Design an Invoice That Practically Pays Itself

Tara Hornor

Every freelancer and small business owner has to tackle the tedious task of putting together an invoicing process. It’s rarely the most thrilling design project, but it has to be done. And, if it’s done well, it can impress clients and save a lot of time that would otherwise be spent repeatedly asking for payment and babysitting the remuneration process.

When I first began developing my invoices, I had a couple of major fails, ranging from not including the critical information that every invoice should include to simply not making it easy for my clients to pay me. A guideline would have saved me a lot of lost time and headaches. Hence, this walk-through is designed for anybody that is putting together their invoice layout for the first time and wants some practical guidelines for getting it right…hopefully with a little style.

Critical Info


Make sure your clients know that what they have received from you is actually an invoice.

First of all, every invoice must include some absolute, basic information — items that are critical to making the invoice payable and easy to understand. At a minimum, make sure each and every invoice has the following:

  • The word “Invoice” — believe it or not, if clients get your invoice and it doesn’t say invoice, they could interpret the document as a past bill that’s already been paid (a receipt) or just not connect the dots that this is an invoice that they need to get paid soon. Label the document an invoice so that there is no doubt or confusion in their mind, or you may have to clear the matter up every time you send an invoice out.
  • Invoice identifier — in some cases your clients may have several invoices that are outstanding. This is very common when you start to work with larger clients who are used to having 60-90 days to pay you. So, put some kind of identifier like the date of the invoice along with a unique number as the invoice number. For instance, for the first invoice you send, your invoice number may be 11022012-01 (the month, day, year followed by a unique number).
  • Company name — make sure your company or individual name is on the invoice. I made the mistake of putting my logo but not my company name on the invoice and got a call from the client asking who in the world I was and why I was sending them an invoice!
  • Logo — even if your company name is on the invoice, put your logo on there as well. This is critical for reinforcing your brand.
  • Contact information — put your phone number and email address prominently on your invoice. Make it easy for clients to find and connect with you if they have any questions that aren’t answered clearly on the document itself.
  • Client’s information — don’t forget to include the client’s information so that both of you can tell who the invoice is for.
  • Payment address — at a minimum, let the client know where they can send a payment. Many firms like to pay by check, so your contact information might be all that is needed. Or, you may need to include your PayPal information or other online transaction system.
  • Billing summary — it’s always prudent to put a short summary of each item for which the client is being billed. I usually include a fairly extensive description, especially when it’s purely a consulting gig and I’m charging by the hour. Clients like to see what they got for their money, and this an opportunity to show them that their investment in you is a wise choice.
  • Amount due — if you have several items and fees, including taxes, make sure you have a final summary area where it’s easy for the client to see exactly how much they should pay you.
  • Date due — including a due date gives a client incentive to pay you as soon as possible. Hopefully you have discussed this with your client before beginning your project, but if this discussion never occurred, then your due date should be 30 days from your invoice date.

Of course, depending on your business and policy, you may need to include more than these items. For instance, a list of terms on the back side may be necessary. Or you may simply always want to include a simple thank you note at the bottom of every invoice.

Make Paying Easy


Make it as easy as possible for clients to send you a payment.

Making it easy for your clients to pay you is a huge part of getting money in a timely fashion. Many moons ago, I used to only accept checks. By default, therefore, it was going to take at least a week for me to get a check in the mail from my client, even if they opened the email, pulled out their checkbook, and dropped my payment in the mail, which almost never happens. Today, there are several other options.

Even if you still accept checks, give clients another option for payment. You can easily accept credit card payments via Paypal and other merchant services, which makes it much easier for clients to pay immediately, especially if you place a link to the website on which they can make payment. Make your account name or — as in the case of PayPal — email address prominent next to the payment link so that clients know exactly who to make the payment to.

No matter how you accept payment, just make it as easy as possible for clients to find this information. Don’t bury it; make it prominent. It will save you from answering a lot of redundant questions from well-meaning clients.

Design and Layout


An appealing yet minimal design makes receiving the invoice a bit more pleasant.

You are a graphic designer. Let your skills shine, even on your invoice. However, do not make the mistake of going over-the-top with your design so that the information is difficult to find. Keep the design minimal, appealing, and supportive of the purpose of the invoice: to let clients know how much they owe and how to pay you.

Using your business letterhead is best for maintaining consistent branding; if you have not yet created a letterhead for your business, then now is the time to do so. Just be sure to keep your logo and other brand graphics on the top, bottom, and possibly the left side of the page with plenty of room to spare for document content. You can also use boxes, font styles, colors, or any other design element to help important items stand out, such as total owed and payment method. Instead of a link for your payment method, use a button instead to make it even easier to spot.

In the layout, usually both your contact information and your client’s information is in the top-right corner of the invoice. The itemized list of services should be in the center of the invoice page with a “total owed” listed here, but you can also list the total in a larger font in another prominent place on your invoice, such as the top, right, or left below the contact information. Really, you can create the layout however it best fits your business. Just remember that it always need to have organization, clarity, and emphasis on the important elements: how much is the bill and how should payment be made.

Most importantly, alwaysformat your invoice as a PDF. This is not only professional, but also allows for easier distribution and viewing, whether the client views their invoice on your website or opens it from their email. Sending an invoice in a more editable file format can create all sorts of confusion.

Personalization and Humanization


Let your personality and humanity show.

If you are a graphic designer with a bit of a personality, an invoice is no place to hold back. Again, just be sure that you do not allow your “personality” to distract from the actual invoice information, especially the important parts…you want to get paid, remember?

Make your invoice a bit more like you with creative little design extras. For instance, use a fun writing style, especially if you have a lot of extra terms that need included:

Cute or clever icons (designed professionally by you, of course) are not only a great way to display your talent, but they also make the invoice more fun. A mug low in coffee, a low caffeine meter, a low gas meter, a pitiful character with a change jar and a note to “remember to pay the starving artist” could all be ways to give your invoice more pep. If your client is making payments, rather than paying your invoice in full, make it more fun with a cute graphic showing how much more they have left to pay, such as a gas tank showing how much gas is needed to be full or a change jar slowing filling up with change.

Conclusion

As a graphic designer, you have the added pressure of making sure your invoice looks as good as your services. However, a snazzy design is no good if your invoices are not getting paid. Therefore, make sure that first and foremost you are making your invoice easy to read, understand, and pay. Then add enough personality to have your clients smiling to themselves as they send you payment. And that, my fellow designers, is one easy way to turn first time customers into loyal ones.

How have you refined your own invoices? Do your invoices save you from answering the same common questions from clients? Or, are you convinced that securing payment will always be a tedious process?

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  • http://www.pragmaticdesign.co.uk Web Design Wolverhampton

    Very nice. Will it get customers to pay quicker though?

    • http://www.varunbatra.com Varun Batra

      I think Client will love invoice so much, he won’t pay to get more invoices collections of our ;)

  • John

    This is good information, but I wonder how easy this is to translate to Quickbooks. I use that software to manage all of my freelance stuff and am a bit disappointed with the flexibility in their “custom” invoice layout and appearance. I’d love to do something like this, but any idea how easy it is to incorporate into Quickbooks? Thanks.

  • http://www.sarthakkalucha.com Sarthak Kalucha

    Thanks Tara for an excellent article on developing an attractive invoice template. As a web designer I never paid much attention to this area, and your article has got me thinking. Now I await one from you on designing good letterheads!

  • http://tnpmedia.com Internet Marketing Solutions Glendale, CA

    Nice post. The sample invoices are really eye catching. But I like invoices that look more professional. Cute looking invoices don’t seem to get to be taken seriously, imo.

    Thanks.

  • Robert

    Making them easy to pay, is probably the hardest part. No matter how clear it is that they are looking at a due invoice. I’m getting used to invoices being paid extremely late. Like after 60, or even 90 days, instead of the 30 days. When you put too much pressure on clients for payment, they will stay away in the future, and you stand a chance of “giving yourself a bad name”. Looks like clients always win.

    BTW, a “Woppin’ Huge Sandwich Project Printed Poster for the Monster Truck Rally” for $123,000.– + VAT?
    I’ll have 2 of those projects each month.

  • emcomments

    Hi Tara

    Useful stuff.

    You say “For instance, for the first invoice you send, your invoice number may be 11022012 – 01 (the month, day, year followed by a unique number).” Can I suggest that a better order would be:
    20120211 – 01 (the year, month, day followed by a unique number)

    This will sort much better in a spreadsheet or database.

    • http://creativecontentexperts.com Tara Hornor

      Thanks for the tip! I have never considered how much easier that order for the invoice number can be for sorting. I may have to start implementing this from now on. :)

  • Johan

    One of the invoices that you show you thought was nice, was pretty ‘bad’ in my view. The “bill to” area was in yellow.. that will make it hard to read… BUT I have to admit, it would be nice if ‘your’ invoice would stand out from the other invoices that your client needs to pay.
    As for paying it through a service (paypal or any other) is nice, but they have fees… And besides that, the client might think that, if they write a check, they usually also have a stub for their own (paper) administration. If there’s a great professional way around that, that would probably help a lot…

  • Trish

    The best way to get paid from a large company is to first get a PO (Purchase Order), or even just the PO#. Never start a job for a mega-corporation without one, as that means the job is not budgeted properly and you might be working for a rogue employee! A PO shows that the job is accounted for in their budget.

    A PO# means that once the job is done, you can bypass your producer/manager and submit the Invoice directly to Accounts Payable. They know in advance that the PO has been issued, and they simply write you a check on the next billing cycle.

    Also, make sure you date your invoice based on the delivery date – not the date you write your invoice. Many megacorps add their 30 days to your invoice date, so the earlier the invoice is dated the better. Some POs will state that payment is in 45 days (or even 60) but a PO is almost a guarantee of being paid if the company is stable.

  • http://www.sliqtools.co.uk/ Mike

    I love these invoice designs. The design make the invoices very clear to read.

    As you’ve written, when dealing with any sizeable company, don’t start work let alone invoice before getting a proper PO. Larger companies may also require all suppliers to use a standard payment term so to avoid confusion it’s best to check which term will be used prior to invoicing. Some companies will hesitate to put a supplier on a preferred or standard supplier list unless the supplier has payment terms that fit the company’s norm.

    It’s also common for companies, especially larger ones, to pay invoices on a fixed day of the month, e.g. the 30th day, This means payment terms are quite often something like EOM plus 30 days (EOM being end of month). Specifying a term as 30 days from invoice date can cause confusion as it will disrupt the normal billing cycle for a company – another reason to check the payment term to be used when dealing with larger businesses.

  • marc

    excellent advice on dealing with a serious issue! again you guys are excellent at what you do & the fact you share this knowledge speaks for that.

    thanks a lot for the advice & inspiration!