sorry, people who thought Fiverr was a good idea).

And let’s just get real here for a second... would you willingly hand over something to a client that essentially put yourself out of business? Would you consider that good business practice for yourself? Stop asking designers for “editable files” and instead, pay them their worthy rates to make updates for you. They'll be glad to do so!

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