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Always Work With Integrity: 5 Commands of Design

Posted April 9, 2014 by & filed under

I recently had the privilege of speaking at a student career day sponsored by our local chapter of ASID. The event was focused on interior design students who were nearing the end of their program and getting ready to graduate and I wanted to offer them some “real world” advice on how to be a professional interior designer. We all go into interior design because we want to make the world beautiful. Then we go to school and learn that there’s more to it than that. We don’t just get to pick beautiful materials and lay out seamlessly flowing spaces. We have to consider plumbing and the quantity of water flow; we have to consider voltage and how well lit a space will be; we have to consider literally hundreds of pieces of information that bring the details of the space together. That’s what they teach you in school. You graduate thinking “I must know everything there possibly is to know.”

Then you get into the real world.

Over the past 20+ years I have owned Interior Motives and IMI Design and have seen good times and bad times: learned a lot by trial and error. That is what I wanted to share with these students and it’s what I want to recap here. I want to take this into a bit more detail than the time lot at the event allowed. My 5 Commandments for a Real Interior Designer are:

1. Always work with integrity.
2. Value your talent personally and our talent as a profession.
3. You must be an artist and an engineer.
4. Presentation and documentation are vital
5. Think BIG!

We will touch on each of these over the next couple of weeks but I want to start with the first one: Always work with integrity. This one is particularly close to my heart. I firmly believe that good design has the ability to uplift the human spirit and create a better life experience for those living and working in that space. But good design goes beyond what the space looks like. It even goes beyond what the materials used in the space, although that is also vitally important. Green materials, sustainable harvesting, low voltage and low emission everything are all the wave of the future. So much so they have become catch phrases for any design that isn’t basically out to destroy the world. That is important and we should never forget that. However, good design goes even farther than that. As a professional it is our responsibility and duty to continually advocate on behalf of our client. The client’s best interest must always be the first priority.

Some clients have worked with designers before they get to you, but for many their experience with you will be their first. It is the designer’s job to educate the client on what is about to take place. It will be a time consuming process that is both emotional and intimate. Designers become a part of their clients’ lives for the period of the project and it can cause some intense moments. Don’t take for granted that they will know the steps in the process, how long everything takes or even what is possible. That is your job. At IMI Design we have developed our Smart LuxuryTM program. We review this with new clients at the outset of every project. It walks them step by step through the process. It tells them what they can expect from us and about how long it will take for us to provide it to them. Portions of a design project can be time consuming and as long as the client is aware you are still working for them and haven’t relegated them to the back burner they will feel good.

Clients are also generally unaware of the level of detail required for a design project. Who knew it takes 6 different vendors to create one throw pillow? Not many people. Highlighting this detail and the thought and work processes behind creating an entire space by coordinating hundreds or thousands of pieces of information will give them a good idea of exactly how diligently you are working on their behalf. That is also where you get to have a little fun: the design portion. After all, that is the reason you became a designer.

Most clients have a general idea of what they want to have in their home aesthetically. Always listen to what they say. As a professional designer, it is your duty to always be at the forefront of design and have a plethora of options available for any style. When a client comes to you with what they want, take it to the next level; tell them what they don’t even know they don’t know. Design for them. There are two big pitfalls that I want to advise around regarding this particular aspect: don’t sell; and don’t sell out. There is a fine line between these two. We want to give our clients the most luxurious and amazing experience possible but we are not here to promote or sell particular products. The products are a tool of the design. Don’t start adding the most expensive items just to increase the cost of a space. That may not be in the best interest of the client and it is not working with integrity.

On the other hand, clients want value. No matter what size of a project and no matter how much money the client has, there is always a budget; the only difference is how many zeroes it has behind it. Everyone wants to fit as much as possible into their budget and will always want to see what other options are. This is where you can’t sell out. There is nothing wrong with value engineering a project. In fact, we will be posting an article about that in a few weeks. But the mark of your ability is to reach budgets without compromising the design integrity to meet a price point. Nine times out of ten there is a way within the design you have created, that the clients love, to hit a budget point. Take the time and figure it out.

Another way of not selling out is when you know what is best for a client for their long term function, their desired aesthetic or the best value. You do all the extra steps to get there. This may include advocating their quality needs with contractors, educating the clients themselves on design principles of why a design is correct or spending the extra time to find a perfect solution for a specific issue. Don’t settle. Stay with excellence on their behalf!!

The final piece I want to mention regarding working with integrity is to do what you say you will do. The days of a person’s word being the end-all-be-all seems like a quaint notion but, in reality, it is alive and well. Clients will remember that you lived up to your end of the bargain and that they could rely on you throughout the process. Even beyond clients, architects, builders, vendors, and even your own staff will notice this. As a designer you are a figure representative of your firm, your industry and, most importantly, of yourself. Be proud of that and take it seriously.