How do you choose a designer for your reno or building project?
And how can you be sure they’re the right designer for you?
This episode (and blog) is all about the designer you choose for your project. If you’ve decided you’re going to work with one, it’s usually the first choice you’ll make.
Listen to the episode here (or keep scrolling for the transcript)
I say ‘if’ because I know that many homeowners don’t work directly with a designer. From what I’ve seen, especially in my time in Undercover Architect, many homeowners will draw up their own design on an app, or on paper, and then take it to a builder. The builder may have their own drafting team, and so that homeowner-prepared design then gets converted into drawings for approval and construction.
However, if you have decided to work with a designer, the first question many homeowners have is ‘who do I choose?’ … which is quickly followed by ‘how do I know for sure they’ll be any good?’
Now, firstly, there’s a big difference between design and drawing. And many will confuse the two. So, let me define those differences first, so you can determine whether you’re looking for someone to design your home, or to draw it.
Drawing is simply that – it’s putting a series of lines, rectangles and other shapes onto a page, or into a computer, in a format that is legible for those that need to read it. It can also be known as drafting, or documentation in the industry. Because it needs to be done a certain way to be approved and built from, it does require experience and skill to execute.
Design is different.
Design is the act of interpretation. It’s taking an instruction, a desire, a need, an aspiration, as presented by you, the homeowner, and the designer then imagining the space that will best perform to meet those needs, etc.
It’s playing with volume and light to evoke feelings, emotions and mood. It’s determining how materials and forms can be shaped into rooms, spaces and a home that best suits your functional needs, and being durable and long-lasting, as well as lifting your spirit and helping you feel comfortable, comforted and at home.
It’s not an exercise of arranging rectangles and other shapes, and then putting holes in the walls for windows and doors. It’s a process that works from the outside to the inside, balancing form, materials, budget, brief and environment.
It qualitatively defines how someone needs and wants to live in and beyond their home and then interprets a platform that will enable that. And it’s a process that requires experience and skill to execute.
Design is not about high-end, luxurious and out-of-reach things. It is also not about style, or aesthetics or things that are linked to current trends or what’s in fashion.
I also believe that great design is not subjective. It sits beneath subjective stuff of likes and dislikes. It’s actually about how something functions and feels. It’s about how invisible it is because it’s so logical in the way it works. About how it resonates with us at a really deep level that’s connected to how we interact with the world around us.
When you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to know things can be better. Once you have, it’s very difficult to live differently.
Great design, the stuff you should be chasing for your home – it’s the design that makes your home and your life work. More convenient, more fun, more beautiful. Less stressful, less chaotic, less frustrating. It makes your home feel great, and you feel great in it.
Great design is also not about budget, or about having access to more money. To be really frank with you … and this is one of the reasons I’m creating this episode … is that I’ve seen homeowners with BIG budgets and BIG professional fees end up with terrible designs. Paying more – both in fees and in construction cost – is not a guarantee you’ll get better.
Now, you can work with many different professionals on the design of your home. Architects and Building Designers are the most common that homeowners choose from, however I’ve also seen homeowners get their homes designed by Draftspeople, Interior Designers and Builders. I’m not going to dive into the difference between all of these professions, because there’s loads of other information on Undercover Architect about that, and I’ll pop some resources into the show notes if you’re keen to explore more.
And anytime I do explain the difference, I find it’s a contentious subject anyway. There’s differing opinions about the difference between them all. However, after having thousands of floor plans go across my desk in my career, and in all the conversations I’ve particularly had with homeowners inside Undercover Architect, I will say this:
As with any profession, there are those that are great at what they do, and those that are not – but still get clients, and run profitable businesses.
Paying someone loads of money is not a guarantee you’ll get a great outcome or a great experience. Someone’s title or qualification does not immediately mean they’ll be amazing at what they do.
Not all designers are created equal, and it’s essential that you get yourself informed so you can sift and filter the good from the bad, and find the best designer for your needs. One that is a great fit for you.
A great designer – and there are many, many of them out there – is worth far more than their fees will ever cost you.
- The value they’ll add in helping you feel safe, supported, and confident in your project, is indescribable.
- The experience they have will enable you to mitigate risk and leverage off other projects like yours to make your own home and journey so much better.
- Their connections will provide you with a collaborative team that work cohesively together to bring your dream to reality.
- Their knowledge will improve your project, the value of your asset and the outcome in your home.
- And their design expertise will become the experience of your home. The way you feel each day when you walk in. The stage for your family memories and celebrations. The place that is the launchpad for your life, and your haven at the end of each day.
So, how do you find the right designer for you and your project?
Well, firstly, it’s accepting that not all designers are created equal. Then it’s a case of assessing their experience, how they treat you, and knowing how to work with them to get the best from the relationship.
Here are 7 nuggets of knowledge to use to assess your designer.
You can use these before you start working with them to determine if they’re worth hiring … and in the early stages of your project when there’s still time to walk away without too much collateral damage. So, let’s dive in.
Number 1: They have a process that demonstrates efficiency
Design education courses – be it in a Tafe course for Building Design, or a degree for architecture or interior design – do not teach business education or client management.
Designers are not trained at a tertiary level to write fee proposals, or to manage client relations. Or to be organised and communicative and responsive. These are all skills that are learned on the job, and rely on a designer being proactive in learning and implementing them.
From the minute you email a potential designer, or pick up the phone to call them, they have the opportunity to demonstrate how organised and efficient they are in client management overall.
And in their initial meeting with you and in any proposals they put together, they also will demonstrate what they’ll be like to work with.
Do things feel well managed? Can the designer talk you through their client and project process? Do they indicate expected timelines and methods of communication and expectations for how the working relationship will roll out? Do you feel they’ve done this before, that they’re practised?
Do you feel like they’re showing strong communication skills? That they’re listening to you? That they’re tailoring what they do and how they do it to your project’s needs and you as potential clients?
I personally find that when designers have worked for corporate clients before working for residential ones, they’ll be better at this bit. Corporate clients like big developers or organisations, often have templated ways that you have to deliver information and proposals. And so designers who’ve had that experience and then translated it to their residential clients can often show better process around this stuff. It’s not always the case, but it’s been consistent enough for me to mention it.
If a designer seems flustered or disorganised or there’s any sense of chaos and haphazardous in the way they’re dealing with you, this is not ‘creative flair typical to the industry’. This is your first red flag, so pay attention. If you don’t mind it for your project, that’s totally your choice. But if you want efficiency and reliability from your designer, don’t ignore a lack of process in how they initially deal with you, and hope it’ll just get better along the way.
Number 2: They can communicate
I mentioned this as part of Number 1, but this goes further.
When I think about my time at university, I know we were being taught communication at one level. We were always needing to communicate our design ideas and present our work. From our weekly tutorials with our design tutor, to then presenting our final submissions. We’d be standing in front of a design jury that was made up some university staff, and also external members of the industry. We’d have a set time frame to present our design, and to respond to questions and criticism. It was definitely a baptism by fire that was designed to simulate client presentations! So we weren’t being explicitly taught how to communicate, but it was certainly something we practised during our degree.
Since finishing university though, I’ve obviously had loads more experience in communication. From working in a massive team of consultants to deliver the Sydney Olympic site, to working with homeowners on over 250 projects, that’s a lot of communicating to bring these projects to reality.
And I’ve also done specific communication training. Explicit communication training that has helped me learn how to work better with my clients, and to understand as much about what people don’t say, as they do.
Often, as a design professional, you’re working in a really intimate way with homeowners. You’re being trusted with personal information about their finances, the way they live, the way their marriage works, their personal extended family setup. You’re sometimes mediating between couples, or managing difficult decisions and sensitive information to move projects forward. If it’s a family home, the homeowner will naturally bring a lot of emotion to the relationship as well, that the designer needs to manage and hold space for.
So, does the designer communicate well? Not just in what they say, but in how they say it? Do they seek to help you understand the things you don’t? Do they check in to see you’re not confused or overwhelmed? Are they patient and not patronising? Do they listen to you and demonstrate they’re listening?
Can you speak to builders they work with to ask them what the designer is like as a communicator? Or any previous clients? It’s important they show an ability to communicate well with all team members.
Early red flags are always visible here. Don’t dismiss it as awkwardness, or getting to know you, or their personal quirks. I’ve found that even the most introverted designers figure out other systems to get the info they need from clients, and still help clients feel communicated with and supported.
A lack of communication here at the beginning will not get better over time.
Number 3: They don’t take feedback personally
This is going to be super important for you to have a good working relationship with your designer. If you’re like most homeowners I know, you’ll possibly struggle to give feedback. There’s something about how I see homeowners working with designers that it can feel like an artistic process of creation. And some designers will talk about the designs they do for you like they’re talking about an extension of themselves. So, it can feel personal to give feedback on things you do or don’t like. To request something different. To tell them you don’t like it. And sometimes you can’t even articulate why you don’t like it – it might be because it doesn’t ‘feel’ right for you.
Side note here – this is where the designer’s communication abilities will become super relevant for you. What I often see is homeowners not being able to explain exactly what they do or don’t like about a design. And so, as a designer who needs that information to develop a design and continue onto other options, you need to get to the bottom of that so you don’t keep running in circles.
As a designer, you need to work out whether they don’t like it because they don’t understand it, or they can’t visualise it. Is it because they had a picture in their mind, and this is different to that, and they haven’t let go of that picture yet. Is it because they don’t realise the constraints of their site, their budget or their brief, and why the picture they have in their head isn’t achievable? Is it because you’ve just evoked some horrible childhood memory with what you’ve drawn? Of a home they really disliked being in? Is it because they know their partner won’t like it, but their partner can’t bring themselves to say it? All these things can be dancing in the statement “It doesn’t ‘feel’ right” … and it’s your designer’s job to get to the bottom of that quickly and painlessly so you can be confident they know what they need to know to come up with a design you do like.
To be frank, I know all my designs feel like a piece of me. I joke that I had babies before I had babies … that is project and home babies, before I had human babies. I think it’s inevitable, because when I’m designing for a client, I’m walking around in that house whilst I’m creating it in my imagination. I’m seeing it in my head well before they get to see it at all, and definitely before building starts … and it feels like something that is with me all the time. It all sounds a bit woo woo and tortured artist, but the creative process is not something that only happens at a drawing board between the hours of 9am and 5pm. It’s like living with this other entity for the time you’re creating and designing a client’s home.
However, I’m also super honest with myself about the fact I’m simply a vehicle for bringing these designs to life. They’re ultimately the client’s home. It’s the client’s investment. It’s where the client will be living. However, I also know people work with me for a reason – and so I’m also conscious that I’m not a drawing service but a design professional. If you want a drawing service, use a draftsperson, not a design professional. Tell them exactly what you want drawn up.
You will need to provide feedback to your design professional as you work with them throughout your project – in order for you to get the home and outcome you’re seeking. If you believe that your designer will be personally offended by you giving feedback, seeking a second opinion on the design from another professional, or you questioning why something is the way it is, it’s a torturous way to do your project. You’re not the patron of some renaissance artist here.
The flipside of this is also important as well – and this leads me to my next nuggt of knowledge.
Number 4: They tell you what you need to hear
This is as opposed to telling you what you want to hear.
Telling you what you need to hear isn’t always easy. However, it’s the most professionally responsible thing to do. If you want a designer that says ‘yes’ to you all the time, then you’re better off not hiring them.
The better designers I speak too feel that they’re often telling homeowners the truth about their projects, which can often lose them as clients. These homeowners will keep searching for the designer who tells them what they want to hear, and inevitably the project ends up over budget, over time, or not going ahead at all (after loads of money has been wasted on professional fees).
You want a designer who becomes a trusted partner for you. A designer that uses their expertise and experience to give you honest feedback about you, your design desires, your budget, approval pathways and your overall timeframes. This is what will make your home work, and your project deliverable. Having a designer that will ultimately say ‘no’ to you if need be, and back it up with reasons as to why it’s not suitable for your needs, your budget or your site, is important in all the decisions you’ll need to make, so you can stay on track.
I’m not talking here about giving a designer license to run rough-shot over you and all your decision-making and input. See back to Number 3 on that one. However, far too often I’ve seen a designer too scared to speak up, or promise the ridiculous and unreasonable, because they’ve felt it was the only way to secure a project.
If you’ve been told one thing by several different designers, and finally find the one who says ‘yes’ to all the requests everyone else was saying are difficult to achieve for your budget and timelines, it’s most likely not a ‘find’. It’s an early red flag, and needs to be investigated more.
Number 5: They guide you
You hire a designer for their expertise, and how that expertise fills a knowledge and experience gap between where you are now, and where you want to get to in your new build or renovation project.
So, designers should guide you. This builds on the previous points I’ve mentioned, but it’s really a case of seeing that they’re seeking to meet you where your needs are.
Does the designer work to extricate information from you? Do they have a format of sharing information with you that shows what you need to provide, and what expectations there are of you, and the role you’ll play? Do they give you feedback on what you’re asking for and how realistic it is? In the early stages, do they show you how to review things, how to communicate with them, what to expect in terms of responsiveness and who you’ll be working with?
I’ve often had homeowners get in touch with me out of pure frustration. They can’t seem to get their designer to tell them what they should do, how they should proceed forward. As newbies, they feel lost, and unsure of what will be the best next step. They’ve asked their designer for direction, and the designer has told them it’s their choice.
An experienced designer knows their professional responsibility is to show a duty of care to their clients. To present them with the scenario and guide them to make the best decision for them. To anticipate risks they don’t see, and to help them to avoid them. It’s this delicate space between leaving them to travel adrift without a rudder, and being didactic about every step they must take. Again, red flags are really obvious here if you are on the lookout. You also want to be clear with your designer about what your expectations are, and how you wish for them to guide you and support you. Often it can be as simple as saying “We’re completely new to this. We need you to tell us when we’re running off course, or not doing things in the best interest of our project. We’d like you to be open and honest with us so we create a home that works for us, and meets our budget.”
And then you need to listen when they give you what you’ve asked for. That’s the trick. Don’t ask for it, and then not listen to their guidance. It’s actually really frustrating to the project and working relationship. As a design professional, when a client is paying you for your expertise, then ignoring every piece of advice you offer, and – worse still – then blaming you when things don’t go well, it’s really hard to manage that. And it’s impossible to be accountable to it.
Number 6: They treat your money like their own
That may feel a bit extreme. And it’s simply a way of saying that they consider it a privilege to be helping you spend your money on your future home. The demonstrate a duty of care about it.
You want to work with a designer who honours the trusting relationship in working with you. A designer that is respectful in helping you decide what you’ll invest your budget in, and works responsibly to support you through your project.
The designers who do a great job for their clients will guide client activity and expenditure. They will keep clients on track and remind them of their budget. Budget is a part of the conversation at every meeting. They consider it an important part of the brief. They don’t shy away from discussing it.
This may mean they tell you things you need to hear, not want to hear. This may mean you need to hire other professionals to get extra info, based on their recommendations.
The thing is that budget, and the cost of building or renovating, is a moving feast. Designers won’t always know down to the dollar what your build or reno will cost – and their ability to advise you on this will be related to how much work they’re doing that is like yours. Great designers work collaboratively with others like builders, and keep records on their previous projects as well, to help understand what your budget will buy you.
Again, listen when they tell you. And be frank … one thing I’ve seen happen regularly for other designers and for myself is that the homeowner will give one budget, and move through the project knowing they have a different amount. A great designer will tailor their design for your budget – and so you may be limiting the quality of your design and home by thinking you’ll keep it all in reserve down the track. Instead be honest … say you have a certain amount for the build, but want to keep a contingency for some luxurious finishes, or for unknown risks, etc … rather than being secretive about it.
Some things to look out for here … Does your designer give you a sense of comfort that they’ve got your back? Do you feel they’ll be in your corner, and thinking about your project and how to protect you?
The red flag is obvious – if your designer isn’t talking about your budget, asking about your budget, or reminding you about your budget – then chances are it’s not important to them.
Number 7: They have industry knowledge and experience
This will be fairly evident, but some of the greatest mistakes I’ve seen for projects is where the designer had insufficient experience.
So, they’ve not had experience in budgets, designing to budget, or determining what a build or reno will cost.
They’ve not had experience in planning regulations, and working with your council to understand what’s relevant to your property. This has resulted in Development Approvals being rejected, homeowners having to go right back to square one with design, repaying fees and approval costs, or having to abandon the project altogether.
I’ve seen designers not have experience with construction materials or detailing, and not understand the way that their design will impact the structural engineering or overall build of the project – and ultimately the cost.
I’ve also seen designers not be familiar with building codes and that can cause issues down the track during the construction process.
And I’ve also seen designers not have sufficient experience in projects to help anticipate risks and manage the overall process well.
Now, if you’re not paying your designer to coordinate all these things for you, then that can be problematic for your project. Don’t assume that all of this will be included in your service if you haven’t explicitly asked for it.
And if you’re working with a fresh graduate, you’ll most likely be paying less in fees, so there needs to be some understanding on your part there too. I’ve seen builders be shocked that designers walk out of their education not understanding the intricacies of the National Construction Code, or local Planning legislation. These are usually learnt on-the-job, and so if you’re working with a new graduate, find one who’s worked inside a firm prior to finishing their studies. And also ask them if they have a mentor that can support them with knowledge they might need. Or know you’ll need to manage that risk yourself.
Now, those 7 nuggets of knowledge again were:
- They have a process that demonstrates efficiency
- They can communicate
- They don’t take feedback personally
- They tell you what you need to hear
- They guide you
- They treat your money like their own
- They have industry knowledge and experience
And that’s it. I hope you found that helpful.
Now, in the next episode … I’ll be taking you through what should be in a designer’s fee proposal. As I said early on, fee proposals are not something that are taught in design education. And to be frank, I’ve seen some shocking ones come across my desk that open up both the designer and the homeowner to huge amounts of risk. We’ll be worst-case-scenario-ing the design process, and helping you see what fee proposals should include so everyone is protected. So tune in then.
RESOURCES FOR THIS EPISODE
What does an architect do? Shaun Lockyer of SLa explains >>> LISTEN TO SHAUN HERE
What does a Building Designer do? Aaron Wailes of AWBD explains >>> LISTEN TO AARON HERE
What does an Interior Designer do Melissa Wittig of Healthy Interiors explains >>> LISTEN TO MELISSA HERE
What does a Builder do? Duayne Pearce of D Pearce Constructions explains >>> LISTEN TO DUAYNE HERE
What is the difference between an architect, building designer and draftsperson >>> READ THE BLOG