Insights & Tips


Are designers threatened by consumer facing companies?

Like every other venue the interior design market is changing because of what’s going on in tech. A lot of that change is good, especially regarding software tools to help a designer run their business and imagine and manage projects. But there’s a danger as well: the designer being cut out of the process.

Very few non-design-trained people can truly create a space that’s interesting, in harmony with all the elements in balance, and finished with the detail necessary to make it truly special. The thing about talented interior designers is, they make it look easy.

Some clients think they can just do it themselves and save money (especially those who haven’t worked with designers before and don’t understand what it takes to get a high quality result). Some tech companies want to sell directly to ‘consumers’ and capture the revenue that normally goes through an interior design business. Here’s a few points to remember:

  • Design firms have multi-billion dollar annual buying power in the industry, collectively. How you want the market to be organized matters to your suppliers. Reward suppliers who only sell to the trade with your business and make sure they know it.
  • As a designer, your clients are your business. They should not be someone else’s business. Make sure you have clear, strong contracts with your clients regarding the purchase of goods and services for their project.
  • Find out what the business model is for the tools you use. If a company is incentivized towards the consumer market they may not have the designer’s best interest in mind.
  • Use software tools that do not give your clients information about ordering from suppliers unless you want them to have it.
  • Don’t put images of your work in places that will use them to go around designers. These platforms can try to sell the goods in the images directly to consumers. Keep a portfolio on your website and, carefully, in a few other places. Don’t do the design work for someone else’s profit.

The consolidation of the interior design market in terms of connecting suppliers directly to consumers is not a foregone conclusion. One big negative for quality suppliers would be that it would force them into a ‘race to the bottom’ for pricing, like vendors for Walmart or Amazon. Design is about quality, as much or more than pricing.

Interior designers are business owners. Their work has high value and is much more than ‘shopping’ or ‘ideas’ or ‘project management’ on some consumer facing platform. Not all market disruption works.


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.


How to charge your clients

There a number of ways interior designers charge for their services.
Cover all your bases and charge by:

  • straight design fees for each ‘area’ of the project
  • a markup on items purchased wholesale or with a designer’s discount from vendors like antique dealers
  • bill by the hour for things like drafting, installations, shopping, admin work on the project, etc.

A design fee is for conceptual work and can be for an entire project. However, it’s more flexible to charge a separate design fee for each area of the project, as that gives more flexibility when projects change. For example, charge a design fee for a living room, another for the dining room, another for the kitchen, etc.

Markups are sometimes called ‘margins’ and they are the profit on an item a designer purchases for their client. For example, a designer may purchase a sofa for $4,000 wholesale and charge the client $6000: this would be a 50% markup with a $2000 profit on the item. Markups can vary from supplier to supplier or even what type of item it is.

Time tracking is key to good business practices in interior design. Always track both non-billable and billable time so you can see where your resources are allocated. Time charges can be totaled up for any period but a good rule of thumb is to bill your client for all time charges for the month, at the end of the month.

Lastly, always make sure to get each type of charge and rate in the signed contract before starting the project. Having it all in writing is invaluable as the project goes on.

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