When Design is Doubted

Whatever the reason, some clients just can’t be satisfied. Here are five ways to turn their objections into opportunities.

If you’re like most designers, you’ve been doing this for most of your life. You probably started designing things as a child or young adult and moved on to studying it in college. Odds are you have at least one certification under your belt, and perhaps you’ve even gained some accolades for your work. You are able to visualize spaces in three dimensions, parse sustainability documentation, and create environments that promote health and well-being by design.

Most clients intuitively understand this and appreciate your expertise, but there are the occasional few who do not. Perhaps they don’t trust your credentials or have a clear understanding of the scope of work an interior designer performs; maybe they have preconceived ideas about how a workplace should function. Whatever the reason, these clients can be extremely difficult to work with, resulting in big headaches, multiplying hours and skyrocketing expenses.

So what should you do if you find yourself sitting across the table from a client who either doesn’t understand or appreciate your design ideas, or is reluctant to embrace change? We turned to a few seasoned designers and architects for advice.

look at their idea
If you’re lucky, this problem can be solved simply by showing them their idea as well as the alternatives you’ve come up with.

“Most of the time if a client is hesitant about one of our ideas, it’s because they have their own preconceived ideas that are different than ours—sometimes they may have seen something in a magazine that they love and works great for that particular project, but does not work for their project,”

explains Asifa Tirmizi, partner and architect at NYC-based firm Tirmizi Campbell. “Usually, it’s easy to show them that their idea may not be the best for that particular project. We can usually just use their idea as option A and then draw up two other options that we feel work better—most clients get it right away.”

This method has the added benefit of showcasing the research and background knowledge you’ve leveraged in your design solutions, and makes your client feel like they’re making a more informed choice. It also allows you to establish yourself as more than just a purveyor of furnishings and finishes.

“For ideas that may involve a change in work environment, such as an open office layout, we do a lot of pre-design work with the client to see how they work,” says Tirmizi. “We then can present a design option that may be different than their current space, but is better spatially or is more efficient for them. Sometimes a new design trend is not the best solution.”

keep communicating
Obtaining client input and involvement from the very beginning encourages buy-in and minimizes potential pushback down the road. But remember that communication is a two-way street; you need to discuss your own vision and interpretation of the client’s wishes.

“From an interiors standpoint, part of it is managing expectations up front of what they’re expecting the project to look or be like, or how they’re thinking it’s going to function,” says Susan Pniewski, director of interior design for H&A Architects and Engineers.

This kind of collaboration requires a keen sense of attention and empathy; you must balance your need to sell a client on a particular solution, while also listening closely to what they are requesting. Middle ground may be necessary.

“Bringing as much information to the table and always being 100 percent transparent on why we think this is the solution for them is, I find, the best way to convince a client or user,” says Vincent Hauspy, designer and project director with Moureaux Hauspy + Associés Designers in Montreal. “If they still don’t buy into the idea, it’s time to compromise and find their comfort zone.”

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