I’m three weeks into my Introduction to Interior Design class and have been pleasantly surprised with how much we’re focusing on the actual business side of the profession. From first meeting with a client and discussing their needs to figuring out your fee schedule and how you’ll bill, the course has provided great insights into the day-to-day of a interior designer.
This has brought up an interesting question — if I decide to pursue a career in interior design, will I want to work for a design firm or run my own business?
For years, I’ve dabbled with the idea of being an entrepreneur. There’s something alluring about being able to set your own schedule and choose your own work. Of course, I’m sure part of that is more romantic fantasy rather than brutal reality. I know that running your own business can mean working longer hours and constantly trying to drum up new work. But there’s also such a feeling of accomplishment I see from business owners.
Independent Designer vs. Design Firm
Looking at the entire design process, there are a number of differences between running your own interior design business and working in a design firm.
First, there is finding the client. Working in a firm, I imagine that clients are typically assigned to you. Yes, you may have the opportunity to bring in your own clients, but I’m not sure if there is the responsibility to do so. Related to that, I imagine large firms have an entire marketing team dedicated to promoting the business. As a business owner, marketing and sales would all fall to me, and especially in the beginning, I imagine this would take up a big part of my time. I think as an independent interior designer, you ideally get to the point where referrals alone fill up your schedule, and you can spend much more of your time on actual design work.
Second is meeting with the client and understanding their needs. This is a stage where I’m sure the process is pretty much the same. Whether you’re working as an independent designer or part of a design firm, this is the step where you will be asking the client questions about their lifestyle, their needs for the room(s) they’re looking to design, their style preferences, etc. This is also the meeting where you would typically start by presenting and reviewing the Letter of Agreement/contract, which outlines the services that will be provided and how the project will be billed. While a designer in a firm probably has a legal department to prepare at least the template for this document, an independent business owner will need to put together this document on their own, including setting their own fees.
The rest of the design process is probably similar between the two work environments. The designer needs to make initial sketches, research furniture and furnishing solutions, have renderings prepared, and present their design proposal to the client. Some of the work during this phase — such as furniture floor plans or 3D renderings — may often be completed by a specialist. Working in a firm that specialist is likely just a different department within the firm, while an independent interior designer would need to outsource that work or do it themselves. However, one big thing in common between the two designers is the importance of tracking their hours. Whether you hire a design firm or an independent designer, it’s likely that most of the work will be billed hourly, so detailed time-tracking is imperative for a designer.
Execution of the design follows the approval of the proposed solution. Implementation of a interior design (e.g. painting, light installation, furniture placement, or even wall removal) will always be done by a contractor. As an independent interior designer, you will make it clear in your Letter of Agreement that the contractor needs to be hired directly by the client. A designer can give recommendations, but it is ultimately up to the client to select and hire the contractor. The interior designer will not oversee the contractor but will sporadically pop by to make sure the design is being executed according to plan. If something is amiss, the designer will report that to the client, not the contractor, since it is the client that has the business relationship with the contractor. Some large firms will have a team in charge of execution of the design, so I imagine that there could be a freer flow of communication between the designer and contractor.
Once the design is complete, there is the post-occupancy evaluation. Whether you are an independent interior designer or work in a design firm, you will typically visit the client a few weeks after the execution of the design is complete in order to check in on how the new space is working. This is also a good time to ask the client permission to photograph the room for inclusion in a portfolio or as part of promotional materials. While a design firm would have a marketing department to take care of this photoshoot, an independent designer would need to hire the photographer themselves.
Throughout this entire process, there is also billing. A design firm probably has a billing department who can handle reminding clients of their next payment, while an independent designer would need to manage that themselves.
So, what’ll it be?
It’s clear that running my own interior design business could offer maximum flexibility with the type of projects I want to take on and how much I want to work. But it would also mean a lot more of my time might be dedicated to administrative tasks vs. designing.
There’s also the start-up costs of running a business — getting a business license, creating business cards, setting up a website, etc. One option is working for a firm to get experience, make connections and build a portfolio and then branching off to start my own business.
I’m going to keep both options open and try to interview different people working in the field to get more understanding of their experiences.