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International Interior Design Association

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Relationship Advice

By Anne Brooks Ranallo

Clients know there’s more out there than traditional versus contemporary. They’re excited about style. They realize that a good design doesn’t just look good; it feels welcoming, functions effectively and lifts the spirits of everyone who enters the space.  Clients invest more than ever in the design process — and demand more. With a little effort, client-designer relationships can grow bigger and better than ever. Every client is unique, but some designers offer universal rules for relationships.

Test the Chemistry

Lauren Rottet, IIDA, FAIA, Principal of DMJM Rottet in Los Angeles and Houston, is accustomed to dealing with large client teams. She’s designed offices for Walt Disney, Hewlett-Packard, Marriott and many large law firms through her business and with the Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston offices of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Rottet recommends interviewing your potential clients while they interview you. Watch out for the ones who complain about every other designer or contractor who’s worked with them. You may think you can make them happy because you’ll be better by comparison, but more likely, they’re impossible to please.  Michael Nolan, who has served as Director of Interior Architecture for SmithGroup in San Francisco and Minnesota, suggests trusting your sixth sense. “Usually those initial gut feelings are correct,” he says.

Learn Their Organizational Structure to Gain Their Trust

Once you know you have a good client, the real interviewing begins. Joe Bona, President of New York-based GroupRed, has worked with food retailers and consumer product manufacturers around the world. In early stakeholder interviews, he seeks the client’s self-image: where the company has been, where it will be in five years, its strengths, weaknesses and objectives. When the process is effective, the client is ready for “the leap of faith that when we push the envelope, it will be good for them,” he says.

“We send a design team to meet with all levels over two or three weeks,” Rottet says. “We get to know who doesn’t fit in and why. We comment back and hear their responses. They might recognize their problem and say, ‘You’re right. You know, we’d like some help with that.’”

Learn the Cultures of the Industry and Locale

Steve McCollom, IIDA, now Associate Principal with the 99-year-old California firm Ratcliff, spent years as a client with a federal agency in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, he trusted firms that followed the first rule of political discourse: Stay on message. “I had to feel I was getting what was promised,” McCollom says. “Some marketing materials were 180 degrees from what I heard during the interview.”

With clients throughout the United States, Japan, Russia, the Middle East, South Africa and Peru, Bona develops client relationships on at least two simultaneous levels. “Over time, we build close relationships based not on projects alone, but by engaging the client closely,” he says. “International clients look for that, too, but there’s a certain assumption that Americans can’t really know other cultures. We have to show them that we know how to learn. We can take a global trend and adapt it to their culture.”

Respect Your Client's Knowledge, and They'll Respect Yours

Bona notes that as retail becomes more competitive, his clients become more marketing-savvy and sophisticated about design’s effect on consumers. To keep up, designers have to be more focused, concise and precise. “It’s more challenging now,” he says. “You can’t get away with esoterica. There’s less room for the flighty designer who talks about color as though it’s magic.”

Instead, designers have to offer unique solutions, knowing that clients will recognize the latest all-purpose design trend in their industry — and that they probably won’t want it.

Listen to the Client's Initial Idea - Then Improve It

If a client has a cherished idea that won’t work aesthetically, functionally or financially, where do you draw the line between being agreeable and following your better instincts?

“That’s where you separate the good designers from the bad,” Rottet says. “You have to sort out why they like something, get used to it and figure out a more interesting way to include it.”

“Clients may come with a prescribed solution, but the designer should diagnose their problem,” McCollom says. He recalls a major hospital client who wanted to add four operating rooms; McCollom showed him how the existing rooms could be made more efficient instead.

Confirm the Client's Expectations - The Exceed Them

Rottet believes in stretching any budget while informing the client at the outset, “This is what we hope to achieve within your budget.” If the client wants to guarantee that quality or better, negotiate comprehensively during the early stages to prevent difficulties later. And don’t be discouraged by a client’s tight budget, as long as it comes with an open mind. Just beware of the client who insists that inexpensive means ugly. “A good designer can figure out how to make a cheap design better, even if it’s only with color, good views and open planning. Those are all free,” Rottet says.

Teach the Client How a Good Environment Raises Perceived Value for All Users

Rottet finds that law firms, once tough customers, have come to appreciate design as their business becomes more competitive and less centralized. As lawyers now meet with clients electronically more often than physically, they may not need the traditional conservative look to reassure their clients of their stability. Today’s stylish, luxurious offices are designed largely to attract and keep hard-working lawyers and staff. “Ten years ago, it was, ‘I would have designed this myself, but I didn’t have the time.’ Now, law firms are fun to work with,” she says. “They want to enjoy their space and natural light because they spend so many hours there.”

Keep Client's on Schedule and Within Budget

Scope creeps upward, seldom downward. If a client wants costly changes, be honest. Nolan notes that you may need to remind the client that design isn’t only about aesthetics; it’s about costs over the space’s lifecycle, costs in user efficiency and other mundane matters that may be forgotten in the excitement of the space taking shape.

Make the Client Enjoy Talking to You

There’s no such thing as too much information. Update your clients at least weekly, and talk daily during the project’s final stages. Remember that they are as engaged in the project as you are. “Usually they enjoy it so much, they spend more than enough time talking,” Rottet says.

“Everybody’s a designer — everybody goes to home improvement stores, everybody enjoys design,” Bona says. Keep the client engaged, he advises, and ultimately you will have better control and better results.

Small Firms, Small Clients

The smaller the design firm, the more personal the client relationship. Sole practitioners, or those with a few associates, usually work with entrepreneurs or homeowners and handle all aspects of a project.
Dennis Duffy, Assoc. IIDA, a Boston designer noted for his residential work and furniture line, emphasizes that residential design is a service business with emotionally committed clients. Most such clients are couples, so the designer often must reconcile two divergent sensibilities. “You’re taking their whole identity and transposing it to a three-dimensional space,” he says. “You almost have to be a psychologist.” He credits his success in part to waiting tables as a college student, when he learned “to take care of people very respectfully and efficiently.”

Duffy’s favorite clients are those who find the most productive level of engagement — neither, “I want this and I want it now,” nor, “I just want you to decide.” To reach that level, he advises designers to fear no question as they listen for the client’s likes and dislikes.

Small business owners, by comparison, tend to have firm ideas. One is that design should be easy and inexpensive. “They’ve watched too many episodes of Trading Spaces or Queer Eye,” says Candice Mathers, owner of Design Fruition in Chicago. Mathers designs spas, clinics, restaurants and other commercial spaces, and she patiently teaches such clients the value of design — its effects on consumer spending and employee morale — and convinces them to invest the necessary time and money. “Clients today want to feel more involved in the process, and they are more educated about materials, finishes and design than in the past,” she says. “Yet, more than ever, my clients are so busy that they give me a budget and let me handle the accounting, project management, design and subcontracting.”

Establish reasonable expectations for costs, time frames and goals, Mathers advises. Then exceed those expectations. “I manage construction down to the last detail,” she says. “It’s easiest to attract new clients by building a reputation as not only a good designer, but someone who can manage large projects as well.”