business advice | Jul 13, 2021 |
A client asks: My designer seems checked out. How do I move on?

Dear Sean,

Your most recent column about a designer feeling resentment after under-charging caught my eye. In full disclosure, I am a client, not a designer.

I have enjoyed a wonderful, 10-plus-year relationship with my designer. I never attempted to negotiate our numerous projects, paid on a monthly flat rate, because she was great to work with and reasonably priced. Six months ago, we embarked on our largest project yet—a high-budget custom build. Once again, I did not question or negotiate my designer’s monthly fees, even though they skyrocketed.

However, her behavior on this new project has radically changed along with her fees. She made it clear that there are now very strict boundaries regarding what she would (but mostly wouldn’t) do. More worrying, her engagement level with the project is bare minimum. It feels like she is kicking herself for not charging us higher fees in the past, and is using this latest project to make up for what she believes she is owed for her past efforts.

I have had numerous conversations with her about her lack of engagement, all of which are met with excuses and empty promises, and then the cycle continues. Despite my loyalty, common sense dictates I must cut my losses and find a new designer. She does amazing work, but this is not the experience I expect for the price I am paying. Yesterday, she told me our conversations are “demotivating” to her creativity. Do you have advice for me?

Over the Attitude

Dear Over the Attitude,

Very rarely do I ever get to hear directly from clients about their experience—so first, a moment of deep gratitude to you for writing in.

The entire point of any design business is to build a business for those who care the most. A few fascinating points that your question includes: First, you have a decade-plus relationship with your designer. Second, you never negotiated her fees in the past and thought them reasonable. And third, you have agreed to all of the strict boundaries and higher fees for this significant new project.

So to specifically answer your question—yes, it is time to cut your losses and find a new designer. While a relationship always goes both ways, your designer should be the professional in the room, but it sounds like she is insisting on being an amateur. You deserve better than that. I am intuiting that this is a hugely important project for you, and you want to be transformed by the experience. That is just not going to happen with your current designer.

But rather than spend time attempting to understand your current designer or lamenting the loss of your relationship with her, I am going to focus on how you can move forward and the questions you ought to ask your next designer.

If I could teach clients one thing, it’s to prepare for the process. Yes, you have to love the designer’s work, but you have to love the process more. Ask yourself how you like to make decisions. Do you like a ton of choices, or do you like to be guided? Imagine that you were climbing a steep mountain. Do you want a gentle hand on your back or a firm grip (or rope) pulling you up? Either way, you are going up.

Once you know how you like to make decisions, ask your designer about their design process—meaning, how do they go from inspiration to idea to concrete design? If the answer aligns with how you like to come to a completed design, then this designer might be for you; if not, run for the hills.

Designers charge in many different ways. Rather than asking how much, ask why. You are entitled to value each step of the way. Your designer needs to be able to defend their fees for each stage: design, production, installation. (For instance, if they charge hourly for design, it has to mean that they really want you involved in the design process.) Remember, the more hours spent, the more money the designer will make. Hourly implies that the idea is to spend a lot of time together; if you want to make efficient, informed decisions, but the fee is hourly, you have every right to ask why.

The best designers know themselves and their procedures well. They should be able to defend those procedures with far more than a “Trust me. Look at my portfolio. It will be great.” This is clearly not your first trip to the rodeo, but make sure you understand what the path will look like with your new designer.

One last piece of advice: Make the cost of your designer agnostic to the price of the project. Ask what it will take for your designer to do their best work and stake their reputation on the project. No more, no less. Remove all excuses for less than best. Let them earn permission to move forward after you have invested in their (and your) success. The designer for you will give you their number and value points along the way with impunity. That is integrity, and you will know it when it presents itself to you. When it does, let the rest take care of itself.

Homepage image: ©Alexugalek/Adobe Stock


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.