NCIDQ News: The Real Deal: Authentic Consulting

By Carol Jones
Honesty and authentic interactions create added value in the practitioner/client relationship.


By Carol Jones

Being authentic seems to be the latest buzz these days. Whether referring to finding our true passion in work, striving for a higher realm of spirituality or simply living in the present, authenticity in our actions is commendable. Although the focus seems new, consultant guru Peter Block has had a lock on authenticity in the consulting world for almost 30 years. Considered the "bible" for organizational consultants, Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, was first published by Block in 1978. Interior designers and architects may not think of themselves as consultants, yet Block considers a consultant to be anyone in a position to have some influence over an individual, group or organization, but who has no direct power to make changes or implement programs in that organization. Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines a consultant as "one who gives professional advice or services; an expert." An expert is further defined as "one displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience; one with special knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject." Clearly, interior designers are consultants.

In 1957, Ernest Greenwold, a social scientist, suggested that one of the characteristics of a consulting profession is its authority as recognized by the clientele of the consulting professional group. According to Greenwold, clients lack the requisite theoretical background to diagnose their own needs or to discriminate among the range of possibilities for meeting them. The client, in effect, must surrender to the authority of the professional. Considering ourselves authorities on interior design, I believe that we need to look beyond our traditional role as designers and become our clients' trusted advisors. We need to go outside of the realm of aesthetics and help organizations solve strategic internal, and even external, issues. Large management consulting firms have earned trust from business leaders who understand their expertise in strategic problem solving. I believe we can achieve this same level of trust if we engage our clients in the design process from the beginning of a project.

As consultants, if we engage in authentic behavior and involve our clients in the process of our work, we can raise the value of design by promoting and reinforcing the consulting aspects of the profession. Traditionally, we have only revealed to the client what we do, not how we do it. We have emphasized the product of our labors but hidden the process from the client. In fact, it is the process that harbors the value of design.

In his groundbreaking book, Block emphasizes the "process" as much as, or perhaps more than, the product. Whether we are proposing a new workplace design, creating a healthcare facility or designing a prototype retail store, the process used to engage our clients in implementing change is where he challenges us to be "as authentic as you can be at all times." Block believes that most projects fail "not because of the work we do, but because of the weak contracts to which we agree. We must have strong partnerships built through effective contracting from the start. The key is developing the skill and courage to act upon the fact that we have a right to make demands on the people we are there to serve."

According to Block, "Authentic behavior with a client means you put into words what you are experiencing with the client as you work. This is the most powerful thing you can do to have the leverage you are looking for and to build client commitment." It does take courage to be authentic with a client. However, being honest about our feelings and open in sharing those feelings with the client, as well as knowing how to say "no" to the client, are all essential components of authentic behavior.

The emphasis on involving our client in the process of our design work, as well as being authentic in our interactions, goes to the heart of our profession. In The Interior Design Profession's Body of Knowledge, 2005 Edition, Drs. Caren Martin and Denise Guerin state that, "A profession's body of knowledge is the abstract knowledge needed by practitioners to perform the profession's work. Abstract knowledge is what an interior design practitioner knows and applies to a design project. It is the currency of a profession; it is what makes a profession legitimate and valued by the public (Abbott, 1988)." The hallmark of a professional is what one knows, not just what one does. According to Block, our obligation is to share what we know in an authentic way, all the while insisting that our agreements reflect a true partnership with our client.

Consultants, by the nature of their work, must behave ethically. They hold positions of power and influence and are trusted to do the right thing. Unfortunately, as in the case of Enron Corp. and other high-profile breeches of ethical behavior, it is evident that we cannot rely on innate ethics. Therefore, regulation is necessary to provide a mechanism to protect the public that consultants serve. Virtually every profession that affects the public has regulatory boards in place to protect consumers. Doctors, accountants and attorneys all have legislation that outlines not only the minimum requirements for education, experience and examination, but also a code of ethics which the professionals must adhere to in their practice. If a professional violates that code, then the consumer has recourse through the regulatory board to ensure that the public is not harmed. Similarly, the interior design profession has regulation in 25 U.S. jurisdictions and eight Canadian provinces— all requiring that registered (licensed) interior designers meet minimum standards of education, experience and passage of the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) examination, in an effort to protect the public.

It is our clients' respect and demand for our expertise that imbues the interior designer with authority. Authentic behavior, with a focus on process, will allow interior designers to achieve the status of trusted advisor with our clients—raising the value of design and enhancing our role as consultants.

  • Carol Jones is a principal in Kasian Architecture Interior Design & Planning Ltd., one of Canada's largest integrated design firms. An NCIDQ certificate holder, Jones serves on NCIDQ's board of directors. She is a former president of the Interior Designers of Canada (IDC) and the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). She has been inducted into the College of Fellows of three associations—the Interior Designers Institute of British Columbia, the IDC and the IIDA.

    You can read the The Interior Design Profession's Body of Knowledge, 2005 Edition by visiting and clicking on the link at the bottom of the home page.