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What to Do When Your Clients Don’t Want Their Space Photographed

For designers an image is worth more than1,000 words, but for some clients, so is their privacy

When Your Client Doesn't Want Interior Design Photography
Illustration by Christina Zimpel

An exceptional portfolio is key to business, allowing you to pique the interest of prospective clients or submit work to a publication for consideration. For some disciplines, this practice is straightforward: Fine artists, for instance, can typically digitize and circulate their images for portfolios with ease, as they often own the rights to their work. But interior designers and architects, who work on commissions, usually need to get their client’s approval to share images of those projects. That’s not always the easiest thing to do, especially if the project is a private residence.

Sometimes—in fact, oftentimes—you’ll end up working with clients who refuse to have their space photographed because they want to maintain their privacy. In those cases, it’s essential to arm yourself with some techniques to handle such situations, since, as New York–based designer and illustrator Jason Grimesnotes, “You’re only as good as a photograph of your last project, especially at the Instagram-sharing pace the world has adopted.”

Here are several strategies to keep in mind when trying to convince clients to have their space photographed.

Put photography in your contract from the start.

The best way to work around a no-photography situation is to avoid it completely. Lawyer Alex Ross, a partner at Ross & Katz, PLLC,who works closely with designers, highly recommends including a clause about photographing a space—both before and after the project—in your standard contract. “This way we’re able to manage expectations from the beginning, so the client knows that photography is important,” he says. Work closely with an attorney to hammer out the details—you want to be sure you’re getting the rights you need.

Negotiate. Suggest stricter terms, such as ensuring anonymity, or offer a first right of refusal.

Even if you have a clause about photography in your contract, the client may strike it out before signing. That’s the time for negotiation. If your original wording didn’t mention anonymity, it’s a great place to start. Offer your client complete privacy, ensuring that no identifying details about the home or its owners will be shared with publications, on your website, or on social channels. Work on finding a middle ground with your client that still allows you to add photographs of your project to your portfolio.

It sounds obvious, but sometimes long discussions can change your client’s mind. Again, having a lawyer in this situation would be advantageous, as he or she could help negotiate specific rights.

Ask to photograph details only.

Say that your client is standing his or her ground during negotiations. The next tactic to try is to give in, just a tiny bit. “Aside from slowly convincing the client over the course of the project, the best solution I’ve found is to focus on the details,” says Grimes. “All of my work is super-detailed and hyper-custom, so detail photos go a long way. These cropped photos may not make a publication, but they can at least be used in my portfolio.”

Go to court.

Or at least threaten to. “I haven’t any seen any designers who actually go to court about this issue, but we’ve certainly threatened it,” says Ross. Going to court is probably more expensive than it’s worth (and will also cost you a client relationship), so it’s not always advisable to do so, but the option is there.

Work with brokers if the property goes up for sale.

If you’ve lost out on negotiations and the client simply won’t budge—and you decide not to take the matter to court—it doesn’t mean all hope is lost. If the client decides to sell the home, there’s a chance the space will be photographed to woo prospective buyers. In some instances, you can negotiate a deal with the broker to retroactively add those images to your portfolio.

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19 Tips From Successful Pros on How to Run an Interior Design Business

There’s no defined road map when starting your own business in any industry, but add in the variables that come with a creative profession like an interior design business and there’s perhaps even more to learn: From hiring the right people (or knowing when to let go of the wrong ones) to honing brand identity, the path to growing a successful business can often be one riddled with trial by error. Yet, as Stevie McFadden, founder of Flourish Spaces in Richmond, Virginia, explains, “There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel”—plus, a lot can be learned by example. We asked a selection of seasoned design pros for their best tips on everything from billing to client strategy when taking the leap of faith and going out on your own.

On accounting

“Being in business for 35 years, I believe that the most important part of starting your own interior design firm is to make sure that you have a great support team behind you. The design industry is a very specific industry when it comes to fees and commissions and so I would recommend that from the beginning you should bring on board an attorney and an accountant who has knowledge of the design industry. I would also recommend hiring a bookkeeper to handle the paperwork as it can be a very tedious process which you do not want to devote your time to when you should and could be out shopping for your clients.” —Ellie Cullman, cofounder, Cullman & Kravis

“First things first are a business license and tax ID within your state: This one is obvious. I started day one with a design management software, professional invoicing structure, and outside accounting firm in place. My templates were set up, consistent and branded. I held on a bit too long managing my own sales tax reporting and P&L statements. In hindsight, I wish I had passed off those responsibilities much sooner. In fact, I should have incorporated those tasks into my day-one outside accounting services. You don’t realize how much it means to have consistent reporting from the beginning until you find yourself tracing back years later, patching together growth patterns tracked in several different systems.” —Drew McGukin, founder, Drew McGukin Interiors

“Billing in the design industry is still something I struggle with. It’s one of the few professions that there simply isn’t a standard formula. The biggest thing is to know your worth and don’t waiver on that. As designers, our brains rarely shut down and that is valuable to the client in the work we provide them. Transparency in billing upfront is key. Early on I would place orders without payment in good faith because I wanted to just get things moving. I learned that is not the way to conduct a successful business. You end up robbing Peter to pay Paul, and [this] creates chaos when it comes to orders. Be upfront with your clients. You are not a bank; you are a small business that is providing a service, and products that should be paid for in a timely manner.” —Shaun Smith, founder, Shaun Smith Home

On branding

“I did not officially announce my company as live until I had a firm, final logo design and collateral materials (business cards, notepads, presentation folders, etc). It was very important that I was “dressed for success.” Today, the website means something different. Your Instagram feed is your new website and your actual website is your new portal. The first tip is most important: Get paid fast and make it easy. Figure out what your strategy is around credit card or ACH payments and offer that convenience. Tip two is equally important: Share what you do, but only show what’s awesome. I had a “Coming Soon” splash page with Drew McGukin Interiors logo for my entire first year. I was adamant about only showing professional imagery. I needed time to produce the work. Same goes for Instagram nowadays. Elevate your images to something professional or don’t post in your feed. Build your brand via Stories or other media, then tag back to a professionalized IG grid even if it’s meager in the beginning. And, no goofy headshots. Be direct, elegant, and professional.” —Drew McGukin, founder, Drew McGukin Interiors


On creating a vision

“The first thing you have to do when starting a design firm is to really define what your goals and motivation for doing so are. A clear vision is so important. The goals that will define your business and brand should be long term goals. You (hopefully) are not starting a business that will only last two or three years, so set goals way beyond that for yourself. I have always lived by the ‘if you reach a goal, it’s time to set two more’ mentality.” —Shaun Smith, founder, Shaun Smith Home

On managing growth

“When managing growth in my business, for me the key is to assess, adjust, and adapt as quickly as possible. If you ignore it, chaos ensues. The key that has kept me (for the most part) from firing employees, but has also helped when hiring, is setting expectations from the beginning. You have to make each team member accountable. This has taken me a lot of practice, but when I delegate something to someone, I give them a completion date, and remind them I am letting it go and won’t check on it until it’s completed on that date. Of course, mistakes are made; however, it’s part of letting go and growing your business.” —Shaun Smith, founder, Shaun Smith Home

“As to employees, our philosophy is that each person should feel ownership of the projects that they are working on and not feel as if they are being dictated to. Here at Cullman & Kravis we work as teams and each team member is heavily involved in the evolution of the project, from scheming to preparation of proposals to placing and following up on orders.” —Ellie Cullman, cofounder, Cullman & Kravis

On client strategy and relations

“Think about what your approach, philosophy, and your niche is going to be so you know how to sell your services and how you’re going to pick your clients. It’s very easy to say yes to every project and every client in the beginning, but the reality is things you say yes to may be syphoning your time and energy from the projects you really want to do and ones that will help build your portfolio.” —Stevie McFadden, founder, Flourish Spaces

“Be responsive. I rarely let an email sit for more than five hours if I can help it—unless it comes in late at night. I think that sense of urgency is a key to my success, really. People ask me that all the time and I just say, ‘Answer the telephone.’ Not that people call anymore, but back in the day you could always get me on the phone. I wasn’t afraid of it. That’s the key: responsiveness. I have to give credit to Bunny Williams and John Rosselli. I’ve had the chance to work for some real pros and absorbed how they did things and modeling myself after them.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi

“It is important to make sure that you prepare the necessary paperwork for your clients. Once a client decides on a purchase, we prepare a very detailed proposal for them with information in regards to the vendor, style, color, etc. A proposal should also request a deposit. The deposit would be based on what the vendor requires to put the order in process or the timing of when you will need to pay the vendor.” —Ellie Cullman, cofounder, Cullman & Kravis

“The biggest tip [which] has landed me more clients, closed more deals, and cemented long-standing relationships: Send a handwritten thank-you note. I started my company with branded stationary that we use to this day. Two of my first five clients selected me over more established designers because I sent a handwritten thank-you note immediately after our first meeting. I am still working with both of those clients nine years later—multiple homes, multiple large projects, and many referrals. If I had to recap my goals for kicking off business in a sentence or two, I’d say that I was hyper-focused on presenting a professional look, attitude, and overall impression. I wanted every piece of paper and email to exude an elevated sense of style and professionalism in the same way I pushed my finished design work to resonate as measured, thoughtful, distinctive, and above average. In the beginning, I had myself to sell and presented as polished, poised, and professional across all channels. Whenever in doubt, I reverted to the more conservative choice because elegance is closely aligned to restraint and I ultimately desired a wealthy, sophisticated clientele. I live by two childhood mantras from my wonderful mom: ‘Surround yourself with successful people,’ and ‘It’s okay to stand out, but don’t stick out like a sore thumb.'” —Drew McGukin, founder, Drew McGukin Interiors


On outsourcing operations

“You need to learn about all parts of running the business, but quickly decide what to outsource. I spent the first two years doing my own bookkeeping and it’s my idea of the third ring of hell, but I did it long enough to really understand the different levers of my business, so now that I have outsourced it to a bookkeeper, I can look very quickly at the health of my business and if something doesn’t look right. The same for purchasing and expediting. Do everything in a business long enough to learn it, but no longer than necessary. Outsource the stuff that are not your strong suits. Try to get the business to the point where you’re focusing your energy on only what you can uniquely do.

There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. So many people have done this before. I have found other designers to be a bit opaque in terms of sharing how things get done, but that’s not true across the board. Find people who have a different target market and learn from their experience; but I also looked for businesses that were in the same space, but maybe a year ahead of me in terms of growth. Keep yourself open to learning from other industries. I have a friend who is starting a PR firm and I learned a lot of things [from her] that I could apply to my design business. Cast a wide net, be curious, and adapt to what works for your market and your clients.” —Stevie McFadden, founder, Flourish Spaces

On transparency in billing

“I think so many decorators are very vague about how they work; I’m not. I’m incredibly specific, and it’s not particularly complicated, and I’m very transparent. Decorators have gotten into trouble over the years because they’re not [transparent]. It’s easier to be transparent with your markups. You have to keep your clients happy, but you have to keep your vendors happy. Being responsive and sympathetic to their needs is important, and you have to walk a tightrope because you’re trying to get the best that you can from the people who are helping you but understand their limitations and get the best you can for your clients.

I tell the client what [products and services] cost, where we’re getting them from, and the markup. There are certain stores that will offer designers 30 percent or 20 percent or no discount at all, and I’m very specific about everything and letting everyone know exactly what we are getting. I speak in net prices all the time. When I’m in a shop, all the time people will look at you and just talk in net pricing. Decorators work very hard and they’re entitled to the money they make for what they’re doing. It’s certainly not private equity.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi

On starting a business and managing growth

“Part is luck and part is instinct. I am a big believer in finding great people and giving them a long leash and letting them do it. I have tried to do that. Albert Hadley always used to whisper in my ear, ‘Stay small.’ I think there’s so much truth in that. For the most part I have stayed somewhat small. Being direct and being decisive and quickly knowing the answer to solutions helps. I always think of Anna Wintour: She knows she’s incredibly decisive—and so am I, for the most part. It helps in business.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi

“The one thing that was a surprise for me was understanding there’s a difference between being a designer and being an operator of a business. You can be really talented at what you do, but having a really great understanding of the process of business—and this is not the sexy part of design—but how you’re going to manage clients, projects, and vendors. Thinking about pricing in advance and how you’re going to handle things. If you can give some thought in advance to the function of the business, it will help you be more efficient which helps you free up your energy, time, and creative juices to still do what you love to do. If you’re not careful, those administrative things can really suck you into the weeds, and when that happens, I find my creative juices are the first to go.” —Stevie McFadden, founder, Flourish Spaces


“It’s interesting what’s happening to our design world. Honestly, there are way too many people out there wanting to be designers and there just aren’t enough clients. If anyone asks what they need to start their own design firm, I’d say they aren’t ready to start their own design firm! They should spend at least five years learning the ropes about real design and decorating with actual clients with fully developed schemes and not just buying pretty things online.” —Frank De Biasi, founder, Frank de Biasi Interiors

On managing staff

“It’s important to find good people that you trust and who care about the brand. I try to recognize, fairly compensate, be inclusive, and stress how much of it is a team effort and how it’s not just me. It’s everyone. To err is human and to forgive is divine, and not that people make mistakes all the time, but it does happen. I try to see where the mistake happens, and it’s usually in a breakdown in communication, so I try to have as many channels of communication as possible. It’s really tough this day in age.

We’re doing a project on Block Island, and it’s a hard place to get to. There’s one ferry a year it feels like. We just had some box springs and mattresses, and looking at the height of headboards, the headboards could only be 14 inches tall and the mattresses were 30 inches tall. The client ordered them and sent an email to an assistant and didn’t cc me, and I swear if I had seen it, I would have caught it. To the annoyance of some I’m asking, ‘Please put me on all the emails, because I would rather just see what’s happening.’ Now there’s text, DM on IG, phone, email…please just keep it to email because it’s a format where you can document and follow up. If it’s a text, it disappears. Things happen, and it’s best to find a solution for the problem and move forward rather than wallow in the problem itself.” —Miles Redd, cofounder, Redd Kaihoi

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How A Unique Approach to Cash Flow Has Helped This Architect Construct Her Business

How A Unique Approach to Cash Flow Has Helped This Architect Construct Her Business
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Leslie Saul & Associates, Inc. is an architecture and interior design firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts that primarily services the greater Boston and Miami areas. The business focuses on renovations including offices, restaurants, retail stores, senior living facilities, private homes, universities, churches, and synagogues, among many other building types. Founder Leslie Saul says that having such a broad practice has helped her maintain a business for more than 26 years. Additionally, her attention to quality and value have brought back return customers and helped retain long-term employees.  

Why did you start your business?

I went to Rhode Island School of Design. When I applied, I wanted to be a painter. I took a gap year and realized that I’m a people person. I got my degree in architecture. Even when I was in school, I was really focused on interiors, partly because of my painting background.

I worked my way up in the architecture business, working for various firms. I talked to a friend from a big firm who mentioned a model shop they didn’t really use. He mentioned that maybe I should start my own firm. Once I had that space, I asked my previous firm to buy me out. I wanted my firm to be family-friendly, with flextime and things like that. Those things are very common now, but at the time, I had a four-year-old and I felt limited by not having them, even though I was a principal at my old firm.

How did you fund the business at the start?

I used my savings. And, in 1992, American Express gave me credit even though I had no income. My husband worked, so we had one income, but we gave up everything, from newspapers to dinners out. Within six months of starting, we were cash flow neutral.

How do you manage cash flow?

We ask for retainers from our clients. It needs to be enough money to show a seriousness of purpose, even though it might not necessarily cover the costs for the first month. When we get inquiries, we sometimes do some initial low-cost services that get clients comfortable working with us

To help with cash flow, I don’t take a big salary to keep a lot of cash in the business. I’ve never missed a paycheck over 26 years, except for my own. I’ve learned that people will stick with you if you stick with them. If you lay people off at the start of a slow down, you may not be able to hire people when you need them. Though that may negatively impact cash flow, we have the benefit of keeping our team together and being able to produce very quickly when new clients bring us on board.

What’s the most challenging thing about running the company?

Continuing to grow the quality of projects and clients. I’ve never focused on quantity. When I worked for larger firms that do focus on quantity, it felt like I was just keeping the underlings motivated versus getting my own satisfaction from any of the work.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running the company?

Seeing the successes and development of the people who have worked for us over the years. Not only the long-timers, but also the people who move away and call me and say, “I always say to myself, what would Leslie do?” That’s very rewarding and I feel very proud of them!

There’s no better gratification than seeing a finished product and knowing how you’ve fulfilled a client’s needs and wants and overcome their challenges. Just this morning, we were talking to an old client who said, “I’m not sure if I ever told you how much we love this and how perfect everything you did was!”

Resources Page Can’t get enough? We’ve got tons of business tools and resources right here.

What’s the biggest mistake you made when starting out?

We’ve made some economic mistakes like setting a fee too low or not really understanding the scope before starting a project. I was and probably still am easily bullied when it comes to money, especially when it comes to doing work for larger firms.

What’s the smartest thing you did when starting out?

I asked a friend to help me and he said I needed a good phone number. It was so memorable! People still say they call that number when they try to reach us, even though we moved 19 years ago!

Also, I hired people who filled my weaknesses. I think a lot of entrepreneurs hire themselves, especially in my industry. The smartest thing you can do is to be honest with yourself about what your weaknesses are and hire people that are good at those things. Together, you’re better than anyone individually.

What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?

You will do great! Always believe in yourself! Always do the right thing. Always stay true to your values and remember your reputation can’t be rebuilt.

What’s next for Leslie Saul & Associates, Inc.

I’ll be turning 65 and I want to keep this going. I really enjoy what I do. I like the idea that design services should not just be the exclusive benefit of wealthy people. I feel like there are others who have needs that we can help meet. So, I feel like I haven’t finished and there’s a lot in our future.  

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Ashley Sweren

Ashley Sweren

Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing (http://www.fireworkwritingonline.com/), located in San Jose, California.

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Continue reading How A Unique Approach to Cash Flow Has Helped This Architect Construct Her Business

Business by Accident or by Design?

Some designers love goal setting and thrive on reaching lofty standards. They bask in the glow of their creative and financial accomplishments.

While other designers have great difficulty and hold many fears around making a commitment to their business and personal success.

Continue reading Business by Accident or by Design?

How smart is your sofa?

The way technology is impacting the furniture industry and the manner in which we buy furniture

Until even a decade ago, no one thought AR-VR (augmented reality-virtual reality) would change the way the furniture business operated or the way we’d shop for a sofa.

“When our parents bought a bed that turned out to be too big for the room, they would probably arrange their lives around it,” says Ramakant Sharma, head of technology and operations and co-founder of Livspace, which offers end-to-end home interiors solutions. Livspace launched, what they claim is, the world’s first design automation platform, called Canvas. It allows home owners to design, decorate and furnish their homes virtually. “Today, consumers want to have good-looking homes. At the same time, there is a massive information asymmetry: if they are buying a piece of furniture at a particular price, they have no way of validating the price,” says Sharma.



Livspace solves this and other issues by allowing customers, who are assigned to a designer, to convey their ideas and have the designer realise their vision for them. The designer then uses the inbuilt software to take into account the right measurements of the space and choose items from the catalogue to design the home. This is done first in 2D, then in 3D, which is accessible on their website. Customers can walk into a virtual reality vision of their home (currently available at the Livspace centres in select cities including Bengaluru). Any changes can be incorporated.

The minute the customer places or changes an order, it goes all the way up to the factory and the warehouse. The time taken for delivery is a reflection of the product that takes the longest time to manufacture in the cart.

“The price point is a simple arithmetic summation of all the items used in the design. Technology is the key in the design tool. It plays three roles here, in customer relationship management, visualisation (which includes virtual reality and order tracking) and supply chain management. This way, the information asymmetry is also decreasing with time, as the customer knows why each item costs as much as it does,” says Sharma.

Urban Ladder is yet another tech-based furniture retailer which is taking on the challenge of integrating technology across four aspects: of customer experience, supply chain systems, visualisation through AR and VR and retail systems.

Look and feel

Urban Ladder began with their e-tail platform and application, and evolved to include AR. “We first built an app calling Living Spaces, which enabled customers to visualise sofas in their homes through AR. It allowed customers to understand how the sofa fits into the house and how it looks in their space, but not what it feels like. Obviously, tech has not solved the third question yet,” says Rajiv Srivatsa, co-founder.

The technology also allowed customers to change settings according to their preferences, with a 90% accuracy through AR. “Then in 2015, we expanded the technology to allow customers to see how wardrobes fit into their houses. And we have now taken the next big step, six months ago, by building a VR application in our physical stores that allows customers to experience, virtually, how a product would look in their home by simulating the space in the technology,” he says.

 Since VR is expected to take a few more years to become mainstream. Urban Ladder is hosting the device in their physical stores and the sofa is the first product they want to perfect. “But in the next few years, AR is going to become part of mobile phone technology, like it already is in the latest iPhone and Google Pixel variants. These phones can deduce the dimensions of physical places, so people can get a sense of how products fit into their homes, through their phones and through our app, which will be customised to AR,” says Srivatsa.

At the same time, they also plan to continue investing in applications that will optimise the supply chain and delivery side of things as well as data access for consultants. “This is hard to build because the entire ecosystem has to be aligned and built at one go. This means that there must not be loss of information between the designer and the consumer and the manufacturer,” says Sharma.

That’s why Livspace used a cloud-based system to align the ecosystem, cutting delivery time of the final product to just weeks. The technology is likely to be refined and deepened in the future, as design education seeks to impart more holistic insights into furniture design. Which is why it’s important to get design students on board with the idea.

Customers still like to touch and feel the furniture they are buying. “One of the projects that I ran in Srishti, which addressed the concept of online brands seeking to expand offline in order to offer a tactical experience, resulted in a unique idea. The student who came up with it suggested that brands could, instead of building a showroom, hire a few hotel suites curated by the brands, in order to offer the consumer a real-time experience,” explains Janak Mistry, design principal at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

 Because furniture is a high-cost venture, for both buyer and seller, the solution is to get everything right the first time. This is where technology helps, in ensuring the system is well connected, right from the visualisation to the supply-chain.

Technology in sustainable architecture

Architect Sampath Reddy, founder of Pop-Up Housing, and Program Manager, Built Environment at Selco Foundation, is currently working on micro-rack supported building using heavy-duty slotted angle frames and palette racks. Inspired by storage solutions in industrial warehouses, buildings as high as 20 floors can be built with this technology. Slotted angle frames can also be used to make everything fro mezzanine floors, modular units, furniture, and bunk beds.

These can then be combined with other materials such as wood or bamboo for the interiors. Sampath says he uses Google Maps extensively to look for underutilized spaces in the city where these housing solutions can be applied.

Sampath, who also works as a Program Manager, Built Environment at Selco Foundation, He is now working on using these new-age building materials for low-cost, sustainable construction, He is targeting the slums -dwelling communities and as well schools and health centres in rural areas, including medical centres, which and medical centres who need portable housing. Furniture is integrated into the construction.

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Continue reading How smart is your sofa?

How to Get Tradeshow Marketing Right So Your Business Shines

When you’re attending a tradeshow, the first impression you obtain from a booth really sets the tone. When appearing at a tradeshow, be sure that your setup is as organized and as vibrant as possible. Displays that are rich in color and brightness, but minimal in clutter, are what typically catches an onlooker’s eye. It is important to be as engaging as possible, refraining from sitting idle. The more connections you make, the bigger of an impression you will end up making in the market overall.

Continue reading How to Get Tradeshow Marketing Right So Your Business Shines

Three Rustic Design Tips That Will Wow Clients

This classic style is more versatile than homeowners may think. Here’s how to make it work:

Though modern design may be all the rage right now, rustic design has become a classic interior design trend for its charm and no-frills beauty. There are various subclasses of rustic design, from industrial rustic to rustic-chic: Industrial rustic mixes metals with natural fibers and neutral colors, while rustic-chic opts for blending contemporary and antique pieces with clean lines and a neutral color palette.

Continue reading Three Rustic Design Tips That Will Wow Clients

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