How are interior design professionals like a bag of potatoes?
Sounds like a joke, right?
Except the punch line is: They aren’t.
You may have discovered that hiring someone to design or decorate your home is more complicated than buying a bag of potatoes. Or a pound of butter. Or a hammer. Or…well, you get the idea.
The thought of hiring a designer might be scary to you…
…you might not be sure what the fees cover, have a difficult time understanding how they apply their discount, if at all, and in the case of an hourly rate, be afraid of an open-ended financial arrangement and be nervous that the final result won’t be to your taste. These worries can be largely relieved by carefully interviewing the designer before hand, reviewing their portfolio and going through the designer’s contract which should explain everything in detail. If they don’t offer you a contract like this, ask for one. But then when you get one, you need to read it.
It would be nice to be able to keep things really simple and just do business on a hand-shake the way my grandparents did, but I’ve learned the hard way, that this is in no one’s best interest. The world is more complicated than it was in Grandad’s day so now it all needs to be spelled out in writing so there are no misunderstandings.
Designers all offer a wide range of services…
…that will likely differ from each other, they’ll have different strengths and weaknesses than each other, differences in experience and areas of expertise. The wide variation in the ways they charge mirror their individual differences. Some of the ways different designers charge are:
- An hourly rate for all time spent on a client’s behalf with the discount passed straight through to the client
- An hourly rate and an equal share of the discount to clients and designer, whether it’s a 10% discount or the highly unusual 50%
- An hourly rate, plus a mark-up on the designer’s cost of any product they sell plus a procurement or management fee
- A flat fee based on previous projects of a similar scope with only product specification and no procurement
- A flat fee based on a “family and friends” preferential treatment
- A flat fee based on the square footage of the house with product being sold at full retail with contingency provisos
- Product sold at a retail price which includes compensation for the designer’s time so no additional charge for time is made, but the contract stipulates you must buy product through them
- Any number of variations and combinations of the scenarios above.
In a free-market economy, businesses are free to charge what the market will bear and what they feel their products and services are worth to compensate them for their time, expertise and overhead, as long as there’s no collusion with others in the same industry. Even if some associations, groups and peers recommend a uniform method of charging for services, the professionals are under no legal obligation to comply.
It’s no wonder if you’re confused about how to compare designer pricing! It isn’t apples to apples pricing. It’s more like apples to kumquats. The wide range of services a designer provides can be difficult to quantify and shouldn’t be expected to be priced as a commodity.
Giving up the product altogether
There is a movement among some in the design community to give up procuring and providing product altogether, only charging for design time and product specification and then letting you shop around to find your own best deal.
This can be very appealing to a designer, because one of the most complex, time consuming, financially and emotionally risky, frustrating parts of the business is co-ordinating the purchase, delivery and installation of product. However, buying your own products often means a loss of control of the final outcome of the project for the designer. You may find a piece of furniture or an accessory that to you, looks similar to what the designer spec’d at a much lower price, but to the design professional, the scale, color, shape, or detail that made a piece truly unique may be missing, causing the finished room to vary enough from their vision that they are unable or unwilling to claim credit for the room’s decor. This isn’t a winning scenario for either party.
Residential designers often find that to keep their hourly rates reasonable, they must sell you product to make a reasonable living. But providing that product is fraught with pitfalls. The manufacturing quality of a product is almost always out of the designer’s control, unless the designer has designed every detail of the product itself, hand-picked the materials being used and governed its fabrication, inspected the finished product before it leaves the manufacturing facility and was loaded onto a delivery truck, which they hand-picked along with the movers themselves. This is rarely a viable chain of events for most but most wealthy clients, since the designer would have to charge more than most clients could afford to cover their time and risk for these activities.
But above all, the residential design business is just that: a business that is the designer’s bread & butter. It’s not a hobby and has more moving parts and details than you may be aware of, all of which needs to be part of the designer’s compensation. One way to save on designer’s fees is to check out the growing offering of virtual design services, which usually cost a lot less than conventional services. But don’t expect virtual services to be as detailed as in-person design, but it might be just enough for your needs.
Next Tuesday, I’ll have a guest column by my colleague Carla Aston, explaining why your designer may not be passing along their product discount to you, their client.