April 14, 2011

Behind the Scenes in an Interior Design Project/ Business

This morning I’ve been thinking about how in magazines & blogs we get to see the fun parts of interior design:  the befores & afters, the inspiration & the creative process, but rarely do we see what goes on behind the scenes: when designers are ordering goods for their clients, handling paperwork & coordinating shipping & contractors, and managing the project and clients’ needs & expectations.


{some of my new textiles}

I think it’s definitely because it’s not an exciting part of the process and also because it can be a difficult part of the process, although project managment is waaaaay more than half of the project.  Everyone has their own way of doing things, but when I work with clients, this is how it basically goes:

We have an initial phone chat or meeting to discuss what the client is looking for and to chat about my company & how we work, our rates, processes, etc.  It’s at this point that we decide if we want to work together.  Once we’ve decided to work together, we have a meeting in which the house is surveyed, measured, photographed or blueprints are exchanged if it’s a new build.  We interview our clients about how they want to use their home & the spaces in it, their wants & needs, likes & dislikes, personal style, color & fabric preferences, etc.


{image via stylehive}

From here we set about creating a design plan for clients based upon everything we’ve learned.  There is some back-and-forth about a few specifics as we create the plan.  I really like to include antique & vintage pieces in design plans, but it does make the process a little more challenging because you often have to snap up these pieces when you see them, sometimes before you’ve created the entire plan.   I typically leave “holes” in the plan for certain items that I know we want to find vintage or antique and then we’re on the hunt for these items as the project moves forward.

Once we’ve created the plan, we present it to our clients.  I present one plan.  There may be an option or two to for the clients to decide between, but for the most part, the entire plan is laid out, even down to pillows & certain art or accessories if they’re intrical to the design.  I do this because I feel that I know my clients well enough by this point that I know what the best option for them is.  {When I first started out, I used to sometimes create two plans, but I realized that  my clients always chose the plan I wanted them to choose and that the second plan was a waste of time.}  Just like there may be “holes” in the plan for antiques or one-of-a-kind items, there are holes in the plan for art & accessories.  I often present examples of art and/ or accessories I think we should use and once the project is moving forward, we both look for these items & are constantly on the hunt.


{DC Design House board close-up}

{Speaking of being on the hunt…  I am not one of those designers who can go out & be shopping for many clients all at once.  I can typically have 1-3 clients in mind when I am shopping but usually no more than that.  I have serious tunnel vision, I powerwalk, and know exactly what I’m looking for and so I can’t keep a catalog of 8-15 clients in my head when I’m out & about.  I go out specifically for certain clients and sometimes I’ll even walk around the same market multiple times with different clients in mind, each time noticing completely different things.  Sometimes I have consultation-based clients who say “If you’re ever out and about and you see this, buy it for me & I’ll pay you back…”  I used to think this was possible, but I’ve now realized that it doesn’t work that way for me.  I have to go out specifically on the hunt for something because when I am out on the hunt for a client, I am out specifically for them. …  and of course there are exceptions that just smack you in the face because they’re so perfect! 😉

Once the plan has been squared away, we move onto the implementation phase of the project.  (The nitty gritty part we don’t hear much about.)  I found a really great overview of the emotions connected to the different phase of the project on Jenny’s Design Build’s website:


Even if there is no construction….  once you get to the design presentation & begin implementation, there is a lot of waiting for clients to do, which is not fun.  Witch custom pieces, the typical time it takes to wait for items to be made is 8-12 weeks but often much longer.  There are almost always fabric & furniture backorders which can delay the project.  (And as a designer, sometimes you don’t get notice from the companies about the backorders for a few weeks or even a month after you’ve placed the order & think everything is on schedule.  How fun it is to let your clients know then! 😉
When ordering products- which sounds like an easy thing thing to do- but often manufacturers don’t get back to you, inform you of backorders waaaaay late, or send damaged items.  Everything that happens is your responsibility to relay to the client and it’s not always good stuff.  When I first started, having no idea of the time or risks involved, I used to give my clients trade-only items at no mark-up, not realizing that by doing this I was losing a lot of money & barely surviving as a business.  (My accountant had a talk with me 😉  For one, it takes a lot of time to order something & handle it the entire project.  You can get emails throughout the entire project about a certain product & its specifications.  And oh my GOSH you spend hours if something arrives damaged-  getting in touch with the company, arranging a pick-up, return & ordering a new piece & starting over.  (Think of a custom sofa that is being stain treated…  you have an order with the fabric company…  then it ships to the company to be stain treated… then it goes to the furniture manufacturer.. then it takes a mponth or two to be made, then it goes to a shipping warehouse and then to your client…  SO many things can happen along the way and you’re in constant contact alont the way.  It’s hours even if it’s smooth.   Ordering trade items is very different from ordering retail items, which can even take some time if a return or exchange is necessary.  You end up losing money and working for free…  Once I realized all of this, I began offering goods to my clients at retail or just below retail prices (depending upon the product… pricing is different at different companies) and finally started getting paid for the responsibility & all of the hours spent managing projects.  I’ve found that for me, there really is no way to charge a client hourly for the implementation phase of the project because so many things can happen along the way that it’s difficult to project.  (And no one wants to get a bill charging them for your time on a damaged item or get a bill for 3 hours for a sofa-  can you imagine?! 🙂
{image from msnbc.msn.com}
Shipping is another beast.  EVERYTHING has shipping on it.  Even a yard of fabric which is shipped on a roll & costs money.  Every time something is moved somewhere, it costs money.  Many companies do not have an exact shipping price until something actually ships, which is often difficult for clients to understand.  (Rightfully so.)  Some companies do a percentage – which I love for estimates- and others are pretty consistent.  The longer you’re in business, the better it gets, but I am still not comfortable enough to be able to give a firm shipping estimate to clients.  Every time I pick up a new vendor, there’s a new shipping policy & different rates to try to learn.  Generally, shipping can be anywhere from 10-20% of an order and can be more or less so it’s a pretty big range.
Working with contractors & managing is another time-consuming and risky part of the project.  We spend a lot of time with contractors & going back-and-forth relaying ideas, answering questions, and overseeing the project.  I’ve also come to realize that it’s much better to have a flat fee or a percentage fee for this part of the project because again, clients want to know what they’re paying up front, and because designers need to be compensated for their time.
Once you’ve placed all of your orders & are handling them, your client is waiting and you & your client are seeking out those “holes” in the projects-  the details & the one-of-a-kind items that will truly make the space feel personal & real.  This part of the process is seriously easy for me when it’s in my own home, but much more difficult when you’re working with a client because you have to get their approval before you purchase and there’s often only 1 item and if you leave it that day, it will probably be gone if/ when you return.  Buying trips with clients are wonderful, but the client is either paying for your time or a mark-up on the goods.
I have recently started having items for my newer projects (if possible) shipped to a receiving warehouse so that final installation can take place all at once.  I think this is really important to a project’s smoothness factor.  Until very recently, I used to let items trickle in to clients as they were ready, but this can worry clients.  They analyze each & every piece & begin to get scared because they’re seeing just the pieces of the puzzle and not the overall picture.  Clients are always happy with the results in the end, but having items come in one by one often results in phonecalls, understandably, because it can be scary to see a bright green sofa arrive in a white room with nothing else in it.  (Speaking form my own experience in my own house….  oooohh even I was panicked! haha!)
{My living room when my green sofa first arrived-  eeeeek}
{My living room once everything else was in…  photo by Helen Norman}
Once all of the furnishings & softgoods are installed in the room, it’s time to do the final accessorizing.  With my clients, I have been stressing the importance of this and I don’t do projects without this final step.  Once everything is in, we get to tweak & add in those great one-of-a-kind items, hang artwork and do flowers & plants & personal items to finish off the house.  Clients then get to see the vision fully realized and they get to see how beautiful & personal their home really is.  They know just where to place flowers when they have parties, or how to set up the best way for guests.  It can even get as detailed as helping clients pick out dinnerware and/ or soaps.
{Dinnerware at a client’s home…  photo by Helen Norman}
This is a great time to have the home photographed, and I really think this is an important part of growing your business.  I started out with photos I’d taken of my old townhome about 3 and a half years ago and slowly grew my business from there, weeding out older projects & badly shot photos as I could afford better ones.  I’m still in the process of doing this, and hope to be always doing this as I grow as a designer & continue to get new projects.  Clients love sending friends & family photos of their finished home because they’re proud of it.
{A recently photographed client’s home- The Hart Family.  Photo by Helen Norman}
I really am new to this business – three and a half years- so I’m still really learning & evolving myself.  My assistant, Meg, is helping too & we are constantly refining our roles.  In our business, the most important thing to us is that the client is happy & feels taken care of and we are constantly figuring out new ways to make this happen.
A couple things I’ve learned both the hard & easy way:
1.  Stay in control of the project.  Some clients are used to being in charge and can take over a project and unintentionally send it out of whack.  You have to be firm in your processes and follow the systems you’ve set into place, and explain to clients why things work the way they do.  (Of course you want your clients very involved in the creative aspects of the project, but don’t let them change the way you run your business.)
2.  Be firm in your fees & pricing.  Make sure you set fair fees & stick to them.  You want the clients who value what you do, not the ones who don’t feel you’re worth what you’re asking.
2.  Know the parameters of your project.  Some projects keep growing and growing.  They may start out as a consultation and evolve into a full-home renovation.  As soon as you realize the project is becoming something other than what it started out as, reevaluate, do a new contract & set new parameters with your client.
3.  Not every client is for you.  (I think this is important for designers to know…   I have lots of friends who are designers and we know that we each have our own types of clients.  For example, the client who would want my good friend wouldn’t want me.)
4.  Trust your gut.  Seriously.  If something doesn’t feel right about a project or client, trust yourself and do not take it on.  If you can’t be 100% passionate about a project, you won’t do your best and it’s not fair to the client.  If you feel that the potential client is going be very difficult for you to work with, don’t take them on; it’s not worth the stress.  Most of your clients will be with you for a very long time so realize there’s no wham-bam-thank-you-m’am- in a full-service project.
5.  Constantly be thinking of where you want your business to go.  You have to remind yourself of what you’re doing & where you’re going and what your end goal is.
6.  Put your clients first.  Always be thinking of your clients & how they are feeling.  Check in with them constantly.  This can be really tough depending upon how many clients you have at once.  It’s important to know your limit of how many projects you can take on & still give great service.  {I have recently stopped doing two-hour or one-day consultations because -even though I loved helping clients get a quick gameplan for their homes- it was taking up too much of my time away from my full-service projects and it was really difficult to focus because I had so many clients to keep in contact with.  {I was honestly having trouble sleeping at night because of emails & communication…  I would wake up at night & remember people who had follow-up questions from consultations or who just wanted a tiny bit of advice over email and then not be able to go back to sleep becaues I felt so guilty for not having written them back yet.}
7.  Gather an amazing team of people.  Each person who does work for your projects, such as contractors, workrooms, artists, etc. is key.  Find the people you work best with & who do what they say they will do, and your life will be much easier.  It’s taken me years to find the right people.  Once you have them, never let them go & treat them right because it takes a village to create a great space.  They can make or break a smooth project.
…  There’s much more, but my day’s starting & I’ve got to run!!
I know this is the not-so-pretty-part of interior design but I really think it’s important to discuss how the behind-the-scenes stuff works.  Everyone does things differently and I am constantly evolving my own businesses processes, so I’d love to hear how any designers out there work and how they do the behind-the-scenes.  Let me know your thoughts!!

xoxo, Lauren

If you’d like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

ps- Don’t forget to enter the $250 Tracy Porter Giveaway!!  Click here to view it!

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