I just received an odd email from a potential client asking if they can share my concept design presentation with other designers they are interviewing. I prepared the presentation free of charge in hopes of winning their business after a walk-through of their newly purchased property. What should I do now?
Sharing Isn’t Caring
Free work is only worth what you charge for it.
Before we continue, let me clarify a few things. First, my answer will address your business and its story, not that of the quality of your design and your talent. Second, it’s worth taking a moment to define what I believe a designer to be: While it is amazing to be able to source a wonderful antique mirror to fit on to a wall, design is about deciding that an antique mirror goes there in the first place. Your talent, wisdom and experience is what drives you to say, “An antique mirror goes there.” This ability—this gift—is by far the most valuable piece of any designer’s work. And you gave it away for free.
I can certainly sympathize with your confusion and frustration that a potential client would seek to use your concepts with another designer. I can also tell you that it is self-inflicted pain. The implication of giving away design is that potential clients must infer that you do not care about it—only what you do get paid for. By providing that first concept for free, you are communicating that instead of your vision, it is perhaps your time, your styling skills or your ability to sell product that matter most. So please do not be shocked when they ask to use freely what you gave them gratis.
The ramifications are far greater than just giving away the most valuable piece of what you do. Other designers may use your concept as a baseline to define their story—but if you can create a concept and deliver it before a potential client has decided to hire you, then how original is it? How well do you know them or the project such that you can be definitive in your vision after a single walk-through? It strains credibility as to the depth of that knowledge given when you deliver your design.
The process of design is itself a story, and you and your business are the storytellers. Only you can set the pacing and tension of the story your design will tell. By choosing not to allow your design to unfold as a story, you are permitting others to define how the story will be told. Simply, there is no there there, as you are defined in the eyes of others, and you must live with the consequence.
Please let this request by your potential client be a wake-up call to you and your business. The power of creativity is wholly dependent on the power you give it. You have chosen to give it none and now see how far you have been marginalized. Give away a general idea or two, sure, but a concept design presentation for which other designers quite literally charge hundreds of thousands of dollars? Never. Let this lesson be as painful as it can be so you can know that changing how you do things is a necessity, not an option.
Homepage image: ©Vladimir Gerasimov/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.