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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.”

go visual & tactile
It may seem obvious that you should appeal to a client’s senses when proposing something new, but the importance of this cannot be understated. For most people, understanding of a concept or solution comes fastest from personal interaction.

“For floor plan layouts and material choices, almost 100 percent of the time, we sell our ideas by having great drawings, which are not only beautiful but are clear and easy to understand. We also present lots of samples of actual finishes so they can feel them,” says Tirmizi.

Two-dimensional renderings, three-dimensional drawings, site visits and mockups can all be helpful in selling your vision. This approach is also useful for situations where you are proposing a wholesale change and need to alleviate the fear of the unknown that often accompanies it.

“On a recent commercial project, we had to convince a client to go with an open plan workspace,” Tirmizi recalls. “For staff accustomed to working in private offices, you have to show them that in an open plan they will still be able to get their work done and be efficient in doing so. We were successful in convincing them because we were able to show them the feeling of openness and collaboration. Also, it was helpful to physically show them mock-ups of different types of workstations, which are much more inviting and softer than the stereotypical cubicle most people think of when you say open plan.”

power in numbers
Metrics are a solid ally because they make a hard case for your design. While difficult clients can always find things to argue with when it comes to matters of aesthetics, it’s hard to argue with numbers.

“When faced with a situation where the client is not buying into a proposed design solution, I typically present the client with metrics,” says Susana Covarrubias, design director and senior associate in Gensler’s Seattle office. “For example, we created a Workplace Survey, or WPI, that measures organizations against the best performing companies in their industry. This is a great tool that tells clients where they are. Most clients are hesitant to change unless they see a business case for such change.”

“Take for example the move from private offices to open work environments,” she continues. “Traditional companies may find it hard to take this leap without understanding the benefits of it. Open plan is more efficient in the use of real estate, which translates into additional square footage for collaborative spaces. It’s a win-win situation.”

innovation wanted
Don’t be tempted to play it safe, just because you think it’ll create less controversy with clients. As much as they may not want to admit it, they are depending on your innovation to succeed.

“Attracting and retaining talent is a huge aspect in a competitive market. Talent will always go where innovation is,” notes Covarrubias. “Because of this, many times we are designing more than just space for our clients, but also helping them position their organization in the market to gain a competitive edge.”

And while you are the expert, you also know that you’re in business because you’re good at what you do and you make your clients happy—which means giving them an end-product they can truly be excited about.

“It’s definitely a team effort. It’s not going in there, being the knight on the white horse and saying ‘This is what you need.’ It’s more of a collaborative thing,” Pniewski says. “Part of it is getting to know the client and how they want to work. Some just want you to tell them what they need; others want to be part of the process and will push back because they don’t want to just take the first solution. The better the communication, the better the project.”

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