business advice | Mar 21, 2023 |
How can I use the design of my own home to launch my design career?

Dear Sean,

I’ve recently started my design business, and I don’t have much work coming in yet. I know that good things take time, but I’m struggling to know where to invest that will actually move the needle for my new firm. Everything I read says that I should be out and about networking—but there’s only so much mingling I can do, and that still leaves me waiting for the next job to come in. I don’t have a ton of money to put into it, but I’ve heard that investing in your own home and trying to get that published can be a good way to attract potential clients. It’d be a bit of a splurge to do it right—should I go for it anyway, or is that a waste of my resources at this stage?

Investment Strategy

Dear Investment Strategy,

My work is not to figure out how to bring clients to your door; it is to help figure out who exactly is going to answer. That said, there has to be a connection between the two. So the real question for me is: What kind of designer are you?

Let us break designers into three categories, using well-known designers as examples. First is the type of designer who imagines a given space as they see it, using broad guardrails to stay true to their vision. Vicente Wolf is a prime example—he is known for saying that client discovery meetings are more for the client than for him, because the clients ultimately wish to purchase his vision.

On the other end of the spectrum is the type of designer who views the work largely as a guided collaboration, where the client determines the course of design. Timothy Corrigan is a prime example, often sharing 15 or more different options of an item for a client to choose from—he is directing and editing, but his clients value being “in” the design process with him.

In the middle is the type of designer who learns enough about their clients to imagine the house the client would have imagined for themselves if they could. Accomplishing this work takes a deep commitment to the intimacy of relationship and discovery, while still maintaining enough distance to create what a client cannot see until the designer presents it to them. Nate Berkus is a prime example of this way of designing.

To answer your question, investing in your home is an amazing idea—provided it can support the design story you wish to tell. Many, many designers have used their homes to launch and further their careers, including Wolf, Corrigan and Berkus. However, the stories they tell about their homes could not be more different.

Ultimately, only clients who will see you as Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s everyday alias) will ever show up at your door. Unless you take charge of the path to revealing that you are, in fact, Wonder Woman, you will never be successful. Selling sneakers to a dolphin is a fool’s errand—we do not need another round of portfolio images on Instagram. What we need is your voice and how you wish to be heard. If your home can do that for you, there really is no better money spent.

How you tell that story matters, too. Simply speaking to the qualities that make you unique isn’t enough. Consider this: If the opposite of what you say cannot be true, you have not told me anything about who you are. Saying you offer “beautiful, bespoke luxury” means nothing, as its antithesis—ugly, plain and cheap—is nothing any designer would promise, so you’re making no unique value proposition. However, if you tell me you focus on whimsical, cozy, colorful design with lots of personality, I understand how your design work will differ from another professional promising sophisticated, sleek, neutral design with a minimalist sensibility.

Last, to paraphrase marketing icon Seth Godin: Talk to the smallest viable audience. You will likely never need 50 clients, let alone 15, in a year. Your power as a designer and the market you seek comes from the depth of idiosyncrasy of your design philosophy first, expression second. No matter what, it is your story and you have to go first.

Homepage image: ©Tostphoto/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.