So, you’re thinking of hiring an interior designer, but aren’t sure how to go about it. Maybe you’ve worked with a store-based designer and liked the process, but would like to branch out and not be limited to one store.
Or possibly, you’ve just been made partner and you want to celebrate your hard work with a big upgrade in your living space. Or, maybe you and your spouse need help moving the process along because you can’t come to a mutual decision on anything.
Great!! Good for you. I’ve been running my own firm since 2001 and have seen it all when it comes to newbie clients. Let me give you some advice.
1) Is it time for a designer?
There is almost no budget that is too small that won’t benefit from some professional advice. Obviously, if you’re only looking to spend a couple of thousand bucks on a little “pick-me-up” for your space, then all your dollars should go to the space. But once you get upwards of $5,000.00, you might consider getting help. If you’re thinking you’re looking to spend over $10,000.00 you should probably get help. And if you’re considering an investment of $20,000 or above – you definitely should get professional advice.
In today’s world, there are many ways to get pro advice on nearly every budget. If you’re budget is very small, there are services out there who offer very low-cost design advice. Of course, you get what you pay for, so the advice may not be coming from an experienced pro, but could come in very handy. I (and many other designers today) offer different levels of services that can accommodate different budget ranges. I offer both virtual services and traditional in-person design services and within each offering, there are different levels of service to accommodate my clients’ specific needs. I also offer pre-packaged plans in my web shop that are style based, which is a truly low-cost option.
2) It’s not gauche to talk money.
Do not call a designer without having a good idea of what you’re willing to invest and have spent a little time researching the price of things. It may have been a while since you purchased a new sofa or rug – acquaint yourself with what things cost. It sounds silly, but too often, clients want the moon, but they only have the budget for a trip to the beach. That’s okay. We all have budgets, there is no judgement here. But understanding your financial parameters will help you focus on what you really need and therefor want.
It’s as easy as checking out Pottery Barn or Wayfair on line. Look up the prices of things to get an idea. But, do understand that these are modest level furnishings. If you want designer level, double or triple these prices. If you want to make over your bathroom or kitchen, spend time googling renovation costs. A good rule of thumb: a modest master bathroom gut renovation will start >>> START<<< at $15,000.00 and a kitchen will >>>START<<< at $25,000.00.
Your designer is also there to help you establish the correct budget range based on your needs and wants, but you will be so much better off if you do a little research ahead of time. Also, be willing to share your budget with your designer. I won’t accept a job or write a contract until the client is willing to commit, in the contract, to a specified budget. It’s not because I just want to spend all your money. The budget is the foundation of your project and I don’t wish to work in quick-sand. My job is to listen to what you want and need and convert that to an actionable plan which gives you a lovely gorgeous living space.
3) Besties or Business Partners?
Find the designer with whom you are personally comfortable, but never forget this is a business relationship. A relationship with a designer is an intimate one where we’re invited into your private life. It’s just how it is. It doesn’t mean we’re besties, but we do need to get to know you very, very well. We see how you and your spouse interact, we are privy to your financial situation and your innermost thoughts on spending money.
So, you start with referrals from friends who have had designers. You can also look to Houzz, or spend some time reading blogs or viewing designer’s Instagram posts. You can learn a lot about a designer’s personality from their social media. Narrow your choices down and start making inquiries.
4) I like your style.
Remember that a designer’s portfolio shows the end result of working with individual clients. Most designers want to give their clients what they want, so it stands to reason that finished projects are representations of the client’s desires as much as the designers knowledge, skill and talent.
That said some designers have a very strong style, others (me) have a more varied style. When you hire a designer with a clear strong style, you’re buying into their aesthetic. If you hire someone with a broader look, they are likely more open to your input. One is not better than the other – if you love someone’s style, then go for it. But stand back and let them do what they do. If you want more input, if you want to end up with a space that you feel you participated in designing, then pick someone who’s portfolio shows a broader range of styles.
5) Do you come here often?
What to ask a designer when reaching out? First, don’t start with “how much will this cost me?” The only answer an established, experienced designer will give you is: I don’t know. And, without knowing the scope of your project, we just cannot know how much it will cost. We’re not playing games, we’re not trying to charge as much as possible. We don’t read minds, we don’t yet know you and we don’t know what you really need or want. Every project is different. While we may have an idea of how many hours a living room will take to design, it’s usually a broad range. It could be 5 hours, it could be 50. You may need a book shelf, or you may need a wall of custom built-ins. Your living room could be 150 sq. ft. or 1,500 sq. ft. Obviously, the bigger the room, the more furniture is needed, the more time I’m going to be spending on your project.
When you make the call, or send the email, be prepared to succinctly describe your project as clearly as possible. And provide each design professional you’re speaking with with the same information. You want to evaluate their proposals on an apples to apples basis. Be ready to answer all their questions honestly and if they have an intake questionnaire as I do, please fill it out as completely as possible. An experienced designer will have a process that they’ve honed over several years, respect it.
6) You’re cute, do you want to grab a coffee?
These days, most people send an email inquiry about my services and often I am asked to go out and meet with the potential client. Think of this like dating – you want to move slowly, not just invite a stranger into your home. I prefer to start with a phone conversation so we can start the process of getting to know each other. I may ask you to fill out my questionnaire first or I may suggest the phone call and then move on to the questionnaire.
Designers who have public office spaces or a showroom will usually invite a prospective client to come to them for the first meeting. Since most meetings don’t turn into business, we have to manage our time appropriately. This is a people business – I want to know if I want to work with you as a person and you should want to know if you want to work with me as a person. I don’t need to see your house to make this initial decision. That said, designers who work out of their home offices usually do not want to offer an in-office meeting and will go to you. But, be prepared for this to have a fee attached. If there’s no fee, it will be a short meet-and-greet with no design advice given. We are establishing if we want to work together – we’re not yet committed.
7) The tab.
Asking how much will this cost isn’t the right first question, but asking how the designer charges is an appropriate question to ask at some point. One of the most confusing aspects of working with an interior designer is that there are no industry standards for how to charge for our time, though there are a handful of most common methods.
Flat fee: based on your project, the designer will come up with an overall fee for their design services and establish payment terms for this fee. This may be broken into : Design Concept and Plan, Specifying, Implementing, Installing & troubleshooting. The designer may roll the purchasing up into their overall flat fee, or, they may, as I do, charge a procurement fee over my cost for anything purchased through my firm. If the client purchases something themselves, then they are fully responsible for troubleshooting and handling delivery.
Hourly: a designer has an hourly rate for their services and tracks for every hour they spend on your project. This means every meeting, phone call, email, text – literally every minute spent. If they are purchasing for you, they may also charge a procurement fee, or they may simply charge for every hour spent, passing along their costs to you. The designer will usually take a deposit, or retainer, up front against which they invoice. Invoices may happen on a weekly or monthly basis, or they may be done based on established project benchmarks.
Ask your potential designer how they charge and ask them to explain this in full to you so there are no surprises. Again, how much it will add up to is still a TBD at this point, but you have at least some knowledge to start with. Neither system is right or wrong, it’s simply two different ways to go about getting to the same place.
8) Time matters.
Remember that everything takes longer and costs more than you will imagine. Once you make up your mind, then move quickly and definitively. Designers, trades and manufacturer’s availability will all play a role in the timeline of your project. Don’t expect to have your house re-done in time for the holidays if you don’t start the project until September (or even July). Remember, this project is for you, so you need to be available and willing to change your schedule to accommodate the project needs. Don’t expect the design professionals to be available to you 24/7 if you’re not willing to do the same.
9) Don’t be a ghost.
For the love of all things that are holy, once you’ve made your decision to hire a designer – show respect and let anyone else you met with know your decision. Don’t leave them hanging, don’t ignore their inquiries. If I’ve spent time meeting with you, learning about your project and possibly even writing a proposal for my services, that means I’ve invested 2-3 (usually more) hours of time on you.
And you’ve gotten something from that. Simply because you’ve discussed your project and answered questions, you’ve probably honed in on what you really want, narrowed your budget range, etc. I’ve probably also given you free advice anyway. Be an adult and just let me know. I won’t be hurt, I won’t yell. It’s not a breakup. We flirted, we went for a coffee, we didn’t date. I didn’t meet your mother (probably). But just let me know, okay?
10) Do be a team player.
Design is a collaborative effort. If you’re doing a full-scale new build or big remodel, you will likely have an architect, builder/general contractor and designer all playing their parts. Bring all participants together right from the get-go. Perhaps they’ve worked together before, perhaps not. You – the client – should set the tone. And that tone needs to be one of open communication and a clear vision of the desired outcome. And only hire those willing to work in the same manner. You’ll be thankful you did.
I’d love to hear your thoughts this process – so please share in the comments!