Creating a Well Designed Invoice: Step-by-Step
Boring paperwork is one of the necessary evils of being a freelance designer.
There’s simply no way around it, if you want to track and manage payments from clients, you’re going to have to setup an invoicing system. It’s not all bad news though; the fun part is that you actually get to design a custom invoice.
Today we’ll walk through designing an invoice from scratch. I’ll be as in-depth as possible and include everything you need to know from the absolute basics to advanced features and even a little design theory.
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Let’s start with the bare structure. First up, your invoice should fit on a standard sheet of paper (8.5″ x 11″ or vice versa) so the client can print it without any problems. Odds are they’ll keep it digital, but for the sake of convenience it’s best to stick with the standard letter format.
Next, it should include your name (or company name) and basic contact information. You’ll want to be thorough and include your physical address, email address, phone number and anything else relevant. Unless you have a good reason to hide any of this information from a client, it should all be there for accounting and recording purposes (for their benefit, not yours).
You’ll also want to include the invoice date as well as an invoice number. It’s not necessary to create an invoice number but it’s helpful for both your own and your client’s file system. How you go about creating an invoice numbering system is completely up to you. It can simply be the date stripped down to numbers or a basic running tally (001, 002, 003…110, 111, 112) of the number of invoices you’ve sent that year.
Convey Your Brand and Style
Obviously, since you are in fact a designer, you should design your invoice to fit your personal or corporate brand. The primary goal is to make it functional, but an important secondary goal is to make it attractive.
How you apply your specific brand is up to you. I suggest taking inspiration from something you’ve already created such as a website, letterhead or business card. I used the Design Shack website as a starting point for color inspiration and font choice and came up with the following header:
It’s simple, but it gets the job done and definitely conveys the classic, old style look of our website. To add a bit more flair, I threw a swirly vector in the bottom right corner. It’s functionally superfluous but will add a bit of fun to the end product without distracting too much from the main content. Notice that I’ve reduced the transparency by a fair amount so it doesn’t stick out so much.
Next you need an area to list out what it is you’re billing the client for. Even if you’re billing for a single project, break up your time into sections so your client can clearly see what you’re getting paid to do. Sometimes a single item number with a total will earn you an outraged call from a client demanding to know why he’s paying you so much. The total is much more likely to be accepted if you make it extremely clear just how much work you did.
The goal here is clear, readable information. I recommend using zebra striping or a visible grid to increase readability. For more inspiration on readable grids, check out our post on creating terrific tables.
Make Room For Detailed Descriptions
It’s often the case that the grid solution above is a step in the right direction, but isn’t quite enough. Some designers and/or clients prefer a detailed description of every line item. In these instances, simply build in a row between each item with some extra height on it. In the example below I decided to keep the zebra striping method and indent the description copy to maintain contrast between the two.
Notice that I’ve also added a big, bold total. This number is probably going to be the most important piece of information for both the sender and the receiver of the invoice. Consequently, there’s no use hiding it. Make it stand out so the reader can catch it at a glance.
This one is important. Some may see a payment deadline on a design invoice as presumptuous or rude but I consider it a necessity if you’re billing a client that you haven’t done a lot of work with in the past. You’re a professional and you shouldn’t let anyone treat your otherwise. If you’ve done the work satisfactorily then you deserve the respect of a definite pay date. In most cases, the designer is presented with a deadline for the artwork and it is therefore completely reasonable to give the client a deadline for payment. Just make sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to them. You should setup a standard guideline, such as “all payments due within a week of the date the invoice is received ” and present this information to the client before any work begins.
Again I’ve gone with a simple design element but made it bold enough to stand out. You don’t want to make it blend in too much, thereby giving someone a good excuse to say that they didn’t see it.
Make Payment Terms Clear
Along with your payment due date you should include any specific requirements you have regarding payment. This includes any general text to reinforce the due date, your preferred and accepted forms of payment, your policy regarding bounced checks, etc.
What you put here is entirely up to you. You want to be brief but thorough enough to make sure you’re covered in the event of an argument or undesirable situation. As you deal with more and more clients, you’ll want to revise this section to fit any scenarios you frequently come up against.
I also included a friendly, informal sign off area. This is a great place for notes regarding specific jobs, etc. Invoices can be a bit cold and informal, don’t be afraid to infuse a little personal friendliness.
That’s all there is to it. You’ll no doubt have a few custom areas of information to include but that just about covers your typical design invoice. Check out the finished product below.
A Little Design Theory
I’ve structured the invoice design in a very deliberate manner so as to influence the reader. There are three primary pieces of information we want the client to notice: Who it’s from, when it’s due, and how much it’s for. Everything else is certainly still important, but ultimately secondary to this key information. Look below to see the design consistency I’ve used to accomplish a visual hierarchy.
For the important items, I’ve used a consistent color that contrasts nicely with the background and enlarged/bolded these elements so that they stand out from everything else on the page. This way, the reader takes in these three bits of information even if they only skim the page for a minute. Try glancing at the finished design above without intentionally reading anything. Notice that even as your eyes dart around the page, they are instinctively drawn to the elements with the most contrast.
One final note about the design. Notice that it is optimized for printing beyond the previously mentioned size requirement. If you print this invoice out on a simple black and white laser printer, it should look just fine. All of the information will retain its readability and the visual hierarchy will not be compromised. Also, since there are no dark fills larger than the header logo, it should use a minimal amount of toner.
Another important thing to consider is file size and format. You’ll want to save it in a format that’s widely accepted such as .pdf or .doc and watch to make sure you keep it under a few hundred KBs at the very most (the smaller the better). This ensures the file won’t get blocked by any picky email servers and can be received easily by someone with a less than stellar internet connection.
These may seem like insignificant details but the little stuff plays a big role in the perception of the document by others. A good invoice is one that doesn’t turn you into tech support for anyone trying to receive it.
More Feature Ideas
Just to top off our discussion of useful features, here’s a few more you might want to include:
- Automatic Totals: Build your invoice in Excel or Numbers and setup formulas to do all the annoying math for you!
- Interactive PDF: There’s a lot you can do with a PDF to make it more interactive, but it’s best to keep it limited to features that can be used by most readers such as converting any email or web addressed to live links (clickable)
- PayPal Integration: Take it online and include a PayPal button to make it easy for clients to connect to the service and send you money.
Don’t want to bother with the hassle of creating your own invoices? Check out these articles on web apps that will help you get the job done.
- Six Revisions: 20 Invoicing Tools for Web Designers
- 1st Web Designer: 5 Great Free Tools For Your Invoicing Needs
- Tripwire Magazine: 30+ Essential Freelancer Tools for Expense Tracking, Billing and Invoicing
Show Me Yours
To sum up, a well-designed invoice should focus on three key aspects: Who it’s from, when it’s due, and how much it’s for. Also be sure to itemize your work and give thorough descriptions to prevent any confusion. Finally, give it a bit of your own personality without distracting too much from the primary content.
Now that you’ve seen my attempt at a decent invoice, let us know what you would do to make it even better. Better yet, include a link to your own invoice and tell us about its key features.