If you are thinking of working with an interior designer, be aware that the relationship is, by its very nature, intimate. Given this, you reap immeasurable benefits when you take some time upfront to consider just what it is you want from this person you're about to invite into your life. As with any relationship, clear communication can go a long way to alleviating any misunderstandings. Here are a few questions to ask yourself, questions to ask prospective designers, and some hard-won tips we've picked up along the way.
Assess Your Work Style
Before you pick up the phone and start calling prospects, spend a few moments thinking carefully about your preferred method of working. This little bit of soul searching will go a long way to ensuring you hire the right person, and will help to lay a solid foundation for a successful working relationship. For starters, think carefully about your answer to these questions:
- At what level do you want to be involved in the creative process? Do you want to be consulted on the nitty-gritty, day-to-day details, or are you more interested in big picture issues?
- Similarly, at what level do you want to be involved in the product research?
- Are you looking for comprehensive, "soup to nuts" guidance, or do you consider yourself design-savvy and only in need of assistance with color, space planning and resources?
- Are you a visual person or a tactile person? Will you be satisfied with a designer showing you photos of products, or do you prefer to see and feel everything before deciding whether it is right for you?
- Do you prefer to be shown many options or fewer?
- Are you open to the input of others?
- Are you able to make choices with confidence, or do you tend to vacillate?
- What are your expectations in terms of a timeline?
Determine the Scope of Your Project
The scope of a project to some extent dictates the qualifications and experience required of the interior designer you are hiring. If you are building a new home or addition, or undertaking a major renovation to existing space, you are likely already working with an architect. This is good. Architects and designers often work in concert, balancing the aesthetics of the home's structure, or "bones," with the interior furnishings and finishes. You may want to get your architect involved in the selection of the interior designer—whether it's recommending someone he or she has already worked with, or using one of the interior designers the firm may have on staff. If you're redecorating a single room or have a limited budget for a space that does not require structural change, you may not need an interior designer at all. You may be happy hiring a specialist, such as a color consultant, who can work with your existing furnishings and help you revamp the space with new paint color and fabric selections.
TIP: Don't be afraid to tell your prospective designer that you need to keep the project under a predetermined budget. A good designer will help you determine a realistic budget based on what you want to accomplish.
Here is where things can get tricky. Unlike architecture, which requires years of schooling and rigorous licensing requirements, the world of interior design has been much less governed. This is changing. Several states now require interior designers to pass a strict exam, given by the National Council on Interior Design Qualification (http://www.ncidq.org), before they can legally refer to themselves as designers.
Here is the Council's definition of interior design:
Interior design includes a scope of services performed by a professional design practitioner, qualified by means of education, experience and examination, to protect and enhance the life, health, safety and welfare of the public.
While all interior professionals are concerned with aesthetics and style, licensed and experienced interior designers have comprehensive training and skills that cover such issues as:
- Flame-spread ratings, smoke, toxicity and fire-rating classifications and materials
- Space planning
- Familiarity with AutoCAD and 3-D modeling
- State and local building codes
- Americans with Disabilities Act
You can learn more about accreditation, education and licensing in your state by visiting the website of the American Society of Interior Designers, (www.asid.org), the leading organization for interior design professionals.
A Word About the Term "Interior Decorator"Unlike the designation "interior designer," which is becoming increasingly regulated across different states, there are no rules around use of the term "interior decorator." Even a person with little or no formal training may refer to himself or herself as a decorator. However, this is not to say they aren't professional. Many interior decorators have several years of experience or are trained in related fields. There are numerous educational institutes and certification programs that offer training in specifics such as color theory, lighting and space planning, for example. Although this education isn't as extensive as that of an ASID-accredited interior designer program, a decorator with this training may be suitable (and possibly more affordable) than a licensed interior designer.
In the end, designers and decorators alike will tell you that experience is the most important credential.
Conduct a Successful InterviewOnce you've narrowed your choices to a few designers (or decorators!), it's time to conduct in-person interviews. Here are some questions to ask:
- How long have they been working as designers and what are their educational backgrounds? Who are the members of their teams and what are their backgrounds?
- Will they help you establish a working budget? (If you already have a budget in mind, they will need to know what it is.)
- What is the size of their typical job? (This will give you a sense for their shopping styles, and also indicate if the size of your project is compatible with their preferences.)
- Can they work within your time schedule?
- Are they willing to do smaller projects?
- How do they charge for their services?
- How will they provide a visual representation of what the project will look like? AutoCAD or SketchUp (programs that give 3-D modeling), hand-drawn renderings, project boards, other? Decide which type of presentations you'll be most comfortable with, and determine if there are additional costs associated with your preferred method.
- What are the criteria for choosing subcontractors? Professionals usually have a reliable network of professionals they bring to projects.
- Who owns which piece of the project? In large-scale projects, it's easy for too many team players to focus on the same issues. The designer, architect, and contractor need to work collaboratively and efficiently. Consider whether a project is large enough to require a manager. If so, who provides management?
- Who is responsible for insurance, bonding and licensing?
- Is your involvement welcome? To what extent? (If you want little involvement, say so.)
- Ask for a copy of the design contract.
- Ask for current references.
Understand the Fee Structure
While most design professional are honest and reputable, the unregulated nature and opaque "to-the-trade" pricing structures have left some consumers feeling vulnerable and victimized. The key to preventing this is to hire a designer/decorator who has transparent billing methods. It is important for you, as a consumer, to have a clear understanding of what you're paying for.
These are the ways interior designers typically charge for their services:
- Flat-design fee: Client pays a flat fee for interior design services based on creation of a design plan, time required, and scope of services.
- Hourly rate: Interior designer bills a negotiated rate per hour. You may want to negotiate a defined number of hours per month then require your designer to check in with you before adding more hours. With this model, the designer typically passes along any industry discounts to you.
- Cost-plus method: Interior designer charges a set percentage on merchandise purchased and third-party services rendered from such trades as upholsterers, window-treatment shops, faux painters, etc.
- Mixed method: Client pays a set percentage on purchases and a base design fee at an hourly rate.
Questions the Designer Should be Asking You
Just as you need to evaluate a designer's suitability to your needs, so should the designer assess the project's scope and suitability to his or her skill set. Here are examples of the types of questions a professional designer is likely to ask you:
- For whom is the space being designed, and what activities will take place there?
- What is your desired completion date? (Are you planning a party in the new space and are you being realistic about the timeframe?)
- Do you understand that good-quality furniture and finishes are not only an investment in money but also in time? (Some furniture delivery lead times can be up to 14 weeks, and custom orders may take even longer.)
- Are there features in the room or space you would like to emphasize or downplay?
- Do you have an interest in environmentally sensitive or "green" options in your space?
- Does anyone in the house have allergies?
- Do you know which style(s) you like? Dislike? The designer will appreciate websites (HomePortfolio comes to mind) or printouts of interiors you're interested in emulating.
- How do you like to receive information? Via email? In face-to-face meetings? Daily? Weekly?
- Do you want the designer to cull the options and only show you what he or she thinks works best, based on your discussions, or do you prefer to be a part of the selection process?
The Perfect Match!The fact-finding and interviewing can take weeks to months. It is time-consuming, yes, but choosing the right designer is critical to the long-term success of your project. Do it carefully and do it to last.
Final advice: Maintain a sense of humor. Design projects, whether large or small, are intense, and frustration is inevitable. In the end, the pleasure you take in the end result will far outweigh any difficulties you may have had along the way.