Design an Invoice That Practically Pays Itself
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?