The Delicate Dance of Client Collaboration

Filed under Clients

When does the design magic really happen? Oh, it’s all in the delicate dance of client collaboration.

Some might think as the designer, you’re the one with all the ideas, the expertise, the connections, and the vision. While that is true (and then some, right?), your vision and all of your ideas get built upon when you review them with your clients, trades, and other professionals involved in the project.

The design process is never one sided!

Interior design is fluid from the very first concepts until the end, as you and your clients get to know each other and work together. What keeps us all sane and ensures smooth sailing during a project are these three collaboration principals.

1. Listen

Seriously, wouldn’t all the world’s problems be solved if we all had better listening skills? I have a list of questions I ask my clients at the beginning of every project to help me understand what they want. And, if there are multiple decision-makers, EACH of them gets to complete their “homework” (I swear, it’s not that bad).

After my clients complete their work, I review their thoughts and answers and then ask some more questions. This is crucial to helping me know what they want and to iron out any inconsistencies. We’ve all been there: One partner has one idea that the other partner has NEVER heard about before. So, you don your “marriage counselor” hat and set out to find a middle ground.

Type A personalities often want to jump right over this step to get to recommended fabrics and furnishings. But, my recommendations are based on what’s best for the particular project and that includes the personal preferences of my clients. So, when we follow the process it all works out! That’s why they’re paying me, right?

2. Interpret and establish a common language

Words often mean different things to different people. So, when you say, “traditional” to your client, your views on what that means might be widely different. I always get a kick out of hearing the answer to, “What elements are included in a traditional living room?” To some, that means wainscoting, moldings, and paned windows. Another client thinks, walnut-colored floors with lots of grain showing and soft hues for the walls.

Just like with any specialty, there are terms you use that may not have the same meaning to someone else who hasn’t had your training and experience. Even other designers and some of your vendors may not have the same vocabulary. So, another key aspect in successful collaboration is to establish a common language.

Here are just a few words that can trip you up if you haven’t defined them TOGETHER before moving forward:

  • Traditional
  • Contemporary
  • Dark
  • Moody
  • Light and bright
  • Classic
  • Organic
  • Gray (or any other color such as purples and blues)!

BEFORE you think about placing an order for your project, make sure that you and your client are on the same page about your interpretations of their wants and needs. The best way I know to do this is to apply a visual to the words that I use. This saves me a TON of time and avoids misunderstandings. I share my interpretations via:

  • Pinterest
  • Virtual and physical mood boards
  • Photos
  • Houzz
  • Magazine images

3. Reiterate and record

Whenever a decision is made, write that sucker down! Be sure to share the decision with your entire team—include it in the project binder or email it out. Most if not all misunderstandings I’ve seen would have been solved if decisions had been documented and shared-OK, and read:) You know what happens when you assume? Do not do it!

  • Take notes at meetings
  • Send out bullet point notes to all on your team or keep forms in your car that you handwrite
  • Send spec sheets to your contractor, but ALSO print out specifications on a paper and tape it in the room where the work will be done. This will avoid mishaps regarding paint colors or tile patterns.

Kathleen DiPaolo DesignsA few words of wisdom:

  1. Approach all days (even the challenging ones) with collaboration as the goal
    Part of the secret to successful collaboration is that all parties approach tasks with a collaborative intent. That sometimes means that your best design ideas won’t get the green light. But, that’s OK. It’s a give and take for sure.
  2. Allow your clients to make decisions from a limited set of options
    While you want to be a collaborator, that does NOT mean your clients have to be a part of every single decision. I find that if I cull down the universe of options for them to consider, we still have the opportunity to collaborate with one another. I present one option to my clients. One? Yep. The good news is with one option, we don’t get bogged down with too many changes. You may have to change out a fabric or two, but that is it. Win! Win!
  3. Emphasize flexibility!
    Things can and WILL go wrong. That’s just the way it is in this biz no matter how diligent we are. But, when things do go off track, that allows you to put your superpower into place as a creative solutions expert! Some of the best solutions and results have risen out of the ashes from what at first seemed like a catastrophe! When there’s a will, there’s a way, I always say!

I wish you all the best in your next collaboration! But, to help you along the way, please download my collaboration tips today for free!

Click Here to Download my Guide to Assessing & Collaborating on a New Design Job





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