business advice | Jun 28, 2022 |
My client is backing out of spending big on a project. What do I do?

Dear Sean,

I took on a client who said they wanted to renovate their entire kitchen—a new layout, new cabinets and countertops, the works. But now that we’ve done the design work, they’ve decided not to invest nearly as much as originally planned. Most significantly, they want to keep their existing cabinets and countertops rather than specifying new ones through our firm. I’ve been paid for my design work, but I am disappointed to be missing out on the markup I would have made from these orders, and on the photographs that I will no longer be able to take of this project.

My contract stipulates that the client must do the whole room in order to sign on with us. But what am I actually going to do now that they’ve backed out—take them to court? And how do I make sure I’m not in this situation again?

High and Dry

Dear High and Dry,

Live by the product sales sword, die by it. You have undervalued your design work in favor of the markup you make on product, and now your client wants to use the design work they paid for in their own way—basically, you lost the sale. You are analyzing this situation from a legal perspective, which is fine, and requiring that clients do a whole room is a lovely stipulation. But at the end of the day, it just reinforces the perception that you’re a product salesperson, not really a designer.

If you devalue design as you have here, it becomes that much harder to enforce its value. What you should be saying is that your clients have no right to your design work now. This means that any idea that you have shared with them regarding their kitchen, they cannot use. You probably do not have an intellectual property provision in your contract that prevents your clients from using your ideas unless you have both been fully paid and had the right to install your work. And even if you did, it would be hard for anyone to argue that you have not really been paid for the work you have provided by way of design.

The biggest “tell” is that you can no longer take photographs of the finished work. Your unwillingness to represent this new work as your own plainly means you are embarrassed by what it might look like when the kitchen is done. However, you and your firm are associated with the project and have no mechanism to remove that association.

Being associated with subpar work is the single biggest risk you face, far beyond any shortfall in revenue. Every designer has to be able to actually paint their proverbial painting and sign their name to it on their terms. I have seen it so many times before: a client bastardizes a project and people end up questioning the talent, integrity and value of the designer. It really does cost designers future work.

So, my advice here is rather radical. Do whatever you can to remove yourself and your firm from the project—NDAs, you name it. Your design was for a different project—this current project with existing countertops and cabinets is one you would never have taken. In the future, please honor the power of design by being properly paid for it, so that the value of your idea is front and center. Completing the work on your terms is a necessity. The rest will take care of itself.

Homepage photo: ©ungvar/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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