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Should Designers Get Paid for Their Services?

The obvious answer to the question posed in the title of this post is "yes".  Interior designers, kitchen/bath designers and architectural designers alike all have years of combined education and experience that qualify them to be in their field of choice, offering clients the opportunity for a project that is well-planned, meets code requirements, and fits within their lifestyle.  Why then, are there articles floating around like this one that offer a list of tips and tricks to "pump a kitchen designer for ideas" without paying a dime.  The article opens with this statement:

When you're looking to renovate your kitchen, the first order of business is to come up with a good design. The reason why designing a kitchen is different than designing, say, a living room is because so many factors are involved, and many of these factors are unchangeable (i.e., electrical code requirements, plumbing code, cabinet sizing, etc.). So it helps to get kitchen design advice, and free is better than paid, right? 

I read this article last week, and my blood has been boiling ever since.  There are so many ridiculous statements contained in this opening paragraph, and that the author has the audacity to suggest that you can get "good design" and information that will educate you on electrical and plumbing code requirements, cabinet sizing, etc. for free is outrageous.  This is learned information, provided by qualified professionals who have spent years honing their craft and skill, and it is insulting to find an article encouraging people to "not feel bad about using designers for free kitchen design service."  

All of this said, however, I have been guilty in the past of providing clients with free professional design, assuming that they would do their project with me and I would get paid.  I have been severely burned by this, and have found out that there is very little loyalty when it comes to consumers taking your ideas, regardless of the relationship you have, and shopping around for the cheapest price.  I've since learned my lesson, and in the meantime come up with a list of "cautions" for the homeowner who thinks that they can complete a complicated design/renovation project based on free advice.

1.  Never assume that free design is good design.
 While there are designers out there who will provide nuggets of good information to give a potential client a sense of their experience and expertise, a good designer is protective of their skill, and will not divulge their entire toolbox of  ideas without a design agreement/contract in place.  I would tread with caution if dealing with a designer who is more than willing to provide hours of time, drawings and ideas free of charge--chances are they are salespeople, and not trained professionals.

2.  Free design now could equal costly mistakes later.
All successful major renovation projects begin with a solid plan.  Because kitchen and bath renovations are so costly and labor-intensive, the planning stages can often take more time than the actual remodeling process.  This is a good thing, and knowing that all of your i's are dotted and your t's are crossed before the first swing of that sledge hammer will help you sleep better.  That said, it is ignorant to assume that you can collect snippets of free advice, and think that all of those parts will magically come together on their own to create a cohesive, well-planned project.  What you will end up is exactly that--a cobbled together collection of ideas and opinions, and often the headache of having to backtrack and fix costly mistakes.  Save yourself the time and the money by hiring a designer from the outset--the investment you make for professional design services will pale in comparison to the overwhelming satisfaction you'll have knowing that there is someone working for you to achieve a successful end product.  Success has a price tag.

3.  Consider the ethical implications.
 Stealing intellectual property is the same as stealing.  Period.  I know there are differing opinions on this, but personally, I have a conscience about expecting something for nothing, and wouldn't feel comfortable walking into a showroom and "pumping a designer" for free advice, knowing I had no intention of hiring them for their expertise.  It would seem absurd to expect this from a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or professional in any other field, so why would it be acceptable in the design field?  There is a cost to doing business, and trained professionals have earned the right to charge for their work.  Encouraging this type of behavior from consumers is misleading and outright wrong.   

4.  In the end, there is really no such thing as "free" design.
Companies that offer this service (refer to point number one for cautions) have this service built into the price of their product.  A commenter on this article stated it perfectly:
            "The layout they give you works for their product line first and your needs second. They fit the pieces of their product line into your space like a puzzle with very little concern for workflow or design. "Pumping them for ideas" is a waste of your time and theirs. Kitchen layout is critical to efficient cooking and enjoyment of the most important space in your home. Better to pay a modest fee to a real designer and get a kitchen that is beautiful and actually works."

I think I've cooled off sufficiently from the initial effects of that article.  I guess I felt personally attacked, since kitchen design is the industry I'm in, and I've worked hard to obtain the education and knowledge to get to this place.  That said, articles like this one remind me to stand my ground when it comes to the "value" of design expertise.  Great design results in a great project, and neither of those things are free.  Nor should they be.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for writing this post! While I know that there are people out there who are of the DIY mentality when it comes to all things design, I am still completely shocked when I read articles such as the one you linked. A professional designer brings CREATIVITY, EDUCATION, and EXPERIENCE to a project that you can’t get off the shelf at Home Depot, or pick up by watching shows on HGTV. Thank you for defending our knowledge base and talent as the valuable commodity that it is!

Anonymous said...

All great points! Our industry needs to work harder towards not give away free advice. I think when times are tough all of us are tempted to give away a little free advice in hopes that we get the customer, but do we really want a customer who wants free advice? They will probably want more things for free later on in the project too.