By Kathryn Marsh

The Designer Client Relationship
By Kathryn Marsh

When most people think of interior design, images of choosing beautiful fabrics, furnishings, and fixtures come to mind. Yes, that is a part of what we do but it is only a small part of any interior design project. Most of a designer’s time is taken up with problem solving as they juggle the myriad of factors involved in any project. In fact a common complaint among designers is that clients do not know how much work is done to get a project completed. When working on a project decisions are thoughtfully made and implemented by the designer. Every single one is carefully reviewed against the desired end results of the project.

Before embarking on a project both designer and client need to decide if this relationship has the basis for a mutual partnership. This process begins in the first contact usually a phone call and initial meeting. Honest open communication will lead to clear understanding, which usually results in successful outcomes.
There are many factors to consider when hiring a designer. Let us discuss some of these.
Does a designer’s style match yours?
Is the designer focused on a particular esthetic that they infuse into most projects, or are they able to adapt to each clients unique set of circumstances. What if their style is not a match yours? If your preferred style is contemporary and a particular designer’s stated esthetic is French Country; you may want to keep looking. As a designer I am focused on you and your unique situation, tailoring the esthetics of a project to match you.
What makes them unique?
Good design produces pleasing results, exceptional design is transformative. As a designer I approach each project with the same goal: “to positively impact the living experience of each client in their new home. Going well beyond designer showcases; I create havens layered with personal elements that transform a house into a home.” 
What is a designer’s experience?
During my 30-year career I have developed a unique set of skills and an ability to solve problems and interpret my clients wants and needs in a project.  Over the years I have applied my interior design skills in a variety of fields to a varied clientele.  One of the things I have learned is that whether its fashion, gift baskets, residential or commercial interior design, the elements and principles of design are the same.
Design elements like; line, scale, and color; design principles such as form, balance and harmony are applicable in every field of design. My signature “solutions first” process begins with the desired end in mind and works backward, has consistently produced successful projects and happy clients over the years.
Designer's preferred project
Does a designer have a preference for a particular type of project?
Does the designer only want full house projects and you only have a single room. Could that create an issue? This is something to discuss and clarify prior to embarking on a project. It does not mean that the designer will not do a good job but you should clarify if this is a potential problem before committing to the designer. I try to be flexible with my clients and the needs of their specific project.
Comfort level
The designer client relationship requires a high level of trust. During a project there will be a number of occasions when you will need to accept design decisions on trust only.
 As a designer part of my job is to take you out of your comfort zone and help you see greater possibilities. Knowing how far to go and in what direction is one of the secrets to my success. I have found that at some point in a project most clients begin to trust my design acumen, and will let go of the reins allowing me to guide them through the process.
How involved do you want to be in a project?
What is your preferred level of involvement? Are you the chairman of the board? That is, you agree on the details and then prefer to have your designer manage the project, only consulting you for large decisions. Are you the chief operating officer? You want to be consulted on every detail, or are you somewhere in between? Make sure to discuss your preferences with your designer. Some designers are flexible some are not. Another area that needs to be addressed is in the purchasing of items for the project. Again some designers are more flexible than others.  Discuss the reasons why you may wish to do some of the purchasing. If price is a consideration it is important to make sure you are comparing apples with apples.
How do you make decisions?
Do you make decisions quickly, or do you take a long time going back and forth a couple of times before finally deciding? This is an important discussion to have with your designer right at the outset. There will be times in a project when delaying a decision or changing directions can result in blown deadlines and increased costs. Over the years I have learnt to work with all types of clients and still reach successful outcomes.
Communication and presentation
How often and how do you want to be in touch with your designer? Are you a high touch person as in, I want to speak directly with the designer, or are you happy with email and text communication. In our initial conversations I will discuss this with you. Another feature of working with me is that we are a high touch boutique firm. We excel at customer service and personal communication with our clients whatever their preferred style.
How will the proposed design ideas be presented to you?
I use presentation boards, product samples, and virtual design platforms. For most clients these are sufficient however sometimes a visit to a showroom is necessary in order for the client to feel comfortable. The ability to adjust my presentation style is an important part of successfully communicating with my clients.
Project budgets
One of the most important discussions you can have with your designer is about your budget. It is imperative to be open and realistic.  Is the amount allocated sufficient for the scope of work desired? If not what changes or adjustments can be made.
Sometimes we can scale back the project, other times we will look for less expensive fixtures and furnishings, or a project can be done in phases. I will always work with a client to find suitable solutions.
Project completion timelines

When discussing timeframes it is important to understand some of the factors that can affect how long it takes to finish a project. During our initial discussions we will establish realistic timelines for your project. We will discuss issues that can cause delays and how they can be dealt with.
When do you involve a designer in your project?
The best time is right at the beginning; even if the designer is not going to be involved until later in the project. On a number of occasions I have consulted with architects and contractors early in a project and prevented decisions that would have severely hampered the implementation of design plans later. Coordination between associated professionals at the outset of a project can save money and heartaches.

There are a number of different ways that an interior designer can bill a client. The three most common are: hourly, cost plus and fixed fee.
Some designers like to bill by the hour at either a fixed rate or using a variable rate for different parts of the process. For example you will pay a higher hourly rate for the designer’s time than for a project manager. Hourly fees ensure that the designer gets paid for whatever work is done.  Clients get nervous because they do not know how much the final cost will be.
The cost plus billing model calculates the design fee as a percentage of the overall project cost. Depending on the designer and project this fee can vary between 10% and 35%. Cost plus billing can be good for both client and designer because it allows the designer additional income if the project scope increases and the client saves if the reverse is the case.
A majority of clients prefer the flat fee method where the design fee is quoted as a fixed amount with certain contingencies for additional amounts in specific circumstances.
Each of these billing models can be equally valid. In different situations and depending on the client and the project I have used all three of these. The billing discussion is one that should be covered at the start of the project in your initial meetings. The most important factor in billing is not the model used, it is whether the client and designer are comfortable with the process and are both treated equitably.
The designer client relationship is close and personal; this is especially true in residential projects. Choosing the right designer for you is important to your ultimate satisfaction with a project.  When you sit down with a designer come prepared to discuss any and all questions and concerns you have. An experienced interor designer will have a number of questions that they will want answered as well; this is part of their process while trying to see if you both can develop a mutual partnership. Designers know how much more difficult a project can be without that understanding.

                                                                                          - Kathryn


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