business advice | Sep 21, 2021 |
Designers everywhere are busy right now—but I’m not. Should I be worried?

Dear Sean,

Even the most cursory read of industry news makes one thing abundantly clear: Designers everywhere are busy. But here’s the thing—I’m not! I’ve got a few clients, like always, but the phone definitely isn’t ringing off the hook the way my design colleagues describe. Is that a sign that I should throw in the towel?

Behind the Curve

Dear Behind the Curve,

The cool kids’ club, well, is not. I have no doubt that some designers are really busy these days. The demand for an improved home and the issues many are confronting have absolutely made for a ripe environment for interior designers. The real question is whether you are doing the work you enjoy with the clients you have.

If you are pleased with the work and it is enough for you, what does it matter if others are busier than you? If there were ever a time to do only the work that matters for those who truly care about the work you do, it would be now. Instead, you have turned your business into a popularity contest and are willing to quit because it appears you might be losing. How about we leave high school to the teenagers?

Which brings me to conventions and thought processes that have long been stale and are now cancerous. If I hear one more time that a designer is bummed at their “conversion” rate, I will scream into my pillow. To state the obvious, they measure conversion as how often they get a potential client to say yes to being an actual client. This measure takes absolutely no account of whether it is a yes you actually want. And today, that yes cannot be more important to qualify.

While a client might enjoy your finished design, it is a huge question as to whether they will give you the kind of permission you need to get there. Such is the nature of the digital experience post-COVID. Clients know more and expect even more than that. So if there is no real synchronicity between how you work and how your clients would like you to work, the yes you receive will be awful and most likely soul-sucking for all involved.

Instead, how about making sure your potential clients understand who they need to be for you and your business, and who you’ll be for them. Yes, price and budget will be part of the conversation, but only in the context of what and how the work needs to come to be. Let success be when a potential client says that they really get what you do and what the experience will be like working with you. They will completely value why you get paid and when. They will know what matters to you as they go down the road of making the decisions you need them to make. They might decide that it is a road they don’t wish to travel down, but that will be OK. From there, you can actually be grateful for their self-awareness and know it is best not to work together.

Call it clarity of expression and the wisdom to know that you are not for everyone. From there, you can know that when the phone does ring, even if not that often, you will be confident in your ability to communicate what is necessary to fulfill your promise of a transformative experience. In other words, how about you focus on meaningful, purposeful conversation rather than volumes of platitudes? The irony of too many wrong yeses is the loneliness and depression of the idea that your work does not matter any more than, say, buying toothpaste.

Your work matters only because you say it does, and you have to make it so. No one needs what you do, today more than ever. If you want competent design, technology and retailer services (RH, West Elm and Design Within Reach, to name a few) make this more and more viable. The reason you exist is to develop relationships in a way that these businesses simply cannot: to enact transformation beyond beauty. If you choose to value your work relative to the outside, you will never be able to stand in your own light. What a shame. I, for one, hope you go the other way and find your path to a more authentic truth, plain for all to see. Let the rest take care of itself.

Homepage image: dottedyeti | 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.