business advice | Jan 23, 2024 |
Why do none of my projects make it to the final stage?

Dear Sean,

I’ve just been dumped, yet again, by a client who’s going to take all the great material my team and I put together and realize it on their own. They’ve paid for it, so I know they have every right to it, but this seems to happen to us far too often—in my mind, it should never happen—and I don’t know how to get out of this chasm between design and implementation. I’m missing a way to make clients think, “We couldn’t possibly do this without her.”

Do I cost too much? I don’t think so, at least not by relative standards. I use the parallel of being a restaurant chef: the chef creates the menu, sources wonderful ingredients from trusted vendors, and has a team lined up in the kitchen to create a unique dining experience, and then a customer walks in and says, “OK, I’ll take it from here. I’m a pretty good cook myself.”

Without realized projects, not only do I not have project photos to attract new clients, but I am worried that I will become known among vendors and trades as the designer who requests quotes but never employs their services. This bothers me a great deal—I don’t like my time wasted, nor do I take wasting other people’s time lightly.

Falling Short of Success

Dear Falling Short,

The fact that your clients have paid for your design work does not mean they have every right to it. Your parallel to a chef is accurate—but also misleading. If you go to the restaurant, the understanding is, of course, that you are not able to cook the food. However, if you buy the chef’s cookbook, it is implicit that you, not she, will be cooking.

Your intention to become indispensable to your clients for implementation is a fool’s errand. There is simply no question that your design can be produced cheaper, and maybe even more efficiently, by businesses that are focused on production. The indispensable part is that it is your story to tell, in your way. Otherwise, ahem, it is not your story—just an imitation, derivative of your design. No thank you.

You are asking the wrong question of yourself and your clients: It is not about what you need to do to link design to implementation; it is why you are being hired in the first place. I would argue that in your present arrangement, you are acting more as a consultant than as a designer.

I am a consultant. I advise clients on how best to improve their design businesses. However, whether they take my advice is entirely up to them, and I will still work with them even if they do not follow it. In the design world, businesses like The Expert and Blanc Slate were built to advise on design without being responsible for its execution.

Designers are different. First, the designer’s opinion must be valued to a different degree, such that it facilitates an effective decision—necessitating no other information to give an answer on implementation. For instance, if you spend two months learning about what your client likes and does not like and educating them on your design direction and process, you are ready for them to say yes or no when you present your design plan. It’s your sword to fall on, if you will: With a yes, you keep going. If it’s a no, you are done unless the issue can be easily addressed. (That’s a decision only you can make, by the way—I’ve written about that here.) If the design has been approved, it should be patently apparent that if they want your painting, you have to be the one to paint it.

For any designer, manifesting design is as much a prerequisite as, well, breathing. If your clients could see what you do, you would not exist. It starts with your mind’s eye and ends with what your client physically experiences. This process—up to and including installation—is ultimately how clients’ lives are transformed. Simply, it is how they come to envision and experience the environment they would have created if they could have imagined it and brought it to life. Anything less is just consulting. Resolve the confusion from the beginning, and my guess is that your issue will resolve itself.


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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