Understanding your design process, one step at a time

There are novice interior designers — ones who are just starting out in the field — and then there are novice clients — ones who have never worked with a professional interior designer until now.As with novice interior designers, novice interior design clients don’t usually understand how the design process works. If they mention something like, “Well, I have watched a lot of design shows on TV and I know what you do,” then this is a novice, because quite frankly; they don’t have a clue. They can be the most frustrating client for seasoned professional and a disastrous client for beginning designers just starting their career.These types of clients are not just limited to residential design.

Commercial design has its share of novice clients as well. So, what are you supposed to do with these newbies? Educate them.The more you educate your client, the better clients they will be to you. But where do you start?Many designers go back to what they learned in design school. That first class is called “Introduction to Interior Design” or “ID 100.”In that class, the instructor goes over a basic interior design project with an emphasis on the skill sets and education needed to become a professional. Many designers use this approach to educate their new clients in much the same way they were introduced to the profession when they were students.The problem with this approach is that it leaves out the client’s role in the discussion.If you’re reading this as a new designer, then maybe you’re not experienced enough or have not had enough client interactions early in the project to understand exactly what I am talking about. The client who is paying you to create the most beautiful interior space ever designed needs to be part of the process.The process of design is both systematic and unique. Each designer, depending on the type of design work they do, has a particular design process that works for them.This process gets developed over time. It evolves with each new client they work with. The systematic approach consists of what we all learned or should have learned in school.The very first step in the design process begins with asking questions — lots of them! If you don’t know what questions to ask, or if you think you already know the answers, then you probably aren’t having very many happy clients.The brief description of what the design process is this: “What is the problem that you are having with your interior space?”Note that it is not, “Why did you hire me?”If the answer is, “I can’t find the right chair or pick the right color for my bathroom,” then you need to ask more questions, because that answer isn’t the real problem.Clients usually don’t know exactly what their problem is. They need to be guided by you to find out. If you are asking the right questions, not only will you find the real problem, but you will see the solutions without much effort.The second type of question you need to ask is: “How can I best solve this problem for you?”Again, you need to ask even more questions, such as, “Is the client looking for an economical way to solve it or are they looking for something completely unique and original?”By knowing that what type of solution the client is looking for, you know what direction to take them. Now that you have the client’s best answers to your questions, you need to start helping them become a partner.

Yes, I said a partner not a client. The best clients are the ones who understand they have a role in the design process.They need to make timely decisions and keep you as the designer up to date on what they like and don’t. You need to have honest conversations about budgets and time frames with them.This is where the designer needs to educate their client on the true meaning of the design process. They need to understand that your job as a designer is not only to create beautiful spaces, but execute those ideas into something tangible that will solve their problem.You were not trained in design school to become a mind reader! Any client who thinks that is what you do seriously needs to be reminded again that being a psychic isn’t part of your professional skill set!Design is about communication. From you and your client. The more communication you can encourage early on, the better the design process will be for both of you.Make sure you start your project’s design process with an honest conversation before you accept this person as your next client. If you need to take them out for a meal and keep it casual, then do it!Design is about trust. You need to trust the person you are working with.

They need to appreciate your expertise and experience. They should have respect for you as a professional.If after you have talked, and you still don’t feel that there is a partnership forming, refuse the project! It only takes a handful of bad experiences to make you as a designer feel useless. Nobody needs to be treated badly.Most client-designer partnerships don’t start out that way, but when they do start to go badly, the only way to save your sanity is to part ways.What if all of your clients are that way? This is a bigger issue.It may be that you are not experienced enough to understand what is happening. It also may be that you are unsure of who a good client is in the first place. Not everyone needs or can afford a professional interior designer.You may need to seek out another design professional as a mentor to help you. If you work for someone else, and they are constantly giving you bad clients, talk to them. Maybe they have some techniques you can use to make sure your clients are better partners.There is one more thing you should be aware of when you start a project with a new client. If you ask the question, “Have you ever worked with an interior designer before?” and they give you the answer of, “Yes, but,” that “but” might be that they had a difficult time working with the designer’s process for the completing the project, or that they charged too much, didn’t get the results they expected, or (my favorite) they were too full of themselves!It means simply that in their experience they didn’t have a good partnership.

The designer they worked with was not a good fit for them. There are lots of designers out there and each one has their own design process.If you work to perfect yours, you will find that the right clients will find you. Don’t forget that what you learned in school is still important, just remember that more experiences you can have the better prepared you will be for whatever type of client you work with.

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