Interior Designers are just BADASSES…and We Don’t Work for Free!!


My take on drawing from the masters: The Smoker by Paul Cezanne. Pencil on Paper - Caryn Menches. © 2006 Caryn Menches.

I never set out to be an Interior Designer…I originally went back to school to find my talents and passions and figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up!! I learned how to draw (MAJOR stress reliever and who doesn’t like to bring a doodle to life??), took art and photography classes and learned more about Construction Technology because it fascinated me, especially after inspecting hundreds, if not thousands, of houses over the years. (I used to inspect houses after catastrophes, like hurricanes, tornados and hailstorms) A classmate tried to get me to just try an interior design class, I think you’d be really good at it, she said, and no, it isn’t putting pillows on sofas and stuff…so I thought about it a bit and the next semester I took a class and I was HOOKED. I have always LOVED learning. And learn I did!

My hand-drafted floor plan of a college president's office. a school assignment that emphasized eye-hand coordination with space planning principles and estimating measurements. this was later rendered with colors that represented actual materials.

Just to put it into perspective, think about how many hats interior designers, which are realistically 3D artisans, bring to the table for helping you solve spatial, design and construction problems: psychologist, mediator, investigator, estimator, 3D developer, detailer, writer, mathematician, magician, counselor, educator, negotiator, researcher, part architect, part contractor, part building official, part of a whole bunch of things…and the list keeps going. And to top it all off, the education we go through is also extensive: an entire year of art and architectural history, local and national building codes, project management, sustainability and ecology, space planning, materials, design law, color theory, graphics, model building, computer aided drafting programs, hand drafting, construction drawings, architectural detailing, lighting, construction technology, and, of course, business. In addition to all those studio classes, we then apply all of these courses into projects...and those are just to name a few courses we are required to take. And don’t forget...In some jurisdictions, it actually takes LONGER for a Designer to be able to call themselves a Designer than an Architect!! Yes, you read that correctly. (Just to be clear, each state dictates these professions and each state is different) It is akin to a doctor or lawyer: many, MANY years and funds have gone into the journey to become a dedicated professional. 

"Interior Designers sell their expertise, knowledge and experience. Along with these sellable “ideas” is a long, thought-out process and system to bring your project to life. This is what you are essentially buying from an Interior Designer." 

My favorite! Chocolate Cake. And it breaks up the post with some drool-worthy yumminess! Image courtesy of Pixabay

Because we do things behind the scenes, much like a pastry chef or baker, doesn’t mean things are not taking shape. (I like cake, so I will use that as a metaphor, plus...who doesn't like cake??) Since we are not actually working in front of people, with immediate tangible results for clients, doesn’t mean we are sitting twiddling our thumbs or taking naps. 

There is a phrase from the Architecture world that says: Form ever follows function. Author Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who first wrote in his book De Architectura that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – in English that means, it must be solid, useful, beautiful. We make sure things work for each client before putting the “frosting” on any project. Before you bake something, you need to make sure you have all of the ingredients on hand. Then you must blend, mix, separate, whatever it is you need to do to make a certain type of cake, but in this case, it is blending all the information taken and putting into a form that clients can understand. Mixing is the first action step, this is a little like the design development phase of a project. This is the origination of the magic happening. You know there is a cake going to be made, you see shapes beginning to form. But you don’t have a finished product yet, but it is coming!

ADA clearances for commercial bathrooms. Yes, Interior Designers need to be aware of these details AND show it on paper! Many people don't take into consideration accessible routes or space clearances when looking for commercial spaces.

ADA clearances for commercial bathrooms. Yes, Interior Designers need to be aware of these details AND show it on paper! Many people don't take into consideration accessible routes or space clearances when looking for commercial spaces.

So when clients focus on the price they are paying for design, they typically are not taking into consideration, or even know of, all of the things an Interior Designer has gone through to get to the place where they can sit down with a client and explain WHY something is specifically selected for them, whether it be a piece of furniture, the layout of the space or some funky building code that dictates the why. Sure, some people think of us as personal shoppers, and some designers are ok with that, but that isn’t why I fell in love with the creative process. Designers are problem solvers, we ask LOTS of questions, research, contact other professionals, take measurements, jot ideas down, make lists, organize, pin or tear out images, make some strange, yet strategic doodles on paper to get our ideas out, go back and put all of the info we have obtained onto paper. This is ALL before we do ANY design work!! There is a method to great badassery, of course!

This is why it is so important to work with clients that know the value of what we bring to the project. If a client doesn’t know how much knowledge is in our head, what skills we possess or what exactly we do, it is up to us, as Designers, to educate them!! You can show them all the beautiful pictures of projects you want, but there needs to be some element of education. I realize some people don’t get it or just don’t care. I understand that. There will always be someone in the world like that. The other day I was perusing through some quotes online and found an excellent perspective: there is something like 8 billion people in the world - SOMEONE will know your worth!

This sad looking 1970's condo clubhouse is in need of a much anticipated refresh.  Don't ask me what is up with those weird pyramid-shaped things in the middle of the room. They're quite useless.

Are there other professions where a client asks to work for free or to lower prices? Yes, it happens…and it happens a lot, actually. I was starting to work with a condo association when the HOA board president walked up to me and asked if I design bathrooms. I answered, yes, of course. She then asked me for my card…and I promptly gave her my business card. As I was handing her my card, she said, its for my friend, she is in desperate need of an update…and, after a long pause, she is cheap. Gee, thanks lady. A couple of days later, her friend calls and asks if I am a designer and if I do free design. Wow, at least she didn’t beat around the bush. I explained my fee for a consultation and why I charge for a consultation. Her response? I just need some tiles and cabinets, and maybe a new bath tub and a few lights. Do you do drawings, too? Yes, I do. But you are getting ahead of yourself, I said. Do you have a contractor lined up? Wait, she asked, you don’t install anything? No, that would be the contractor, I am a designer. I create the space and the contractor executes the design. Oh, she asked, are you sure you don’t work for free?? At this point, all I could do was laugh. I am pretty sure I don’t work for free. Do you work for free?? (Yes, I actually said that to her, my smart ass couldn’t resist) She let out a little hmmph...and then said of course not! Well, I said, if you need free design advice, I would suggest going down to a home improvement store. (I am not knocking Home Improvement stores that offer design services! Either way, design is NOT free and clients will eventually pay for it one way or another) Well, she stated, I really need a new bathroom. Well, maybe, you’d be better off starting there. I explained that I charge for my work, as do most designers. It takes a lot of energy and time to pull everything together, I told her. I wish you luck on your bathroom. Was I too harsh? I don’t think so. If a client doesn’t value your work right off the bat, and ONLY focuses on the price, do you really think they will value anything you do? And doing stuff for free doesn’t pay my bills either. The glorious thing about working for yourself is telling other people about the value you bring to them and THEIR project. And being able to tell people, who obviously don’t value your work, to politely try another avenue for their design project. Was I too blunt? Nope, but I do know this: I am confident in my ability to bring a project to life with my skills, talent, and experience. And I like helping people who want to be helped and know the energy and time that it takes to bring their design dreams to life!

Now excuse me, I am now on a quest to find some cake. That picture!!