photography by Sarah Winchester
I’ve wanted to write this post for a while and just have not had the time to sit down and think about it properly until yesterday! I think that working with a designer can be intimidating and a bit daunting for some people. And the process can get expensive if you don’t know the best way to get the most bang for your buck. So I talked with my team about what we thought are the most important things for people to know BEFORE they engage a designer to work on their home so we could share it with you. I hope this is helpful and gives you a little insight into the process and how things work and how to make this relationship as productive and positive as can be!
Doing whole rooms, and multiple rooms, adds up quickly. So while the budget number you gave us may feel like a HUGE amount for you, it may not be a realistic number in which to get everything you want done, done. You have to include our fees, shipping costs, installation costs, etc. and since we do this day in and day out, we do know what’s possible and what’s not. So even if you’re picking all reasonably priced items from say, Pottery Barn, the number at the end may shock you a bit. I’d much rather see someone do one room at a time and spend well than do multiple rooms at once on the cheap. You will appreciate this in the long run, trust me.
When it comes to the big important pieces- sofas, dining tables, beds- items you want to last a LONG time- spend more on better quality and save on accent items like side tables and accessories. This also goes for items you absolutely LOVE– if it makes your heart really sing, buy it and try to find a compromise with something else in the house you can save on. You won’t regret it, but you may regret not buying that PERFECT vintage rug on Etsy that will be gone forever if someone else buys it first!
We do this for a living, so we DO know what we’re doing most of the time! Trust us if we strongly suggest something. If you absolutely HATE something, that is absolutely fair, but if something feels a little outside your comfort zone, give it some time and consider it thoroughly. I can’t tell you how many times the one thing the client was scared to do turned out to be their absolute favorite thing in their home!
The more inspiration and direction you can give us, the better the outcome! It seems like a client with no opinion would be a dream, but it’s actually much harder (for me at least!) When pinning images, be sure to note what about the image you like– especially if it’s a specific piece. You may have loved the wall color, but we thought you liked the rug and then we’ve spent time picking out items based on something you may not even love. Also be sure to have a board of things you HATE. It’s so helpful! One time a client had done this for us and had animal print as a “dislike” and THANK GOODNESS, because otherwise I would have certainly tossed in some leopard! Just because I like it doesn’t mean you need to!
The budgets and timelines they show on HGTV are for TV and NOT real life! In most cases, the numbers I see are off by way more than double what it actually costs to renovate in my area of the country. Also, the furniture and accessories are staged and not part of the “budget” discussed and probably marketing placement. It’s SO frustrating to have people think that is actually costs $3,500 to re-wire an entire house and only 6 weeks to do a gut renovation. It sets everyone up for disappointment. So watch these shows for entertainment only, not education!
The more options you want to see and more revisions we do, the more it costs. Hence my point about doing your research and coming into this prepared! It’s simply a numbers game. Sometimes people ask us for ten different versions of a space because they really have no idea what they want and then are surprised when they get our bill– but like anyone who bills hourly, time is money! The more clarity you can provide about your desires, the lower your time billing will be! So give some really good thought to what you want before you ask your designer to work on your space. And if you aren’t sure, ask your designer to look through your Pinterest with you and help you decipher the images you’ve identified as liking!
People get excited to work with us and then immediately sad when they find out we have a waitlist of 6+ months and they’ll have to put their plans on hold or find someone else if they have a strict time line. For example, people will call in September and say they want their house done before the holidays. Not only is that timeline incredibly tight if we WERE available immediately, but most designers do have a bit of a wait, especially if your project is small. Bigger projects will tend to get priority because they will keep staff busy longer and create more income for the business. And this is, after all, a business. Which leads me into my next point…
Being a designer seems super fun and like a slightly frivolous endeavor, and while we recognize that we’re not curing cancer here, this is our livelihood. Whether a business of one or ten, designing a home is like 20% creativity and 80% paperwork and regular ol’ business stuff. It’s a lot of work, which is why you are hiring us, right? So please keep that in mind. Also, it’s upsetting to us when clients say “well, I want you to design this, but only spend X number of hours on it”. It’s equivalent of going to your dentist and saying, “I’d like you to fill my cavity but I only want you to spend 20 minutes on it.”
If you are doing a big project and plan to use a designer, involve them early. It ALWAYS helps to have another set of trained eyes on a set of plans or at a walk through. I can’t tell you the number of things we’ve caught over the years even with the best architects! They just see spaces differently than we do. It also can be cost effective, not only in catching possible furniture, material or lighting layout issues, but also in replacing items you may have just picked on your own that don’t then work the design.
Even retail items can have long lead times, especially upholstered goods. Trade only items will typically have a lead time of 8-10 weeks PLUS transport so you have to factor that into your timeline. So just be prepared to wait for what you really want. Also, you have to allow the designer proper time to flesh out their concept, so ask how long they expect it to take to formulate a design and do revisions before ordering can begin. And things WILL get delayed. They just will. Know that many times this is out of the designer’s hands and causes them stress too.
It can be intimidating to work with a designer, and you may feel badly if something they proposed just isn’t you. But we are a service industry and we really want you to be happy- so tell us! We won’t be (too) offended :) The outcome of this relationship should leave both parties happy, so make sure you are clear about direction and dislikes.
If you have any other questions about working with a designer, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer!
Also, tune into my Stories this afternoon for a delayed, but fun, Weekly Wants Thanksgiving tabletop design that won’t break the bank but looks expensive! Sneak peek below!
Great read! We are in the process of purchasing a new home and I was contemplating hiring an interior designer but have no idea where to start. Are there any websites you recommend in trying to locate designers in your area? Also, would love to know what your thoughts are on hiring a virtual designer?
Is there mark up the client pays on to -the -trade items as well? Or is the only fee paid to the designer their hourly or project fee?
What have you found to be the best way to keep track of time spent on a project?
I planned to hire an interior designer to do the interiors for my new apartment. I was unsure whether working with a designer might come out well as I planned. But now, having read this post, I am confident that I will be able to work together with trust. In the end, trust is what results in a good output right. Thanks, Erin for showing us the other side.
Ramya Srinivas xx
Spot on. I’ve been trying to write this post all year. Now I will just refer my clients to this! Thanks, Alison
I feel like the majority of this post would apply to any service industry. I’m a corporate lawyer, and I wish I could tell all of my clients all of this before we start working on any transaction! Maybe just in a different context. Hiring any service professional late in the process, or telling them “I want you to do this (and please do an excellent job) but I want you to only spend X hours” absolutely destroys our ability to perform at a high level. The best is when people bring us in early in the process so we can avoid issues before they happen. Completely agree with all of this!
You mentioned that the HGTV budgets are vastly underpriced. Why do you think they claim such unrealistic budgets?
I don’t work for HGTV so I’m guessing, but I think often the budget they show is materials and not inclusive of labor.
Such terrific advice, thank you!
You should spend more money on better quality for important pieces that you want to last a long time
And, that, folks…is what It’s ALL about. Well stated in any layman’s language. Kudos! franki
Thank you, Erin, for this very realistic post! With your permission, i would like to share this with potential clients. As always, I find your advice to Designers honest, real and inspiring!
Thank you Erin for this article. It really reflects the life of a designer and seeing all described in your words – in black and white – is just – AMAZING! Thanks!
Fantastic fantastic fantastic. GREAT post.
Lol can I also add – please do not expect an interior designer you know through some vague coworker or acquaintance to help you design your home for free or for a ridiculously low fee. To echo your statement this is my job, not a hobby!
ALL of the things! Thank you EG for writing such a wonderful post! Like many people who have left comments I too am an Interior Designer and ALL the things!!!! Be they corporate or residential clients the same stuff happens…
What a great post!!! I felt like I was reading my own thoughts. Thank you for writing it. I always ask my clients for a budget, but it seems like they think I just want to spend the money if they tell me a budget. In reality, I don’t want to show them options so far out of their range that they are disappointed in the lower priced options that follow. I think your post clears up a lot of that question! I’d like to share it with all potential clients. THANK YOU!
I have worked with many contractors and several designers as a customer over the years. Answering the budget question is so difficult! Not because I am being coy about the money I have available, but because sometimes I don’t know what is realistic esp when anything more complicated than painting is being done by a contractor! I try to be as transparent as possible but often at the beginning of a project I am looking for feedback from experts in order to calculate my budget.
Would you be willing to share/write about your cost structure? I amin the trade and every client/project is different. Currently hourly + mark up or flat fee + mark up but I’m a small operation (hoping to grow) and always curious on how bigger teams work.
Omg, can I please plagiarize every word of this and attach it to my proposals?! Well said, thank you.
Amen, sister, I couldn’t agree with you more!!! I think setting expectations with clients from the outset is crucial.
Great post! Erin, once a designer has started on a project- say a living room, what is a reasonable amount of time for it to be completed?
Hi Darcy – I’m a designer, and I read your questions a little differently than Erin did, so just chiming in, in case it’s helpful. It depends on the designer and the scope of the project, but we typically tell our clients to expect a space like a living room to take 3-5 months from our first meeting to final completion – that is, all furniture, window treatments, and accessories in place. Depending on how decisive the client is and the designer’s workload, the initial meetings, measurements, and design plan/selection process is usually about 2-4 weeks. The payment processing and ordering takes another few days or up to a week, depending on how quickly the client pays and where the orders are coming from – it can be longer for completely custom upholstery orders because of the level of detail required. The lead times for upholstery, window treatments and case goods can be 2-4 months (even from non-trade sources – Pottery Barn and Serena and Lily upholstery takes 8-10 weeks). Plus, you need to factor in delays and shipping times. We’ve had custom dining chairs take 6 months, and it was totally out of our control. Installation of 1 room can be done in 1-2 days usually, depending on scheduling of electricians, curtain hangers, art installers, etc. Hope that helps!
Sorry, that should’ve read 3-6 months. So if you want your living room definitely done by Christmas, you need to start shopping for a designer in May (if they don’t have a waitlist).
Totally depends on the client and designer. If you are decisive, I can probably design a standard size living room in 12-15 hours. Then quoting and ordering takes 4-6 hours depending on how complicated and custom things are. But I’ve spent 30+ hours on revisions for people who can’t decide!
Thank you for this! I am a professional designer with my own firm and this is spot on! This post should be required reading for all potential new clients.
I would really love to start working with a designer that we can build a relationship with over time. Right now, my husband and I need help with adding finishing pieces to our house and with styling and placing our furniture. But down the road, we want to re-do the kitchen and bathrooms. I would love to have an already established relationship with a designer who knows our style and our house. I would love to read a post about how to find/pick a designer and what are some good questions to ask them.
The issue is seasoned designers may not be able to do just accessories (I don’t at this point- I have a 20 hour minimum to start any job) . But a newer designer may be amenable to doing this, especially if there is a bigger job down the road!
Very helpful. I know there are lower cost options; email and/ or phone consults, work with store designers (do they even do that anymore?) and DIY. But you do get what you pay for.
I’ve learned a lot reading blogs and design mags but I would never get all the tiny finishing details that can make or break a design. I know I don’t have the patience (or skill) to fully execute my vision. I can get sort of, kind of, maybe if I squint … what I was shooting for. But it doesn’t function the same.
Ain’t nothing like the real thing baby…
Great post – I’ve worked with a number of designers, some good and candidly, some less so, and this was a great gut check on expectations. Funnily enough, I’ve been wanting to do a “What I wish designers would really know about clients” post as a result of one of those interactions but blogging has fallen by the wayside as of late. Appreciated this insight and agree with one of the previous commenters, one of your best posts for sure.
Every designer is so vastly different in requirements and minimums- I have clients who hired me after another designer told them they could only do their home for a really high amount. So our client bases are clearly different!
So appreciate this post-especially the part about “please only spend ‘X’ amount of hours” and the dentist analogy. Thanks for taking the time to write it!
This is absolutely one of your best posts. I used an interior designer for the first time ever several years ago- great experience by the way. Everything you have said is so, so, true and I would have loved to have had your words of wisdom back then. People take note and listen to this sage advice!
Everything, just YES! I am a fellow interior designer. You, and the team, outlined everything to a tee! Thank you for putting it all into words. With your permission, I’d like to post a link to this on our website. Would that be okay?
Of course! Thanks for sharing!
Are you able to share some realistic budgets for renovations? I have no idea and we are moving into a new house (it’s an old house). I’m tackling room by room but I have zerio idea of what my budget should be when reaching out to designers.
It depends vastly on where you are located in the country- areas with high real estate prices have higher labor costs and areas with reasonable real estate pricing has more reasonable labor costs, so what is “average” here in Boston may not reflect the prices in your area (if you are elsewhere)
Agreed! This is what has often kept me from working with a designer, because I’m not really sure what is realistic and I don’t want to insult them with my budget, or waste their time if my budget is not in the range.
Every designer has a different view on what is a doable budget and what is t. Some still only work with trade resources, some have a minimum requirement, but some will work within whatever you need to! The more we’ll known or experienced the designer, the higher the minimums will probably be.
Yes! I have this same question. I’m prepared to wait and save to get the room/home I love but I have no idea how much to estimate/save for each space. Thanks for asking this question Amy.
Love this idea!
Amen, sister. I woke up to a client being upset about a lead time and installation schedule, even though it has been highlighted in every estimate, revision, proposal and contract since the very beginning. Each revision adds time. When I say 8-10 weeks, I do not mean from the day of our first meeting. It is from order date. Oy.
Love this post! I have been working with a decorator for several years. I remember being so timid to paint my breakfast room chairs the color she suggested. I painted every chair a different color (some of the colors I thought would work best). Of course, she was right. I completely trust her now!
People who work in this industry tend to be the kind of people who can visualize things better than others. Many people struggle with picturing what I room or piece will look like completed, but I can totally see a space in my mind done and that’s why I do what I do!
Do you think you were like that from the start or did you learn to do it? I wonder because I feel very affected by how things look, especially colors and lighting, but I have trouble envisioning a finished space.
Or maybe it’s budget? I am trying to put together various rooms in my home and have a very tight budget. It would work out much easier if I could just stroll into Jayson Home. Or buy the dresser I want from Room and Board. Or get custom window treatments.
Oh and I feel it should be required by law to have builders work with designers on layout. My living room is so hard to work with because there are two openings. It’s very hard to find the best placement for seating!
Great post! Thank you for taking the time to write it.