Choosing a Designer


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As I said earlier, working with an interior designer is not really required. If you are passionate about doing your own place, you don't need one. Here's the bottom line: if your house is in a city that you are comfortable with - you know some people who can give you contacts, you know local shops, etc., a designer is less important. If you do not have the support structure, it can be a challenge to find local labor in which case you will be better with a designer, all the cons notwithstanding. Keep in mind that you can always set up your own deal with the designer where she can help you only with the things that you are unable to do on your own. The main problems with this set up is that some things may fall between the cracks (such as cleaning up debris), and the designer will not take responsibility for much as it will not be a turnkey project where she does everything. The advantage is that you will get some freedom to do your own stuff, and not have to pay the commission.

Before you pick a designer, do look at some of her finished projects, especially those finished 2-3 years ago. Newly finished projects look good but do not give you a sense of durability of work. Also, try to see projects of people who are not closely related to the designer and in her absence to get a more honest opinion of how the project came through.

Finally, you have to have a little bit of a 'chalta-hai' attitude. If you are a stickler for perfection, doing interiors in general is going to be a huge challenge, not to mention working with an interior designer :).

Expectations from the designer

Some of the expectations I had from my designer were as follows:
  1. Face time: She should be able to give you good face time i.e. set up meetings to discuss your project often, especially in the beginning when a lot of the design decisions have to be taken. Similarly, come with you to various shops to make selections. This latter aspect is time consuming but has to be done, if not with the designer herself, at least with some responsible person from their team.
  2. Design time: After the initial design discussions, some thought needs to be put into coming with the designs. Some times the associates will work on the design; if that is the case, they need to be present at the discussion meetings too. Lack of communication is a HUGE problem working with a designer, whether it is in design details, choices of materials, or execution minutiae.
  3. Experienced Opinions: The biggest advantage of getting a good designer is that she should know what is available in the market, and suggest a good product for you given your requirements and budget. This aspect is pretty hard to do as a layman. You will get half information from every where and making an informed choice is tough. But there is no guarantee that your designer will know much in any case.
  4. Team: The customer-facing designer and the back end team should be at the same level, and have an excellent working mechanic. Lack of communication or difference in expertise levels between the sub-teams will lead to a lot of problems. Its important to meet the rest of the team, not just the ring master.
  5. Execution and Supervision: I cannot stress the importance of execution. Design is one aspect but if the execution does not follow, it can cause a lot of headaches. The designer needs to have a strong supervisor who is in complete control of the schedule, managing the laborers, keeping track of expenses, etc. Supervision needs to be done on a daily basis. The designer herself needs to show up on site every so often and not just leave everything to their team.
  6. Scheduling: Most projects are delayed due to scheduling delays. The designer has to have a scheduling pipeline and keep it full for the upcoming weeks. Laborers need to be informed in advance when they should come so that they are not busy with other projects. Clients need to make selection with good time to spare so that they are not rushed to make sudden decisions. Material orders need to be placed in good time for it to arrive before the laborers. This entire responsibility rests with the designer.

Should we get a designer?

Here are some pros and cons of getting a designer. This assumes that your designer is half-decent and will do some of the things listed above under expectations :).

  • Design: Certain design aspects are just taken care of. For example, electrical and bathroom layouts can be difficult to do as a layman. Also they are aware of latest trends so they can suggest certain new designs, materials, shops, etc. Then you can go do your own research once you have this starting point.
  • Labor: Getting contacts and good references for local labor can be tough. Plus the labor may not have much incentive for doing a single job well. With the designer, since they get multiple jobs, they do good work to keep getting new projects from the designer.
  • Supervision: Daily supervision, placing orders, co-coordinating material delivery and labor availability, supervising blue-collar workers is a difficult and time-consuming task. With a good supervisor who does at least 70-80% of his job, you can take care of the rest with out getting too tired about it.
  • Aesthetics: Since she will design the house a whole, you will get that hotel-type together feeling from the house once its done. Its tough to do this in your own and get everything to look really nice unless you are an artist yourself :).
  • Vendor Relations: If your designer is reasonably well-known locally with a lot of projects, the bigger vendors will know her. So she can put pressure on the vendors some time to get faster deliveries, and get faulty goods exchanged, etc. This impact is limited but was useful for us when we got some bad floor tiles.
  • Freedom: I like my freedom to see a zillion shops and choose exactly what I like. I don't see how I could have possibly worked with a designer happily :). You need to be tolerant and accepting of your designer's choices or its best to do without one. If you are opinionated about how exactly you want things to look and get done, you better be on the same wavelength as your designer. Otherwise decisions will just get postponed due to the lack of seeing eye-to-eye.
  • Commission: Commission charges can be pretty heavy (ours was 12.5% + 12% service tax for a total of almost 14% of all expenses). Its especially frustrating when the commission increases when you choose better material (for say flooring, veneers, bathroom fittings), and the designer does no extra work at all :(. And some designers tend to suggest more expensive materials just for their own profits without caring about the budget of the client, the durability of the materials, etc.
  • Meeting expectations: If your designer does not meet your expectations, it will be tough to complete the project. This happened with us. So if you are not 100% on board when you choose your designer, better to do it on your own.

Our Experience

We started off by looking at some projects of all designers and picked the best one out of the lot. Sadly, things did not work out well for us. We got the civil work done with him. In the end, we did the kitchen, furniture, painting, and many other small jobs on our own. By then we had made more contacts to get labor on our own. Also, I got a lot of tips from my parents' house that had been built very well in the 1990s and it served as a benchmark for many design decisions that I took.

Things started off well with him. He gave us good time initially to discuss ideas and requirements. But the follow-up fell short both in terms of design and execution. Our ideas were not incorporated into the design so we had to keep checking the designs over and over again. Execution went horribly wrong with no scheduling, no future planning, not telling us by when to choose and buy material in time for it to arrive in time when the labor came on site, etc.

Some of the things that went wrong:
  1. Cookie-Cutter Approach: We liked his work but we also got the feeling that it was a cookie-cutter approach. All the houses done by him started looking all the same to me. Sadly, that was what happened at our house too. They apply their standard template for our design too, and that caused a lot of problems. We did not get the feeling that he was optimizing the design for our flat so many design choices were unsuitable.
  2. Lack of knowledge: Our designer was very keen to recommend new technologies to us without evaluating them properly. For example, he asked us to install a new PEX system for plumbing. He gave us the highest assurances about its durability. When we asked, he said that none of his clients had installed it, and his own plumber said that he would give no guarantees about such systems. He was also ignorant about a lot of materials in the market with respect to prices, quality, availability, post-installation servicing, etc. He was more interested in aesthetics, than functionality or durability. He did not have answers to many of our questions, and would promise to find out but never did. He would only recommend expensive items assuming that they would be good.
  3. Commission: While he did not explicitly mention it, he was always pushing us for more expensive materials so his commission increased. We wanted to get a nice kitchen done from an external agency. He said that they would do the design, and we could get the execution done else where so he would get his full commission too. The design is usually free when you do the kitchen from an agency :), and the execution takes most of the energy and time. Once he realized that we were conscious of where our money was going to be spent, he lost some interest in our project.
  4. Poor Team: He had a very poor team right from the associate designers to the supervisor. There was very poor communication between everybody. So the designer would not adopt our requirements and the design took innumerable iterations with us repeating our comments multiple times before they were incorporated in the designs. The supervisor had no clue about the design and would call us at the last minute to make some material choices on the day that the material should have been on site! And he (the super) had a chip on the shoulder that made working with him very difficult. Even the laborers recommended by the designer were not great. We spent a lot of time doing the design details and supervision on our own. We used some of our own teams such as for carpentry and were happier with them, not to mention the elimination of one more level of communication which reduced the delays.
  5. Poor Execution: This was definitely the worst aspect of working with him. He could not meet any deadlines, or schedule the project milestones properly. Between material delays and labor delays due to a lack of scheduling, his promise of completing everything in 3-4 months turned into completion of just civil work in 6 months.