Reader mailbag #1.

And for all I know, it’ll be the only time this title is ever used.

Jay (R, not M) asks:

“You have stated in the past that residential design is about the resident, not the designer. How do you approach learning the sensibilities and directions of your clients?”

At the risk of sounding like “Well, duh.”

You go and talk to them. (and in this case you actually have to GO and talk to them. This is one of those few things that even I can’t do online. And if *I* am saying that, you really do have to go over there.)

That’s really what it comes down to, but realistically you have three things to consider:

1. How do they function in the space they already have?

Basically, there’s something not working with what they have. If there weren’t, they wouldn’t be calling you. You have to find out what that is. Not just by what they’re telling you but by observation. It’s kind of like playing detective. A lot of the distress people feel about a space is not easily articulated by the client. They don’t know *what* the problem is all the time- they just know there’s a problem. Worse, they don’t know what they *want*, either most of the time. You have to be observant. Sit there and talk to them for a couple hours. Not just about their project but about anything. And mostly, you want to simply listen to them. Ask questions, and let them just ramble on with the answers. Take the occasional note, and sift through it all on the way home. I also take photos of the things people LIKE in their houses. I don’t have to like them. I just have to know what they are. There’s generally a common set of threads that links them all together even if it doesn’t seem that way at first glance. Find out what it is, and you’re well on your way to knowing how they think aesthetically.

2. Are they realistic in terms of the service triangle?

I should probably give the service triangle its own post, because it deserves it, but the short version for right now is that you have three qualities: cheap, fast, and good. Pick two. You only *get* two at any one time. Anyone who tells you any different is lying to you. You can pick any of the two you want, but you don’t get the third one as an added bonus for blood or money. And speaking of money, part of your job as a designer is to be able to be honest right up front about what is, and isn’t possible.

Because I know she reads this, and would easily admit it, when I did SFW’s kitchen in Washington DC, the first day I went down there she and her husband asked me if I thought they could do the kitchen they wanted for 20k. My answer was simply “No.” No buts, no qualifiers, nothing after that “no.” There was just too much work that needed to be done to the space (as any look through the before/after photos can tell you.) You need to be able to be that direct and honest with people before they put pen to contract, even at the risk of them not doing the job. And for their part, they need to be *realistic* about their goals, budgets and how the service triangle works(also, they need to NOT back up their projects against a holiday, ffs.) If they aren’t realistic, you’re going to have a hard time working with them, because there will be a vicious cycle of wasted time, energy and money. They can call you back when they’ve gotten a handle on their own goals.

They also have to be honest with you and themselves about who they are and how they function. I beg people *not* to clean up before I arrive. I don’t want to see their house on its “best behavior”. I need to know what it looks like on an average Wednesday, because there are WAY more of those than “best behavior” days. People need to understand that changing a design doesn’t give you a personality transplant. Just because you make every surface white doesn’t mean you’re going to suddenly become a neat freak. You need to be realistic.

3. Can you get along with these people for 6+ months without wanting to kill yourself and/or them?

You laugh, but I mean this. In residential work in particular there’s a lot of psychological hand-holding that goes on because no one is really rational about their house. It’s a very emotionally charged place, no matter whose house it is. It’s one of the reasons residential work is not at the top of my all time favorite things to do list. You wind up being part designer, part psychologist. It can be draining. Some people are more suited to it than others. And there is no project, for any amount of money and any time duration that doesn’t have stressors that come with it. Vendors blow lead times. Your friendly neighborhood designer’s computer decides to melt a motherboard *whistles innocently*. Clients change their minds at the last minute, or decide once something is signed off on that no, they really want to change it. Maybe they have some kind of family emergency that puts their project on hold for a few weeks. The sink has a crack in it when it’s delivered. The cat jumps the barrier and leaves pawprints in the thinset. Your contractor almost cuts off a finger with a circular saw. (and in fact, ALL of these but one has actually happened. Mr. Kitty never walked on the thinset, but Mike did come very close to cutting off his left index finger with a circular saw.) Everyone reacts differently under stress. You need to determine whether the way YOU react and the way *they* react are compatible. (This is why I prefer not to do residential work for strangers btw, because if I already know you, I probably already know which way your lunacy tends to fall. I don’t have to get thrown into the pit of crazy to find out the hard way. Trust me, I am already an expert in my own crazy.)

If you can’t get on with them in that way, then for the sake of your own sanity, recommend them to another designer. You’ll still nab a 10% finder’s fee and you don’t have to want to shoot yourself rather than get out of bed in the morning.

Any more questions? Feel free to ask in comments.


  1. Mr. Kitty never walked on the thinset
    No but a kitty did walk on the varnish from what I remember *LOL*

  2. Regarding the finder’s fee, it would seem that someone with a skillset of determining a customer’s needs combined with knowing the styles of other designers could make a good living as a “design agent,” someone who matches customers with designers who are well suited to working with them. Does this exist and, if so, what do you think of it?

  3. AnathemaD- yeah but that was at my house, not on a job. And that was TOTALLY not my fault.

    Trav- what I’ve found though is that unless they’re designers themselves they’re not great at this. My experience with recruiters (who do a similar job) is they just don’t often understand the industry well enough. I’ve been sent to look at jobs whose *actual* descriptions had little to no bearing on how they were presented.

  4. I don’t remember having a holiday crisis. (That was K & J, wasn’t it? Or have I blocked it from my memory? That’s possible.)

    Let me point out for the benefit of the audience, that we went with you for several reasons. One is that we liked your work and we liked you. The other is that you were honest about the costs, unlike every other person who talked to. They all tried to hide the costs, and it was unclear to us if we could find a way to afford it or not.

    We think we ended up with the best possible kitchen. So does Mr Kitty.

  5. You didn’t. K/J backed theirs up against Christmas.

  6. Yeah, I remember that.

  7. Yeah. And then the whole staff for the cabinet company took a week off in early December to go hunting. That was fun. Only you know, not.

  8. ::wishes more contractors operated with your integrity/pragmatism::

  9. Honestly I think a lot of it is that I just don’t want to have to talk on the phone any more than I have to. If you spell things out up front, you get fewer phone calls.

    Anything that lessens my meatspace interactions with the vast bulk of humanity works for me.

  10. a-freakin’-men.

  11. I just wanted to see how another person who does some sort of custom work (on a larger scale than I), got on with their clients.

  12. I assume your methods aren’t much different. I mean I know all you really do is talk to *me*, and you’ve certainly created enough custom stuff for my happy ass over the years. 🙂

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