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Prioritizing Project Management

By Laura Schlereth

Design thrives on creativity. But in Interior Design, clients desire more than artistic talent. Designers must also know how to navigate the business side in order to set themselves apart.

“Construction of any sort is in desperate need of project management,” says Laura Ramsey Engler, ASID, CID, Design Principal at Ramsey Engler, Ltd., in Minneapolis. “As a creative profession, we’re pretty fertile with wonderful ideas, but if we can’t execute and coordinate them, the project won’t work.”

Engler says that project management is essential for Interior Design because the complicated fabrication process requires constant communication and accountability. “You can’t always count on meeting and producing the project face-to-face; you need communication systems and document management that transcends locale,” she says. “And when you’re conceiving things that haven’t been done before, there needs to be record-keeping and accountability.”

Cary Johnson, FIIDA, Chicago-based Senior Associate and Project Director at global architecture, design, planning and consulting firm, Gensler, agrees and says a project manager is always checking his or her cell phone and email to make sure a project is running smoothly at all times. “In an interior design project, it’s a daily, even hourly conversation with the client and consultants,” he says. “A project manager is there from the kick-off to project close.”

Scene Change

Maturing technology and the current economy has made Interior Design a different industry than in the past, says Mary Bartlett, IIDA, AIA, LEED AP, Associate Partner of Marmon Mok Architecture in San Antonio. With technology bringing more integration, people are also expecting more from their designers. This means taking on additional tasks that might not have pertained to you in the past in order to make you more marketable, according to Bartlett. “The industry has changed so much with new technology,” she says. “Everything’s becoming more and more integrated; projects are becoming leaner.”

For example, Bartlett says she sees the integration in Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology, which consolidates the design information in one model shared by the architect, engineer, interior designer, contractor and owner. Moving from a two-dimensional set of drawings to a three-dimensional model (which includes structural members, ductwork and actual building materials) provides the capability of the interior designer to be an integrated team member, according to Bartlett.

“The more informed the interior designer is on the project, the more effective they are on the team,” she says. “Also, today’s economy is such that projects and profit margins are leaner than ever, so efficiency is critical. If an interior designer has multiple skills sets and can design, detail construction drawings, and manage a project, that is a valuable employee.”

Rusty Meador, a Real Estate Consultant with Plantation Development Services, a condominium development and consulting business in Wilmington, N.C., regularly hires interior designers through contracts and agrees that with the current economy, people are looking for a package deal — someone who can offer multiple services in order to provide more value per project. Meador says it’s a challenge to find project management skills in creative people because three to five years ago, the business responsibilities would to fall to someone else.
“It’s becoming more and more important that my clients work with designers who understand the whole process,” he says. “There’s an expectation that they recognize the technical details of a project.”

All In the Preparation

Phyllis Harbinger, ASID, CID, Principal of Design Concepts/Interiors, LLC, in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) says that the importance of project management is more valued in today’s Interior Design education. Interior Design students at FIT are taught comprehensive project management skills in “professional practice” courses. In the lower division, they learn the aspects of running a business, such as creating proposals and drafting invoices. In the upper division, some of their studio course work requires them to do group projects where they learn specifications on a commercial level and also how to work as a team. Usually one student takes the main leadership role and then delegates responsibilities, such as research, drafting plans, rendering and conducting interviews.“In addition to their individual performance grades, they’re evaluated on how well they work as a team and how they delegate,” Harbinger says. “All of that helps prepare them on how to work in the real world.”

Having taken graduate classes in management, marketing and economics, Bartlett recommends checking a local university to see if it offers business law courses or management classes to get a better understanding of project management. Once you attain the proper training, it’s important to present that knowledge effectively. Meador says that when he interviews interior designers, he expects them to prove that they know the process. “One of the most important things to me is whether I understand their plan,” he says. “I ask them if they can define what their critical path process is.”

Being able to speak on all major elements of a project such as scheduling, risk management and working with other contractors, will show that a designer understands all the comprehensive requirements, making the recruiter more confident in their skills. Meador says that if they can demonstrate their decision-making ability and how they’ve resolved conflict without going over budget, they can become a front-runner for the job.

Great Expectations

“It’s about stepping up and taking more responsibility,” says Bartlett, who thinks the strongest interior designers are the ones who show competent leadership skills because, acting as project managers, interior designers set the tone for the whole job. “Good leaders should have the ability to see the big picture,” she says. “They understand that there are many viewpoints and ideas and are committed to the very best project outcome and able to produce results.”

Johnson says that because the project manager merges all different objectives — of the client, architect and contractor — he or she might not always be the most popular person. The project manager is the one who delivers the bad news, such as preliminary pricing from a contractor coming in higher than what was budgeted. But he says the key to being a successful project manager is being able to offer a solution, such as making cuts elsewhere where the effect will be least felt. “A good project manager knows how to say: ‘These are our issues,’” he says. “They deliver the message right away and deal with the problem directly rather than just throwing their hands up.”

Bartlett agrees and says the true talent is in managing client expectations as well as the design team members’ time and schedule because they don’t always complement each other. “For example, if a project manager promises a client finished renderings by the end of the week, but the team is committed to another deadline, it causes stress and frustration on all sides,” she says. “It takes the ability to see the big picture to ensure that the best results are met.”Harbinger says that project management can increase the professionalism of Interior Design because clients’ expectations of accountability are higher. “I think clients are much more savvy today,” she says. “They’re asking you to follow up on every little thing, including price validation and getting different quotes from multiple resources. They’re requiring that much more checks and balances be employed in the specification process.” More accountability means designers are liable for every single thing, and according to Harbinger, applying project management methods of planning and recording will not only result in a happier client but also safer business practices.

What it Comes Down To

Instilling project management requires a more organized and methodical approach to interior design work, and Engler says it includes simple practices such as regular team meetings to check in and guarantee that all areas are being covered. “Make sure you’re creating that chain of communication so that information is being properly disseminated,” she says. Engler also recommends documenting every decision and transcribing important discussions, making them available to everyone on the team. It saves time because it gives a record to reference if an issue comes up, and it makes the process as transparent as possible, which will ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Luckily, there is a great deal of software available that can create a project Web site or shared server so that everyone on the team can access information easily. Email communication is effective, but Engler says it’s also very helpful having “one project war room” officiated by an administrator and accessible to team members. Having everything, such as schedules, renderings and documents, electronically merged in one place will prevent miscommunication and streamline information exchange. Engler recommends the construction software Procore, which offers a Web-based portal that allows users to store documents, photos and use automated emails.

Harbinger recommends Design Manager or Studio IT, project management software made specifically for interior designers that also incorporates accounting capabilities, such as budget analysis. For conferencing, Harbinger suggests GoToMeeting, which allows users to conference via microphones or Webcams and to record meetings.

Work Well With Others

Interior Design is an integral part of construction, but it’s one of multiple professions involved. Project management not only helps things run more smoothly on a team, but it also aids collaboration with other teams. Decisions and tasks are rarely isolated. For example, Harbinger is currently working on a residential project where the client requested a specific wooden inlay border in the foyer, which flows into the living room and dining room. Harbinger says the decision involves discussions with the client, builder, architect and floor installer who “all have their opinions and input.” She says that although it’s a smaller part of the larger project, it requires many emails, site visits and documentation to make sure everyone is on board with the decision-making process. Applying the methodical system makes for smoother collaboration, which makes for a more successful project, says Harbinger. “Using project management tools and software allows you to set up a work flow for the project,” she says. “Being able to show ‘these are the steps you take for this task’ makes everything seamless.”


  1. Very good points. I find in my own project management that communication is Key. Posted by: Stephanie Ogram on 05.12.10 at 11:49
  2. Project management not only involves critical path awareness and execution but the ability to make decisions and get the work done by any means necessary at any given time. Posted by: on 07.24.11 at 01:25
  3. Great article, so true for todays industry. What recommendations do you have for courses that can be taken to get a certificate in project management? Do you recommend Construction Project Management or any other specific field of project management for interior designers?

    Thanks! Posted by: Christine Bottacari on 03.20.14 at 10:18
  4. Great Article, I graduated with a bachelors in Interior Architecture and I am now halfway done with my Master in Project Management, Even though I enjoy designing, I love the project management part of it more, making sure all the phases run smoothly and organizing a successful project its challenging yet so fulfilling. Posted by: Milena Rueda on 04.30.15 at 12:42
  5. So happy I found this article! I'm a certified PMP and starting a new career in interior design. The article concisely captures some critical project management areas and how they relate to working in ID. Thank you! Posted by: Carol-Anne Garrison on 08.18.15 at 04:26
  6. i m so happy to find this article. its validate my PhD research on project management competency in ID professional practice. i m about to go on my VIVA soon n i m happy to share the research on the topic above. however, i would like to know the procedure on how can we share the knowledge acrross d globe Posted by: Myzura Ahmad on 11.22.15 at 11:19
  7. An Interior Designer plays a very important role in Interior Designing, by creating some new ideas of designing the place. This page gives so much of information about an interior designer or his/her design.
    But i would suggest you all about Shobha Interiors. Shobha interior is the finest Interior Designer in Delhi . They cannot disappoint you by their work. They work like professionals.
    So, contact Shobha Interiors for best interior designing and make your place more professional or creative. Posted by: Ashish on 06.29.17 at 04:06
  8. Shobha Interior designer is the best interior designer in dwarka . Posted by: Shobha Interior on 08.11.17 at 02:30
  9. Perfect artice about Interior Designer. I would like to suggest you one of the best interior designer.
    Shobha Interior designer is the best interior designer in dwarka . Posted by: Shobha Interior Designer on 09.02.17 at 01:25
  10. Project Management formal training and practices are rarely applied to interior decorating projects at the level taught by PMI(R) and honestly, I think that it would serve anyone who is fulltime in the industry to receive the training. I apply what I know as a PMP(R) to my design business and it really helps with clients and projects. Posted by: Delaine on 12.31.17 at 10:48
  11. PMP certification is very important in every professions specially PMP certification in UAE . I took classes from OrientMCT Abu Dhabi they were very trained in PMP Posted by: Sara Siddiqui on 10.20.18 at 08:51
  12. Hello Very useful tips for acquire knowledge of interior designing.You can also choose interior designers in noida .Interior Designer Pro provide you the best high-end Luxury Interior Designing for your place with the plan. Our aim is to create something elegant, something impressive that will give you satisfaction.Thanks. Posted by: Interior Designing Company in Dwarka on 03.05.19 at 12:16

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Perspective Sponsored CEUs. Prioritizing Project Management.

Read this article, complete the following questions and receive .1 CEU.


  1. The Relationship of a Project Manager is critical. What value does an Interior Designer bring to this role?
  2. From reading this article, describe the process and expectation of an Interior Designer – Project Manager.
  3. How has technology (BIM) in today’s economy affected the Interior Design profession?
  4. Technology plays an integral role in communicating different objectives of a project to those involved. What tools and delivery methods are suggested in this article? What in your own experience have you used successfully in your own practice?
  5. How has the economy changed the focus of Interior Design – Project Management? Share a personal experience that exemplifies this.

After reading this article you will be aware of:

  • Steps an Interior Designer can take to successfully manage a project to meet expectations of the client and enhance business practices.
  • Project management technology and software, and why information accessibility and communication is the key.
  • How to understand the whole process and recognize technical details of the project.

Return completed answers to:

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If you have any questions, contact us at 312.467.1950 or toll-free at 888.799.IIDA.