In my 30 plus years as an Interior Designer I have heard many stories from clients telling me about their experiences with designers. It is difficult to know how to choose a professional designer. References are not enough...and what defines a good designer?
I always like to preface the term “designer” with the description “professional”. Being invited into someone’s home where you view their private spaces and see how they live from day to day, is a very intimate experience. The client has invited me into his/her home and trusted me to a degree that most people outside of friends and family never experience. I do not take this lightly. Securing a project and being in charge of suppliers, workrooms, fabricators and installers is no small task and involves thousands of dollars worth of materials and labor. Why is it then that so many clients assign this task to someone who is a “dabbler” or someone who has a “knack”?
The design field is not unlike other professions, we pay professionals every day to perform tasks which we cannot or are not willing to do ourselves. It takes education and experience to make a pro. Unlike dentistry or plumbing which is very inaccessible to the average person, just about anyone can gain access to fabric and paint. Fabric and paint can be dangerous tools in the wrong hands. These two items are the obvious components of decorating and design but design is a bit like a game of chess. You can play on many different levels from the superficial to the sublime. The professional designer is thinking about elements of the space in a far more subtle and complex fashion than the person with little or no training and experience. While it may seem that nuance is not important, many a grand decorating scheme has been lost for want of attention to detail.
Most people are surprised to hear that there are no standards in many states for Interior Designers. In the state we are located in, Massachusetts, just about anyone who gets a tax ID number can hang out their shingle and call themselves a designer. The result is a wide gamut of capabilities from the housewife decorators to the top pros. How then can you separate the qualified practitioners?
1) Professionals earn their living from their designs; they are serious about what it is they do. They have a passion for their work because it takes someone with passion and perseverance to pursue this profession. Look for someone who does this as their major source of income.
2) Membership in professional associations reinforces the practitioners’ commitments to their field. Professional associations insist upon ongoing education as a requirement for their memberships. Two of the most prominent groups for interior designers are ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) and IDA (Interior Design Association).
3) Experience is key. Because each design job is custom and therefore not like any other, there is always a new challenge which hasn’t been seen before. Classroom education can only begin to prepare a designer for working in the field but it’s only when the rubber hits the road that the real learning begins. I have been in the field for over 30 years and I am still learning. While I love to encourage young people and often mentor them, I would want a seasoned professional in charge of my job.
4) Personality and style have to mesh with yours or else there will be difficulty in communication. Communication is essential so that you don’t wind up with someone else’s vision instead of your own. Remember that it is your home and should reflect your tastes and lifestyle. A true professional does not churn out a one-note “look” but is capable of taking your ideas and placing them into a workable context. Be very wary of someone who is known for giving their clients a “look”. This is often the hallmark of someone who is not comfortable with problem solving or creative thinking. They have one or two formulas and make you fit their box…not a good thing!
5) Referrals are my lifeblood and so I make a point to give my clients such a high degree of service that they are more than happy to share my name. This is the ultimate compliment and I like to think that I make a new friend out of each and every contact. Respect is important and listening to my clients is the way I can best serve them. A good designer listens but also is intuitive. Often clients cannot verbalize their needs or just aren’t in touch with what they want. It is a skilled designer who is paying attention to the signals and asks the right questions to get the client to identify his/her needs. You see, no matter how attractive the design, it is absolutely of no value if it doesn’t function. Good design is workable design for real people, not for magazine articles.
How do designers get paid?
Interior designers work in several different ways. Basically, we are all paid for our ideas; this is the basis of what we provide for our clients. The products that we help them acquire are the fleshing out of those ideas. Sometimes, a client may only want a consultation. For this service, expect to pay a flat fee or an hourly rate.
How to Work with an Interior Designer
When I go to serve a client solely on a consultation basis, I too charge for my ideas. Pure consultation jobs are rare however because most of my clients are looking for window treatments, carpeting, or furniture. Often designers will credit a portion (based on a sliding scale) of their design fee towards items purchased to complete the design plan.
When I visit a home for the first time, we will talk about design problems and solutions but sometimes my client will want to take those design solutions and shop with them at retail vendors. When this happens I feel as if I have failed in communicating to my client that I provide something of great worth. Working with a designer does not mean relinquishing control but it does mean allowing them to do the work for which they were hired. Trust is first and foremost between both parties. It is difficult to come up with a design solution, that's why clients come to us. Once the client has it though, it is easy to take it and shop to it. Price alone should never be the determining factor in choosing your design professional. Taking someone’s ideas and sending them to another vendor to produce is dangerous because the concepts and ideas that have developed are being read by a third party person much like that game of “telephone” you played when you were a child. Being lost in translation is a real risk.
Everyone Deserves Good Design
Many people think that using a designer for shades, shutters, blinds or draperies will be expensive…or that designers are only for the wealthy. This is far from the truth. As explained above, design services are often value added. Using a design professional will insure that mistakes (and they can be very expensive mistakes) will not be made by choosing the wrong product for the application or choosing something that just will not look right. Custom products are intended to last for many years. You don’t want to spend the next 15 years looking at something you really don’t like. In the long run, designers save you money and time by giving you the most efficient solution for your needs while fitting your budget and lifestyle. That’s what custom is all about, it’s about you.