What Can Consumers Expect?

Anne H. Browning

How to tell if projects are in good and qualified hands.


David Letterman is noted for his top 10 lists—usually spoofing the latest news or topic of the moment. A few months ago, Smart Money featured "10 Things Your Interior Designer Won't Tell You" on its Web site. Several points are well taken—urging consumers to find designers with appropriate education, experience and passage of the NCIDQ (National Council for Interior Design Certification) examination. However, the article features misconceptions that perpetuate negative impressions of the profession, as well as negative stories. Preferring to take a positive tact, my list (of 11 reasons) highlights valuable services a consumer can expect when he or she hires a qualified interior designer. In using the term "qualified" interior designer, I mean a designer who has passed the NCIDQ examination or is licensed/certified/registered within his or her U.S. or Canadian jurisdiction (24 U.S. jurisdictions and eight Canadian provinces are regulated—see sidebar for list).

As the only public member on the NCIDQ board of directors, I believe that your profession needs more positive public exposure. Although I realize the readers of Interiors & Sources are typically design professionals, my hope is that you will share this article with your clients.

A qualified interior designer will:
* Help you determine your design needs. Whether they are designing a private residence or a large corporate facility, interior designers are trained in "programming"—the industry buzzword for determining what the client needs, not just what the client thinks he or she needs. Programming is a science that involves observation, interviewing and research. For example, if a qualified interior designer is designing an Alzheimer's unit, then he/she will research the disease and how it impacts human behavior and needs. This research includes understanding the needs of caregivers, families and patients with Alzheimer's.

* Assist in establishing a budget.
Qualified interior designers have experience to know if a renovation will cost $20 per square foot or $240 per square foot (or anywhere in between.) They know how much furniture costs—"good" quality, "better" quality or "best" quality. They know if furniture may be worth salvaging by re-upholstering or refurbishing—or if it is a lost cause. They know the costs of various interior materials, such as flooring, ceiling systems, millwork, wall covering, lighting and other interior components.

* Quote a design fee in advance and explain the fee thoroughly, specifically noting what it does and does not include. Not all interior designers purchase product and resell it. Many interior designers charge either an hourly fee or a flat fee, based on the value of the project. Others charge a percentage of construction costs, or purchase product, mark it up and resell it to the consumer. Whatever way the interior designer charges his or her fee, it will be written in a contract or letter of agreement, outlining all payments, expectations and estimated completion dates.

* Share his or her credentials—indicating education, years experience and passage of the NCIDQ examination. Qualified interior designers have worked hard to become professionals. Most have a minimum four-year education (often a Bachelor of Interior Design or Bachelor of Arts degree with a focus on interior design). Many have Master of Interior Design degrees or other additional education in architecture or interior design. Practitioners who have many years experience may not have a Bachelors in Interior Design, but usually are well educated and have many years of qualified experience. All qualified interior designers will indicate that they have passed the NCIDQ examination and/or are registered/certified/licensed in their state.

* Provide their professional membership information
, such as American Society of Interior Designers, International Interior Design Association or Interior Designers of Canada. Many interior designers choose to become members of a professional association. Similar to the reasons many people join professional associations, interior designers gain networking opportunities, business/marketing tips, CEU opportunities and all the typical benefits from a professional organization. Professional members may have an appellation (ASID, IIDA or IDC) after their name. However, the letters alone are not a guarantee that an individual has passed the NCIDQ examination. It is wise for a consumer to ask an interior designer directly if he or she has passed the NCIDQ exam.

* Ask you how you want to have the project completed—by bidding, negotiated contract or another method—your choice. An interior designer may recommend contractors or may recommend that you bid the project to several contractors to get a competitive price. Interior designers do not accept kick-backs or other commissions without disclosing such arrangements to the client or passing the savings directly to the client—it is against their code of ethics.

* Plan a schedule/time table at the beginning of the project. Many consumers are not sure how long projects will take. Furniture delivery has notoriously long lead times, contractors have varying schedules, and the time it takes to plan a project—including completion of construction drawings and bidding documents—takes time. A qualified interior designer will outline an estimated schedule and indicate roadblocks or
trouble spots to you in advance.

* Accept responsibility when problems occur.
All qualified interior designers carry Errors & Omissions or liability insurance. If an error occurs that clearly was the interior designer's fault, the qualified interior designer will make it right. Interior designers are interested in maintaining good professional client relationships. A happy client leads to at least one (and often three!) more clients.

* Work with you to create an interior that expresses your identity (corporate or personal), is functional, can be maintained—and that is safe. Licensing, education, experience and passage of an examination are typical requirements for any profession that impacts public health, safety and welfare. Interior designers are trained to design spaces—including locating walls, specifying lighting, emergency lighting, determining ceiling heights, flooring materials, wall materials, furniture, equipment, locating electrical receptacles, light switches, selecting colors, fabrics and finishes—all in a manner that is functional, can be maintained by facilities staff, meets local and state/provincial fire and building codes, considers sustainability issues, employs universal design principles and expresses your identity or the needs of your clients.

* Turn your project down if it doesn't seem like a good "fit."
Just as a consumer may be looking for a certain chemistry with his or her design professional, a qualified interior designer is interested in taking on a project that meets his or her strategic goals; one that will lead to a successful professional relationship. If your project is not a good match for the interior designer's experience, he or she may recommend other professionals for you to interview.

* Recommend other design professionals as part of the team.
Interior designers work with architects, structural engineers, lighting consultants, landscape architects, decorators, window treatment consultants and contractors. If the interior designer determines that your project would benefit from added expertise, then you can expect a recommendation for a sub-consultant. As in all other negotiations with a qualified interior designer, the involvement of these professionals will be disclosed up front, in writing and only with your approval.

These top 11 expectations are important—and can be assured by asking two questions: "Have you passed the NCIDQ examination?" and "Are you licensed/certified/registered in our state or province (if our state or province regulates interior design)?" Every few years NCIDQ conducts a Practice Analysis Study for the profession of interior design. This extensive research document provides the "blueprint" for NCIDQ's examination—ensuring that the content of the exam reflects current practices of the profession. Passage of the NCIDQ examination means that an interior designer has met the minimum qualifications required to protect the public. A wise consumer will also be sure to check references of any professional he or she hires. Armed with this list and two questions, a consumer should be able to confidently engage an interior design professional and heave a sigh of relief that his or her project is in good—qualified—hands.

Anne H. Browning is an independent consultant in the licensure and certification field who has been in practice for over 20 years in the credentialing area. She is a qualified American National Standards Institute (ANSI) auditor for credentialing programs seeking accreditation and a past board member of National Organization for Competency Assessment, the standard setting body for certification. Browning is currently serving as the public member for the NCIDQ board. For information about NCIDQ, visit www.ncidq.org.