The last year has been a challenge, to put it in the mildest of terms. With a pandemic, civil unrest and economic uncertainty, 2020 made it difficult to take care of yourself and your family, let alone run a small business. Despite all that, designers persevered. We asked 10 interior designers—Leah Alexander, Kylie Bodiya, Joe Ireland, Whitney Jones, Mary Maloney, Marguerite Rodgers, Ashley Ross, Eric J. Smith, Bradley Stephens and Julie Weber Gligor—to share the most important business lesson they learned in 2020.
“One of the most important lessons I learned is to stick to the process. Every time I’ve swayed from my design process, I found myself—and my client—stuck and confused on how to move forward, leaving me scrambling to get the project back on track. I’ve designed a step-by-step process that works well for my design firm, and with all that’s happened, my sanity and productivity were put to the test. I created a spreadsheet that I now work from that moves me along, making sure I don’t get off track, whether the project is small or large.” —Whitney Jones, Whitney J Decor, Gretna, Louisiana
“The most important lessons we learned were how important it is to be flexible, self-motivating, and open to new ways of working. As interior designers, we are accustomed to having many in-person meetings, whether on a construction site, communicating our designs to our clients, or with vendors. We’ve adapted to have as few in-person meetings as possible and have found that working with our clients through Zoom and digital design formats has been successful.” —Marguerite Rodgers, Marguerite Rodgers Interior Design, Philadelphia
Flexibility brings stability
“There is an old saying, ‘Be firm in your decisions, but flexible in your approach.’ This has been significantly reinforced in the past 10 months. Flexibility and adaptability were key in so-called ‘normal’ times, but since the COVID-19 protocols began, we have had to find new ways to stay busy, relevant and productive. Whether keeping your team in tune and in contact or improving preparations and planning for virtual client meetings, becoming more flexible has been key and will remain so moving forward. I would also say giving yourself some slack, as not all of this technology is perfect—screens do freeze and drawings are not always at your fingertips. You need to keep a sense of humor to work through some of the issues.” —Eric J. Smith, Eric J. Smith Architect, New York
Show what you stand for
“During civil unrest and a global pandemic, I doubled down in all aspects of business. I hired a business coach, I spent marketing dollars and doubled my projections for the year. I found a comforting level of security and validation by leaning into my most authentic self as an African American woman in design by rolling full steam ahead to merge my beliefs with the work I do. Last year quickly taught me that life is way too short to build a company that does not stand for something bigger than yourself. These lessons have shaped a more intentional client experience and the way Muse Noire Interiors is presented to the world: unapologetically Black and genuinely passionate about creating a safe space for creatives of color in the home design industry.” —Ashley Ross, Muse Noire Interiors, Charlotte, North Carolina
“Last year required on-the-spot adjustments to find new ways of conducting business. The health and safety of our team, clients and industry partners was paramount to the success of our projects, which meant we couldn’t be in front of each other anymore. From a design perspective, we’ve always maintained honest and thoughtful communication with our clients, and this provided a foundation of trust so that we were able to continue designing despite not being [in person]. Once we accomplished working and collaborating remotely, we then needed to hone communication within our team, which meant shifting everything to digital. While we look forward to being physically in front of our clients again, it’s great to know we can still produce beautiful work and provide great service while keeping a safe distance. And we’ll be staying digital with our paperwork as an environmental measure.” —Julie Weber Gligor and Joe Ireland, J.D. Ireland Interior Architecture and Design, Washington, D.C.
Out with the old
“I’m leaving itemized hourly billing behind in 2020. My experience has been that, more often than not, it brings out the micromanager in otherwise wonderful clients. It doesn’t serve my firm’s creative process at all. I realized that life’s too short to stifle creativity by assigning the number of minutes it took to arrive at the thoughtful design clients intend to enjoy for years to come.” —Leah Alexander, Beauty Is Abundant, Atlanta
Peace of mind
“2020 held both trials and triumphs, but we are so thankful for the lessons that we learned, the biggest being to allow ourselves grace. As seasoned interior designers, we are no stranger to the fact that not all stages of the design process always go exactly as planned, but throw in strict quarantine guidelines, the stress of owning a small business in a pandemic, and major delays in shipping and expediting, and we found ourselves initially overwhelmed. Taking a step back and working on our mindset outside of the office allowed us to feel refreshed and ready to tackle the unknowns, ultimately resulting in happy clients with beautiful designs. I think this will shape our business moving forward in many ways, but mostly it will serve as a reminder that no obstacle is too big for our team to overcome.” —Kylie Bodiya and Mary Maloney, Bee’s Knees Interior Design, Hopkinton, Massachusetts
“In 2020, the lessons of years past about being prepared were certainly reinforced—first and foremost, financial preparedness. We’ve always been big believers in the importance of a strong cash position and saving for a rainy day. With the devastation and uncertainty caused by the global pandemic, 2020 could have been a monsoon. After the Great Recession of 2008, when business all but dried up, we initiated a rigid savings plan that, with time and dedication, grew to a comfortable cushion. That peace of mind allowed us to reassure and maintain our staff, and to focus on implementing plans to continue working while keeping our staff and clients safe. We also put a lot of energy into enhancing project management strategies. We were already uber-planners—we emphasize proactive thinking, flexibility and adaptability. But over the course of such a challenging year, I’ve updated my mantra to, ‘Make a backup plan and a backup plan for your backup plan.’” —Bradley Stephens, Stephens Design Group, New York
Homepage photo: A project by Bradley Stephens | Courtesy of Bradley Stephens