Designer as therapist

Most interior designers have experienced it- a client who wants to spend more time talking about their anxieties, life drama, and dreams than about, for example, the right color for the living room walls. You may have brought color samples over with a specific goal in mind- like getting a decision from the client- but first you have to wade through a long conversation that has nothing to do with the design project.

You do have to listen to the client (rockstar designers exempted..). Frustrating, yes, but there are some ‘best practices‘ and silver linings for the needy client scenario.

First, make sure you have it in the contract that you bill hourly for your time. It is also a good idea to clarify that you bill by either 30 minute or even 15 minute increments. A long, non-design conversation initiated by your client is a lot less frustrating if they are paying for your time. Get the contract worked out and signed in the very beginning.

Second, make sure you clearly state the goals of your meetings with your client up front, when you arrive. A goal for a meeting is a refrain– you can keep coming back to it. Since it was agreed upon in the beginning your client will be more easily led back to the goal when they get lost in the weeds talking about their life’s drama.

Lastly, never problem solve personal issues with a client like this. That’s for a real therapist, not an interior designer. Just listen, and always, gently, bring the conversation back to design issues.

There are, surprisingly, some benefits from your client leaning on you emotionally. In many ways an interior designer is also an unacknowledged interpreter of personality. The physical world you create for a client is as much a ‘feeling’ for them as it is a collage of furniture, architecture, colors, and textures. Much of your client’s experience of life will take place in the space you create for them. Knowing some of their deeper emotional needs can help you better tailor that space.

For example, your client might express a desire for bold statements in furniture but you pick up via ‘designer therapy‘ they also really need a sense of shelter and serenity. A talented designer will give the client what they express wanting- bold furniture in this case- but also work to massage the space to suite the client’s inner needs. So you might work to have statement furniture balanced with other elements to give an overall sense of peace and security.

Needy clients are a lot of work but by setting strong professional boundaries (billing for time, goals in meetings, don’t problem solve personal issues) and listening as an interpreter you can complete a profoundly satisfying project. Your client won’t even know what you did or how you did it but they’ll love your work more for it.

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