Updated: Aug 20
If I had a dollar for every time I hear a prospective client apologize to me about the state of their home when I go for a home visit, I would be a very wealthy woman. Haha
Our firm works quite a bit with homeowners who have never hired an interior designer before, and so we are committed to educating them on what to expect from the beginning and all throughout the process.
I find that they can sometimes feel intimidated or even uncertain, as they are not sure if designers in general are transparent.
But there are a few things you should keep in mind if you are working with an interior designer for the first time.
1. Your Research
This seems pretty obvious, and most homeowners do a bit of research, but often times it is not enough. There is more to hiring an interior designer than just their portfolio. Understand that most good designers will have a great body of work, so that should not be the only deciding factor. Rapport, synergy and personality play a big role as well.
Start with going through their website to understand who they serve and what they believe. If from there you think they can be a fit for your needs, schedule a time to talk to whomever would be handling your project. Make sure your questions aren't necessarily focused on the style you are after, but mostly on the experience you will have.
Ask questions about how they work, how they communicate throughout the process, what's the process like, what is their timeline, who would be handling your project, what trades they work with, what budget range you should be considering for your project. They may not have answers to all these questions right away, but the way they answer is a good indication of how they communicate.
Doing a bit of research does not necessarily mean calling every single designer in your area from an online search.
I would suggest pulling up to three to five from your online search and start exploring their website and social media platforms. Then narrow it down to three to call. List them on paper and make notes as you talk to them so you know who is who.
It can easily get overwhelming if you are just Googling and randomly calling all of them and then forgetting who you spoke to.
Our website includes detailed information about how we work, our design process and a detailed FAQ's page. You can also conveniently schedule your appointment right from our website. We also have a Chat feature that can be accessed from any page on our site.
2. Designers Don't All Work The Same
This is a pro and a con for you as a consumer as you look to work with an interior designer for the first time.
It is wonderful and a definite pro that designers don't all work the same. That way you will find a lot of diversity across the industry. But it can be a con in that it can be a bit more confusing and overwhelming for you.
Some designers have specialties or niches that they prefer to work within. For example you will find that some designers will only do projects that involve major construction or renovation. Or you may find a designer who will only accept projects with certain minimum budgets. Or their fee structure might be different. Or their process may be different. Or they will not work with your existing pieces.
Design firms are businesses like every other small business and they get to make their own rules of engagement. I will say that some firms have all their practices much more buttoned up than some, and that's something to look out for as you interview designers.
While there are some industry standards that you can use as a starting point, you should expect vast differences from company to company.
Our firm has a flexible menu of design services because we truly believe that everyone deserves a beautiful, functional and comfortable home. Of course we keep them very structured so our clients understand upfront exactly what they will be getting with the service.
Also look for how efficiently or not their backend works. Are they organized. Are they responsive? Do they communicate well? Do they make sure you are clear in what you are getting? Did you sign an agreement that calls out the key things like scope of work, timeline, costs, deliverables, terms and conditions?
3. You Don't Have To Clean First
I know many people who will clean their house before their house-keeper arrives, and I find that it is the case when a client invites a designer for an in-home consultation. Haha.
You don't have to clean first, unless you had a wild party the night before, or there's too much clutter to properly and thoroughly navigate the space.
We prefer to see how your home works for you, or rather, how it's not working for you. That way we know how to solve those issues. What we observe from a cluttered bedroom, for example is that we may need some creative storage ideas. What you see as a messy kitchen is an opportunity for a new layout that will make your kitchen more practical for your daily life. What you see as kids' shoes and sports gear everywhere means carving out a mudroom.
So cleaning your home a bit too much may actually work against you. Show us how you really live so we can see what's not working and bring creative solutions.
4. There Can Be A Difference Between Designers and Decorators
This can be a hot button topic within the industry, and understandably so. There are clear distinctions between an interior designer and an interior decorator, which may have something to do with formal education, but not necessarily.
While a designer who completed 4 years of formal training at an accredited institution has earned the right to call themselves an interior designer, it does not mean that one who didn't hasn't earned that title as well. Formal school education or not is the trigger for the hot debate within the industry.
In some states, it is required by law that an interior designer completes this education and sit for an exam and earn a license to be able to call themselves interior designers, so that must be considered.
But as a consumer, the most important thing you should be looking for is the experience as it relates to your project.
"Interior Designer" tends to refer to a designer that considers the overall structure. They basically take the project from the shell to a complete livable environment where all things are considered - layout, lighting, materials, design details, flow, harmony. While an "interior decorator" tends to focus on the final decorative layer - furnishing, accessories, styling.
Some firms do it all, and some prefer to focus on one or the other.
Understand the scope of your project and find a designer that has the experience to execute it for you. While classroom education has its merit and adds value to your project, real world education and experience is much more valuable. Design projects - even the simple ones are very nuanced, and what you need is experience and expertise.
Of course a designer just graduating from a 4 year program can bring fresh ideas and technical skills to a project, but their lack of experience should be declared upfront.
5. Their Team
One of the things that you should definitely consider as you look to work with a designer for the first team is their team.
Team can mean the direct staff members of the design firm. But the team I am referring to is much broader than that.
A solid design firm has an extended team outside their firm that will help them execute your project to the highest standard.
Building a team is one of the hardest things as an interior design firm, and therefore when you come across a firm with a solid team, it is a very valuable asset for your project.
The inner team are the people within the firm that conceptualize, create, source and manage your project.
The contracted team are an extension of your inner team. They provide administrative and technical support which takes a ton off our plates so we can focus on the key details of your project.
Vendors provide great quality materials and products and stand behind the products so we are specifying items that will work for you for the long term.
Artisans are the team members that build and create custom pieces according to our specifications, They are usually very skilled and creative. They can take what's in our heads and translate it to something real and wonderful.
The trades people are the ones who are onsite everyday building and implementing the designs we create.
The logistics team members are the ones who manage the shipping, receiving, deluxing, storage, white-glove delivery of all the wonderful products we procure for you.
There is much more to the team, but these are the key members that you should look for when you consider hiring a designer for the first time.
6. Their Body Of Work
A design firm's body of work is a good indication of the type of work they will do for you.
Many design firms have specific styles that they prefer to work within, while some firms will create any and every style that their clients need.
Our firm is somewhere in the middle.
We definitely have a strong design point of view that we love to bring to our projects - namely, bold color and pattern. However, we are dedicated to creating the design aesthetic that our clients want.
We find that even if our clients don't want the color, they can appreciate a hint of it in their space. Same for the pattern. They may not want a bold mix, but they can appreciate a subtle hint of pattern mixing.
Capturing your style is one of the big important tasks that a design firm has - even if you don't know what your style is. So as you look for a designer to hire, spend some time exploring their body of work.
Yes, you are looking for the styles that you like for sure, but you should also look for the execution. That is - do the rooms look complete? Does their work show consistency in the quality of the products they use? Do the rooms look aspirational with rare items that you have not seen before? Even if the rooms aren't your exact style, are they pleasing to your eye? Do the rooms evoke certain feelings in you?
7. Does The Design Firm Stay Current
Design is trendy just as it is timeless, so you want to work with a firm that is anchored in timelessness and has a good understanding of the history of design, as well as a firm that is forward-thinking and stays up-to-date with the latest and the greatest.
A good designer is always seeking inspiration and that can be an added benefit to working with a designer who travels, attends conferences and furniture markets and puts into action the things they have learned.
Our firm is dedicated to continued education and always seeking out great new products and technologies.
The more product and technological knowledge the designer brings to the table, the more dynamic their designs tend to be.
They are more willing to take calculated design risks or be more avante-garde, because they have seen more than what's comfortable for other designers.
8. Their Comfort Level With Talking About Your Budget
I decided from early in my career that I will not assume what a client can and cannot afford. Instead, I am committed to having frank and transparent conversations about realistic budgets based on scope of work.
My job as the designer is to design. Not just design, but bring the exact vision the client has to reality. I do make that the priority, while educating clients on the reality of their design needs and wants as it relates to their investment range.
The budget conversation is super important and not one that should be glazed over. Even though it is near impossible to nail down a budget at the first conversation, we start from the initial consultation and we talk about your investment until the design is finalized.
It helps if you take stock of your own expectations when it comes to what you are willing to invest for what your vision is. I am well aware that consumers have no idea of what interior design could cost. But it helps to be flexible as you navigate the budget conversation with your designer, and at the very least, know what your maximum is.
I find that a lot of designers avoid this conversation like the plague, because we were all raised to not talk about money, and sometimes even our clients would rather avoid the conversation.
Our goal is to help you first define a range, and then we nail it down as we develop the design and begin sourcing and pricing materials and labor.
When your designer is comfortable guiding you through developing a budget you will become more comfortable yourself, and once the budget is nailed down, it gets it out of the way and keep the focus on the design outcome.
Another thing worth noting is whether the designer charges a consultation fee or not for the initial in-home meeting.
A free consultation may seem good on the surface, but the reality is it could be a major waste of your time.
Most professional firms who are serious about business and serious about your project will charge a consultation fee. This can range from $200 to over $1000 depending on a lot of factors.
The purpose of a consultation is to spend time getting to know you and your needs, suggest ideas, provide guidance, discuss budget ranges, diagnose what's not working in your home, give you a clear path for your project and provide education on what the process may look like.
For a professional designer to get into his/her car and drive to your home to provide all the above, it means that they are taking time away from other revenue-producing client work. If they value their time and what they bring to your project, they will charge a fee for that time. You want to pay, because you want that value.
A designer who doesn't charge is typically spending that time gathering information from you and will be very tip-lipped about offering any ideas or real value from there. You are usually just viewed as a lead that they are trying to qualify through an onsite meeting.
Our firm values you as a client from the very beginning. And we will always provide value. You are never just a lead to us.
We charge a consultation fee, and this means that we focus on you and your project so that our creative solutions will be tailored for you.
You can conveniently book a consultation below.
9. Their Billing Method
This one is going right back to point #2 - designers don't all work the same, so one of the first things you need to understand is their billing method.
The most popular ones are flat fees, hourly, per square foot and per room.
There are pros and cons to each of them, and it is a matter of what you are comfortable with yourself.
In my experience, clients like to know what their fees are going into a project, and therefore a flat fee billing model seems to be more widely accepted by consumers.
Our fee structure is more of a hybrid. We value the fact that clients prefer a flat fee structure, but we are also well aware that no two projects are ever exactly alike, and a flat fee model doesn't allow room for unforeseen variables.
Our billing model is based on estimated total number of hours that we expect to use up for a defined scope of work that is presented as a flat fee, with the option to continue to bill for any unforeseen variables beyond the estimated hours. This takes a keen understanding of the detailed scope of work and how we ourselves work. Our goal is to never have to bill outside of the estimated hours.
10. How They Communicate Their Design Ideas
The final item on our list of what to look for when you work with a designer for the first time is their method of communicating their design ideas with you.
What tools; technical or otherwise do they use to communicate their design ideas to you, to make sure you have a firm grip on the concepts before anything is ever demo'ed, purchased or installed in your home.
In our firm, the design presentation is a huge part of our process ad how we communicate every detail of the design. We utilize digital presentation boards, 3D renderings, 2D floor plans and elevations, and actual materials and finish samples to make sure that our clients understand the details of their design.
As we present our design ideas, we carefully walk our clients through the reasons why the choice is perfect for the overall design.
11. Stop Buying Anything
It is not uncommon to see that it is only after a homeowner tries to go the DIY route and may have hit a snag, that they then decide to call for a designer.
By this time, they have made many purchases that may or may not work for the space. Usually they still are not necessarily committed to hiring the designer, and so they continue to look online and then hit that buy now button when they see something they like.
Never design without a plan!
Going the DIY route is often the case. And even if you are getting some design help from an in-store design consultant, if they are not considering the entire space or home, they are doing your a disservice. See an article HERE that I wrote about the difference between an in-store design consultant and an interior designer.
The moment you realize that you may be in over your head, call a designer and stop buying things.
We are super skilled at making things work, but we also have to reject things that are entirely wrong for your space. The more you buy the greater the chance of that happening.
If you are on the fence about whether to take the leap and hire an interior designer, I say go for it.
If nothing else, at least book a consultation so you can better understand how designers work in general. As I said before, we all work differently, but you will gain a lot more information than you have now.
We would love to help you design your upcoming project.
Wishing You Beauty And Inspiration!
Veronica Solomon, at your service