How designers use social contracts

There’s much written about designers using T&C’s, but not much about social contracts. That’s an oversight because there is no better way to manage expectations. Social contracts are the perfect way to state, politely, it’s not appropriate to text changes late at night, or over the weekend. Nor is it appropriate to not supply copy then complain about a missed deadline.

Put simply, designers use social contracts to clarify how they like to work.

What a social contract is

A social contract is a guide to the client-supplier relationship.

The aim of a social contract is to:

  • avoid assumptions
  • build a happy, healthy relationship
  • confirm you want to work together to achieve a desired outcome
  • hold each party accountable
  • encourage commitment and collaboration
  • build a connected team.

Social contracts are not usually extensive. It’s easy to get bogged down in detail but they are usually a helicopter view of a project including a paragraph covering each of these areas:

  • roles and responsibilities ­– a list of team members and their role, including documenting who has final say
  • a statement about behaviour – like meetings are a safe space, we will treat people with respect, are open to questioning and will ask for help if needed (rather than put the project in jeopardy)
  • priorities – agreeing to the main priority of the project (for clarity and to avoid scope creep)
  • availability – how you respect everyone’s time is valuable – you will not contact your clients out of hours, nor will you be available out of hours (for example before 9am, after 6pm and not on a weekend)
  • channels of communication – do you prefer to meet (face-to-face or zoom), email, use slack or another form of technology. Does that change during a project? – for example, would you prefer clients are available to meet face to face at key touchpoints?
  • timeline – an agreement to a deadline and how to flag you won’t meet a touchpoint (to avoid schedule slip or scope creep)
  • conflict resolution – what to do if conflict happens

What a social contract is not

A social contract does not take the place of T&C’s. And it’s not an estimate of costs and it does not include scope of work or payment terms. Nor is it a legal contract covering areas like copyright and licensing.

A social contract is more about how you (and your team would like to be treated) and how you will treat others.

Why designers should use a social contract

A social contract gives clarity and improves communication with your client and your design team. It helps both sides feel trusted and acknowledged. It acts as an effective tool to continue looking at ways to improve how we work.

The history of social contracts

Social contracts are not new.

In November 1620, the Pilgrims created the first social contract in the New World. That short document, the Mayflower Compact, set a precedent for religious freedom and ordered liberty that became a foundation for later charters of self-government in North America. That was followed by The U.S. Constitution, written in 1787. It’s often cited as a social contract example because it sets out what the government can and cannot do. Americans agree to be governed by the moral and political obligations outlined in the Constitution’s social contract.

And they’re rising in prominence … in 2022 the UN Secretary-General António Guterres set the agenda for more international and national conversations about social contracts. Social contracts are now used by politicians, academics and global leaders as a way to heal societal divisions and rebuild nations post-pandemic.

The so-what?

Social contracts are not new. They are a tried and trusted way to manage expectations.

Social contracts are a great way at agreeing, right from the start of a relationship, how you would like to work together.


Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol

After 30+ years running a design studio, I accumulated a pretty special network of fellow designers. One thing most have in common: a dislike for the ‘business’ side of design. Most are impatient with any task competing for time spent doing what they love – designing.

Not me. I love that intersection between design and business. I built a career working with Ombudsman schemes, the Emergency Services sector and the Courts. My special power has always been an ability to use design to translate the difficult to understand or the unpalatable message.

I now use exactly the same skills with creative business owners. I translate the indigestible into bite-sized chunks of information. I share insights, introduce tools and embed processes to help others build confidence business decision-making skills. More confidence makes it easier to grasp opportunities. More confidence makes it easier to recognise a good client from the bad.

Outside DBC I have mentored with Womentor, AGDA and most recently with The Aunties.
And I’m a proud board member of Never Not Creative. Ask me about internships 😉

Always happy to chat, I can be contacted here.


For a short while, an archive of my design work at
My current work can be viewed at and

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