business advice | Aug 8, 2023 |
Expert advice to decline too-small projects seems risky. What am I missing?

Dear Sean,

Your recent column about the powder room does not consider whether the client is reasonable and easy to work with, and whether they will move in the future or buy a second home. By turning down this project, as you recommended, a designer risks causing that client to never call again. In addition, the aesthetic the designer worked so hard to cultivate throughout the house may be completely compromised, also leaving a bad taste. Finally, putting in a smart toilet or other smart amenities in the powder room may lead the client to think about upgrading the amenities—or refresh the design—in the rest of their home.

All of that is to say that chucking a client in the hope of only taking big jobs, especially in this difficult economic climate, may not be the best idea.


Dear Second-Guessing,

Creative business in general and the interior design business specifically is different from other forms of business. I completely understand the instinct to not let an opportunity pass by, and the “you never know where it might lead” mentality. To a point, designers making their way to the stage need to take those smaller jobs so that they can, in fact, reach their destination.

The premise of my previous column is that butterflies cannot eat leaves—though they can remember every day spent as a caterpillar, when they still could. The designer I advised in that column has built a reputation as an elite designer in her market capable of spending her client’s money better than they ever could—likely hundreds of thousands, if not much more than a million, dollars per project. For that designer, it is not about proving she belongs on the stage as much as it is about owning it. Similarly, nobody is going to Taylor Swift’s concert because they hope she might put on a good show at the local music hall. Fans are paying exorbitant amounts because they know she will wow them at every stadium she plays around the world.

You’re also making some likely false assumptions about the situation I addressed in June. The first is that the good client will be just as agreeable during a tiny project like a powder room. But the difference in scope reflects the distinction between design and decorating—a great designer sees the interplay of spaces and the beauty of each space in its relationship to the rest of the house; an amazing decorator creates singularly beautiful spaces that may or may not tell a story with the other areas of the house. A client might be amenable when challenged by the enormity of transforming a whole house, but could be a nightmare when given the opportunity to focus on the minutiae of a relatively tiny element. Couple this possibility with the knowledge that the designer will just not care enough about that space, and you have the risk of a disaster.

The irony is not that a designer risks larger opportunities by declining the micro-project; it is that she risks the former if she does the latter. I have seen it more times than not—mailing in the work creates a terrible rift when it does not go well. The great client feels dismissed, even ignored, and is almost forced to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if a junior designer is able to do the micro-project well, it most certainly does not mean she will be capable of handling the project the main designer has built her business around. Taylor Swift is not worrying about Beabadoobee taking her next tour from her.

In my experience, the notion of “incremental change” is an oxymoron. Doing over the powder room with smart amenities is not likely to inspire the next significant project—maybe just a few other micro-projects. Transformational changes require gravitas from both client and designer alike. It is about jumping in, not wading down the steps. That’s why relationships and clarity of purpose matter so much. Butterflies see a world caterpillars can only imagine, and that world is what clients crave from butterflies. Eating more leaves just does not get you there.

Homepage image: ©Inamar/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.

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