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Design

Who Pays For Design Mistakes?

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When you hire an expert in any field you expect that things will be done the right way and that the mistakes that you would have made won’t happen. You are paying for the years of experience and knowledge that only a real expert can give you. So, what happens if they mess up? What happens if their mistake costs money? In the creative industry it’s a bit tricky because, by nature of what we do, we are creating something for the first time, every single time, and the amount of unknowns are huge. Unless you want something generic, then you run the risk of some fatalities due to experimentation. Houses are old and tricky, colors are subjective, and often no matter how much time went into the most perfect-to-scale renderings sometimes you get in the space and it feels off. As a designer, I’ve been on the mistake-r end of this but I was only inspired to write this post after being on the victim side – the client side of which I won’t elaborate on. I didn’t hire an interior designer of course, but it was a creative design of sorts. It gave me a really good perspective on who should be paying for these mistakes, and, furthermore, it gave me such a better perspective on how I can handle mistakes as a designer.

But not all mistakes are created equal. First off there are a few different kinds of mistakes:

1. The “You should have known better” mistake – otherwise known as a “functional” problem. These are the mistakes that any designer that bills more than $125 an hour should not be making without helping to cover the cost of rectifying,  in my opinion. This could be mistakes on function, measurements, or ordering/timing issues. We have made some of these in the past but don’t so much anymore because we triple check all of these things. Examples: buying sconces that don’t fit once you open the door, a sofa too big to get into the house, a sink not centered under the kitchen window, cabinets that open the wrong way and can’t fully open, a bathtub too wide to put toilet in properly to code, or a rug that is way too small for the room, etc. Don’t get me wrong, these mistakes still can happen but in my professional opinion everyone (designer and client) should put on their “reasonable” hat and come together to figure out the best way to cover the cost with the designer admitting the mistake and being willing to fix it. Maybe they will forego billing the hours it takes to fix the problem, and if it’s a piece of furniture that was a functional problem (not just stylistically) and can’t be returned, then I think the designer should help sell that item and order a new one. Apologies need to be made and motions to fix the mistake should happen quickly. It’s just like life, people, when ya mess up, ya fix it.

I’m sure I’ll get some backlash from other designers, but I’m really trying to put myself in the clients shoes. As a client of a landscaping project, if that designer had recommended, ordered, and delivered some trees that would not be able to live in the allocated place due to sun or soil reasons, then I would expect not to have to pay for those costs to return them even if I had said “Sure, I like them.” If they had been planted and they died then I would have been extremely bummed and would have held them accountable. That is why I, a person who doesn’t know anything about plants, hires them, expert in their field and don’t do it myself. It’s fine to be wrong, sure, and mistakes will always be made but when you recommend and buy something that doesn’t “work” due to oversight, then I think it’s your job to help cover the costs to fix. But not always …. keep reading.

I don’t have any personal examples of this from my design company and we racked our brain to think of one, but we couldn’t. We typically catch and fix before they’ve been installed, so we don’t take photos and very little time is wasted.

2. The “who’s fault is it?” mistake – This is the most fun one (opposite) as everyone is scrambling to figure out how it went wrong and is secretly praying that it wasn’t their fault. Usually these happen when there are subcontractors involved and there is some sort of communication issue or a subcontractor was less skilled.  A few examples –

My master bathroom tile:

Before Photos Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them Emily Henderson Light Blue Scallop Tile Bathtub

When it was first installed the tile and grout looked like that (above right). As the client (and designer) in this case, I hadn’t specified for the grout/tile line to not look stupid and wobbly, but I thought it was generally implied. The tiler was the real deal and did a seriously beautiful job, but then I saw that line and was like hey now, that’s not good. It was really distracting. I showed my contractor and, while he didn’t think that it looked as bad as I did, he understood that it should look better. Ultimately we had more tile so it was fine, and I believe the tiler came back and broke open the tiles, added that tiny line of tile, and I didn’t get charged for the labor. Now if we had to buy more tile for it, I think that I would have asked that they split the cost with me because while it wasn’t specified that this line not look like that, it also seems like a no brainer that they would. If I were a real stickler I’m sure I could have gotten them to pay for the broken/replaced tile but I’m not, so I didn’t. It felt reasonable to me to just fix it.

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them After Photo Emily Henderson Light Blue Scallop Tile Bathtub

My Master Bedroom Wallpaper:

When first installed, it looked great. I had a professional painter prep/skim coat the wall months before for wallpaper and a VERY professional wallpaperer install it. All was good.

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them Rose Gold Wallpaper After Photo

Until one day it started doing this:

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them Rose Gold Wallpaper

It looked like garbage. Again, this was for me and I was the client but had I been the designer, I have no idea what I would have done. So much money wasted:

Cost of custom wallpaper $1200

Installation: $500

Glue-ing/trying to fix – $300 (he gave me a deal because he felt bad)

Stripping/repainting – $800 (it took days since it had been glued).

So. THAT’S fun. The wallpaper installer said it wasn’t his application. He said it was either that the paper was too thick or the walls weren’t cured (they had been skim-coated and painted months before).  I called Astek (who made the paper) about the paper and they said that it wasn’t the papers fault, and I spoke to my painter and he said it definitely should have cured by then. The mystery factor is that at the time we didn’t have that good of AC (replaced now) and it was in a room that got hard afternoon light. So it could have been a heat issue. Regardless, if I had hired a designer, I would have been looking for someone to to help fix the problem. I’m not one that looks for fault, but yes, you’d also want to find out who did what wrong and how this could have been prevented. But, ultimately, since there was no way to find out why this happened, the cost would have fallen on the client.

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them Rose Gold Wallpaper 1

Next up is the built-in bench mishap from Sara Sugarman’s Nursery Makeover.

When we first proposed a bench, we feared it would be expensive but I knew it was the right thing to do. Ginny did some drawings and we received a quote from a dude that we had recently hired to do a cheaper project and he did a fine job. Since Sara lives in a rental she didn’t want to spend $1500 on a built-in (my estimate from a good cabinet dude). We told her she had two options if she wanted a built-in: hire a risky dude for $600 or the real deal for $1500. She chose the risky, less-experienced dude.

Before Photos Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them Girls Pink Nursery Bench

What he did was fine but not awesome (right photo). He wasn’t finished yet, but I could tell up close that it wasn’t up to par and Sara was pretty unsatisfied as well. Furthermore I thought that the design of the bench was going to be flush with the closet – so that it would be deeper. This was a mis-communication between Ginny and I, as she didn’t know that was my expectation and I didn’t catch it when I approved the drawing. Before our dude could spend more time on the bench, we told him to stop and that I’d pay him for the labor/materials up until that point which was $300. I wasn’t billing my time on this project anyway (it was a “for press and portfolio” only) and I was billing Ginny at a friends and family rate anyway so we didn’t feel bad about that. I believe we ended up splitting the $300 with Sara. Had I billed my time I would have not taken it off because I told her it was a risk and she went with it anyway. If I has said, “this guy is awesome, trust me!!” then I would have felt terrible and probably would have helped cover more of the cost.

Meanwhile she ended up hiring our expensive guy who charged $1500 but it’s pretty impeccable and the drawers function beautifully.

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them Girls Pink Nursery Bench 1

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them Girls Pink Nursery Bench 2

3. Another kind of mistake is the “Trust me it will look good but it looks really bad” mistake.

I can’t believe I’m putting this on the internet. Remember the Captain America Sofa (below)? This was a sofa that we bought for The Fig House from the thrift store for $100. We (I) had the (not so) genius idea of upholstering it in outdoor fabric with outdoor foam to live mostly outdoors (we needed some pieces out there). I chose all the fabric for 14 pieces on one day and it was a shit show. I basically just tagged each piece with a swatch of fabric and a safety pin. This one was a huge piece and, without boring you with the details, I clearly messed up and upholstered it in a hideous fabric, or two. And then the skirt … dear god.

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them 2

It was kinda perfect for our circus themed party, but it was hideous for any other occassion ever. When we had all the furniture delivered we unwrapped this and my face went white followed quickly by a whelp, that sucks. Steve, the client looked at me with a “Henderson? Is this a joke?” look on his face and we all started laughing. I ended up taking the cost of the sofa, fabric, and upholstery off of the invoice – losing around $1200. He never approved this design (hell, I don’t think I even did) and everything that was wrong with it was my fault, so I felt the most reasonable thing to do is cover the costs and try to sell it.   Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them 3

I think the key here is “reasonable.” Also I couldn’t sell that thing for the life of me (shocking) and ended up donating it to a thrift store for a write off. I lost $1200 at least (I probably didn’t take in the cost of delivery/pickup, etc).

This next one happened very recently. We have a new client who moved into a house with these curtains already up. They wanted them to be gray but the size and fabric was fine, so they asked us to look into dying.

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them 4 copy

While we have dyed some things before, we had never for a client and not this much. This felt rather risky to Ginny which she vocalized, but they wanted to proceed. We found a place in Orange County that does this and all but guaranteed us that there would be no issues, but we didn’t get that guarantee in writing.

We took them down there and two weeks later picked them up and had them reinstalled:

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them 5

As you can see there was shrinkage – a lot. And the fabric, which we realized was actually really cheap, was permanently gauzy and wrinkly in a way that didn’t fit the style of the house and ruined the pleating. They were totally ruined. Now, thank god they hadn’t purchased them and that they came with the house, but they are still bummed. We are now working with them to replace the curtains, but since it was out of our control and we advised against, the risk was theirs to take. If we had to do it again, we would get in writing that there would absolutely be no shrinkage and have gotten a sample of one first – although if one got ruined then I’m not sure how we would have fixed that one as we wouldn’t have been able to match the fabric so well, etc. The client was bummed but is grateful that I’m wielding my blog power to help get them replaced at a deep discount (thank you, Decorview).

Next up? The tale of the “off” paint color.

When we were sampling colors for The Lorey’s living room, we fell in love with a particular paint color. They gave us a sample card with the paint on it and the client chose this one below. But after the room was painted, it looked like a different color – it looked super blue. At first, I cringed thinking that it was our fault. Colors are tricky and we knew that they didn’t want the room to go too blue, but the room looked blue. I thought that we hadn’t obsessed about it enough and that there were more undertones that were blue that we missed.

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them Wrong Paint Color

Then we put the sample against the wall and they are actually very different in tone – in other words, the sample was off. You can see it in the picture on the left – the sample is much warmer than the wall color its in front of. In a way it was the paint company’s fault, but obviously I couldn’t make them pay for the labor to fix it. Ultimately we took off a couple hours of design time (saving them around $350) and they paid the $350 to have it repainted (our painter gave them a good deal since he had JUST painted it). They are reasonable people, as our we, so we both chipped in to fix the mistake as neither of us were to blame.

One last one (as this just happened). We received a faucet for a kitchen install super damaged.

Design Mistakes Who Pays For Them After Photo Emily Henderson Faucet Rusted

Obviously not our fault, but there were ramifications. The plumber was booked to install the day it arrived, which meant that he couldn’t do his job. He ended up not charging us (thank god) because he is a lovely, reasonable person, but he was bummed. Then it took Ginny 1.5 hours to track down and order a new, undamaged faucet (the company was super non-responsive and we had to follow up like 10 times). This stuff just happens and when mistakes are made, often it takes time to fix them and if the mistake isn’t ours then we bill that time regardless. It’s a bummer for the client, but unless they want to rectify it themselves then we have to bill that time.

As you can see, every single mistake is different and the outcome is never that clear. What is clear to me is a few things:

1. When you hire artists, you get something unique and beautiful just for you – something they’ve never done before. Therefore, no matter how much experience they have, there will be tweaks, returns, and style disagreements. This can take some time, and if you are being billed hourly, then time is money. But hiring a generic designer that shops for everyone online and takes no risks gets you a generic home.

2. Functional mistakes should be admitted to and rectified with as little cost to the client as possible. This is why if you are a budding designer you should absolutely try to work for a larger designer first so you can make and watch mistakes before you are the one paying for them. These mistakes happen and they aren’t the end of the world, but it’s your job to admit to them and fix them (and then you certainly won’t make that mistake again).

3. Work extremely closely with your contractor or architect at all times. Show them every single spec for every door, faucet, and pedestal sink before you order them and then both of you check them in when they arrive immediately to make sure you didn’t accidentally get the left facing tub instead of the right and then cause weeks in delay. This is where you catch the problems that could turn into mistakes. Congruently bring in the homeowner as much as possible to get them to sign off on everything.

4. Leave a paper trail and get everything you can in writing. Especially if you are doing something that you haven’t done before, admit that and then ask and receive every answer via email. Don’t let your ego get in the way and then make a mistake because you wanted them to know you could handle it.

5. Be transparent. This is a general life rule of mine, but the more honest and transparent you are the fewer bad positions you’ll be in in life.

6. Be reasonable and use common sense – for BOTH parties. I know that legally there might be times when you don’t have to cover a cost and legally times when you do, but like I said, designing a house is extremely nuanced be fluid and flexible throughout the whole process.

When you hire someone, you should expect a level of professionalism, but you should not expect perfection. Mistakes will be made. Sometimes your instincts are wrong, or your eye is off and you maybe got overly excited about that custom mural of Biff from Back To The Future in your client’s den and maybe it should come down.

I’ve never had bad clients that have ok’d something then changed their mind and expected me to cover the cost of it, but I have heard of this happening. Many designers have the clients pay for everything directly or they have them sign a contract per purchase – so if you are a designer and are worried about that, then that is a good option for you. Also get insurance, on the bad chance that something huge has to be torn out that is deemed to be your fault, it’s always good to have insurance to cover that.

Ok, fellow designers, now its your turn. Do you agree with me? Do you think I’m dead wrong? I know there are some horror stories from clients and even more advice and potentially differing opinions from designers, and I’d honestly love to hear them. I’m not saying this is THE LAW, nor am I saying that we as designers should just roll over, take it, and lose money. A lot of it also depends on how much you value your relationships with your clients and if word of mouth is important to your business.

And if you have been on the client side and worked with a designer who has made mistakes let me know. How did they deal with it and did you feel that it was fair?

Weigh in, folks….

*Liked this post? Well here are some design mistakes you can avoid: My Biggest Design Regrets – and What You Can Learn From Them, Design Mistake: Anything “Antiqued” or “Faux Old”, Design Mistake: Painting a Small or Dark Room White, Design Mistake: The Generic Sofa, Design Mistake: The “Too Small Rug”.

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Adrienne

Oh boy. We are dealing with some major problems with a floor right now, and trying to get the distributer/manufacturer to pay for new material. It’s a terrible process, and one that is making the clients crazy. Now that it’s been inspected, I’m hoping the installer will agree to just tear it out and replace it, then worry about the cost later. In this situation, the material was suggested by the installer, so the client and the designer (us) are not really on the hook. HOWEVER- we are not charging for our time to fix this, and that really adds… Read more »

Summer

I love this post, Emily! Thank you for being so honest and for being willing to tackle something relatively controversial. I am currently a client — not on a big scale, but am ordering a custom sofa, and am interacting with an interior designer through whom the purchase has to be made. It’s the first time I’ve splurged on anything for our home, so it’s a big deal for me. I was asking a lot of questions because the showroom didn’t have examples of several things I wanted to see (nothing that was double top stitched, for example). The whole… Read more »

Christy

I can’t believe your contractor thought the tile job was acceptable, it totally wasn’t. Some things just shouldn’t need explicit instructions. The tile guy knew he took a short cut. I am left just shaking my head and wondering why you even had to have either of those discussions. Regarding the wallpaper, I’m a little baffled about why a professional wallpaper installer wouldn’t know about what materials will stand up to heat. Seems like if anyone on earth should be an expert in wallpaper, it should be one who installs it for a living. I live in the South and… Read more »

Christy

*warm climate (not client)

Abby

This was a very interesting post…glad you delved into some details on this issue! I agree with you billing your time for dealing with correcting mistakes that others have made, because that’s just what has to be done (I’m a lawyer, so I very much get the whole “billing for everything you do” process). However, even though I’m a layperson in the design world, I have to disagree with you saying that, when the mistake was a “you should have known better” mistake (like mis-measuring, etc.), the designer and client should “come together to figure out the best way to… Read more »

Erica

I’m an attorney too. My thought when reading this is that I think I write off more time than designers do!

Karen

This was such a helpful post! (especially since I’m a recent grad from design school) You don’t typically come across this kind of information on blogs or just generally in the internet. Thank you for being so open and honest.

Kaiulani

I had a somewhat similar situation when ordering furniture for my work office renovation. I was responsible for managing the remodeling of an 8,000 sq foot office. I worked with architects, construction, carpet, electrical, HVAC, etc.. subcontractors. For our office furniture, I chose the color pallet, fabric, desk tops, drawer configurations, lights and plug accessories, etc… The furniture alone costs about $250K. Well on installation day, I saw a couple set of file drawers being delivered that had different drawer fronts then what I had selected. They looked awful. I wanted to cry. Turns out that when I was overseas… Read more »

Gwenyth

I am an aspiring designer. I have gutted and remodeled three homes (my own) and it seems as this is my passion, it would make sense to try and give this a whirl and I can’t wait BUT- bigger designers in Mpls do not take self taught folk like me on as inters. Not totally cool for me and really their loss. The mistakes you have pointed out are figureoutable, yet terrifying for a new designer. You are charmingly transparent and I am sure this helps when mistakes are made. Otherwise, you can do no wrong. Love your work. Have… Read more »

It's Darling

I just finished an extensive remodel- I was basically the designer but had an “experienced” project manager to over see construction, installation, subcontractors … In two bathrooms we ordered quite pricey wood look porcelain tile from Italy (the kind made by computer algorithms and no two tiles are the same) I was getting daily photo updates from the job site and was horrified to see that they laid these tiles in a subway tile method instead of a more organic wood floor.. I told the builder and PM that it was unacceptable- sent them links to many pictures and blogs… Read more »

Lauren

Did the elevations of the wall show the tile lay out?

Katherine

Yeah, I have to say, if the drawings didn’t show the tile layout, how was the contractor to know how you wanted them? There is no ‘industry standard’ to tile layout- you can do whatever you want with them. I’m glad it worked out for you but please don’t blame the contractor too much- they can’t read minds!

kj

“5. Be transparent. This is a general life rule of mine, but the more honest and transparent you are the fewer bad positions you’ll be in in life.”

Words to live by. I would hire you AND be your friend.

Emily! What a great post to inform on this process. I’m launching my design business this summer but am specifically going to focus on helping clients through the building process of non-custom homes. You know, when you have 5 hours at the design center to pick out every single thing that will go in your brand new house and sign a form saying if you change your mind you will pay through the nose. I’m also starting design services that really consists of advice, a rendering, and personal shopping service. I call it design for the masses. I think the… Read more »

Anna

Honestly, I am bummed when there is anything other than a before and after renovation on your site. It’s like always hoping you’ll find the prize in your favorite cereal. You still love the cereal, but with each bowl you cross your fingers it will be fave cereal + prize. I always read on, and on this one, my expectations were low, but you had me at Captain America sofa. Holy crap. So funny. So bad. Long story short, even in a potentially boring (to me) post about doing things wrong, you still can do no wrong.

Caitlin

I work for a small general contractor/design-builder in Boston and I can say from experience that all 6 of your points at the bottom of the post are TOTALLY ACCURATE AND YOU SHOULD DO ALL OF THEM. I can’t even tell you how many times we have gotten burned from somebody changing their mind and we didn’t have it in writing so now EVERYTHING we do is via email so we have the written confirmation. We triple check everything and look at all the products as they come in to make sure they are what we ordered and not damaged.… Read more »

Kate

Yes, everything in writing! We just renovated our kitchen and powder room and the KD/general contractor was terrible about answering e-mails and kept wanting to talk about things on the phone. I finally figured out that if I texted him he would text back and then at least things would be in writing.

Lauren

Great comment, quick question if you don’t mind, do you charge an hourly rate to go on site and check deliveries?

Nicole

Emily – first of all, great post. I have been wanting to ask you a question so bad, that is unrelated to this awesome post but I see that you are responding to comments so here it is – why in styled open shelving photos are the plates and bowls ALWAYS round and never square? I have been dying to know this for so long.

kellie

I’m in the middle of a seemingly endless bathroom reno. I knew it was ambitious so I didn’t balk at our quote of 70k, However our job has been terribly mishandled, and what was quoted at 8-10 weeks has turned into almost 6 MONTHS. There were some small mistakes that turned into bigger deals since our home is on a concrete pad. So every plumbing mistake (and there were several, including the zero-entry shower not sloping enough for drainage) required having to demo more concrete. They are currently cutting the shower glass surround for a third time due to mistakes.… Read more »

Great post! It’s so interesting seeing this side of what you guys do, and what other designers do 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

Lauren

This all seems totally reasonable! Great post. The one that I would take issue with is the wallpaper. If I was the client I would have been tiiiiicked off and probably gone ‘to the mattresses’ instead of eating ~$3000 on wallpaper that buckled. If a designer recommended the custom wallpaper and it started to come off like that I think the blame lies there. As I client, my thinking would be that I’m paying you (and your team and thus contractors hired, etc) to think of how things could go wrong and make choices that mitigate against those risks. Just… Read more »

Love love love this post Emily! As an exterior designer (I am the outside version of you! 🙂 ) details get even more tricky since dimensions (without an expensive surveyor) aren’t perfect, plant material can be finicky (to a degree, Im not talking putting a full shade plant in the hot sun), and even the hard materials (concrete, wood, etc) morph and change with temperatures and sun exposure. I make sure I’m on the job site for all installs- it used to be an ‘extra’ on my pricing structure but I recently started including it in the price – because… Read more »

Robin

I have worked with 2 different designers and both times I’ve noticed that they will give me suggestions on fixtures or materials, but if I ask them for direct advise on which to purchase, they avoid giving a straight answer and want me to make the final decision. I assumed this was to keep the ultimate responsibility on the client, rather than the designer. Also, would love to see more posts on installation details like your tile example above. For those of us with limited experience in renovations, knowing these kind of details up front to instruct the contractors would… Read more »

Anna

Great perspective, Emily! As a DIYer, I’m curious about your design process and perspective on returning items? I tend to think it’s ok to purchase and return options that don’t work (it’s part of the process, right?), but I’ve had people shame me for doing so. What’s your take? This probably falls into the “reasonable” category, but it’d be great to get a designer’s point of view on what is reasonable.

mary

I hired a per-hour designer once and am hesitant to again because of the experience. One of the things that happened is she gave me two off-white paint recommendations. I picked the one I liked better and painted the entire floor of the house in it over a weekend. She came to see it and said, “You were supposed to pick up a quart of each and paint swatches then call me back. It’s too pink.” I felt like I wasn’t paying someone by the hour to suggest I paint swatches. I thought she knew either of those colors would… Read more »

Emily- Thank you for a terrific post. This is just what I needed today! I’m a designer with my own studio (no formal training, but 5 years into it and have figured all this out on the fly). I believe “the customer is always right” model is the best, as I figure my reputation is worth more than anything else I’ve got, but it’s been (super!) painful at times. It is SO reassuring to hear that you and others suffer the same angst, and to know that you also always strive to make it right for clients (sometimes I think… Read more »

Erin

I enjoyed your comment! I’m not a designer but I imagine the heartache/drama would affect me the most as well. You have a great outlook, and I hope it serves your business well!

Thanks Erin. It’s not always fun to be the fall guy, but it is what feels right in my heart and I can sleep well at night! Thanks for the encouragement!

What a great article Emily!! I like how you have handled these mistakes professionally and fairly. I agree being transparent is always the best way to be and helps a lot if a mistake happens! Thanks for all the great tips!

Sue

Fabulous post. Wish all contractors, not just designers were as fair, honest and transparent as you. Our experience with a well-regarded and experienced interior designer was so awful, I would be afraid to ever try it again. She typically does “high-end” jobs, but was recommended by a contractor we were considering, and we were honest with her from the very beginning about our budget for a master bedroom renovation, which included some construction, as well as decor. She was a lovely and extremely talented person. Her designs were spectacular. Unfortunately, in our experience, she has no concept of cost. We… Read more »

Leslie

So, basically, she bought your review. Not actually fair.

I normally don’t comment but this comment hits a nerve. I’m a designer and own my own firm. I do middle to high end clients but get calls all the time from “said site” for clients who’s budgets do not align with my fees nor typical client. That being said occasionally I do take a few clients with them understanding I don’t do “budget” designs. I make it clear while I do take their budget into consideration when my name is on the design I’m not going to “cheap out” on the design plans, I’m going to do my job… Read more »

Lauren

I agree with both sides. Sometimes a client comes to you because they love your previous work, which was a high-end budget. They want that look however do not have the budget. It makes it difficult to achieve that look on a tighter budget. A good designer should be able to offer options in a lower price bracket to suit the client, otherwise communicate that they would not be able to continue work. Tricky one!

Elise

Hi, I’m asking this because I am genuinely curious (this entire post/comments fascinates me, as I work in a very cut-and-dried field): If a designer generally doesn’t work with a budget less than 100k, why would that designer agree to work with someone who says their budget is 40k? It seems like the designer should decline the job. Wouldn’t that solve the problem?

Molly

Jenny, as a professional tip: when you write a long response but refuse to spell out the word “you”, it looks very unprofessional and is difficult to respect. Frankly, I believe that if the designer believes they cannot achieve a design they would be satisfied with at close to the customer’s budget, they should refuse the project. An owner should always include a contingency, as there are always unforeseen issues on any job, but an architect or designer should not specify items that they know to be far out of the customer’s budget. Upping the budget by 50% should have… Read more »

Teresa

I’m very surprised that this comment was viewed negatively. I understand that design is challenging regardless of price point, but if I had an unlimited budget, I think I have a decent enough sense of style that I could probably design something myself that would satisfy me (though I’m sure it would not be as good as one that was professionally done). However, if budget is an issue, hiring a designer could help in creating a design that would give the best bang for my buck. If the commenter gave the designer her budget, and the designer continuously affirmed that… Read more »

I think the designer should have referred you to someone who would have been a better fit for your budget. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t this is a good fit”. But I do think waiting 2 years to post negative feedback seems unreasonable. The fact is, she did do quality design work for you that deserves to be compensated. As a client, you could have said, “I don’t think we’re on the same page on this project, we should break the contract and come up with a fair fee for the work you’ve done”.

Jenny

I agree the designer should have turned the work down but we don’t know the designers side. From Sue’s post it sounds like she hired a “high end” designer (knowingly) and upped her original budget but then when the plans came back higher than she could afford she was unhappy, calling her experience awful. Then 2 years later she leaves a public negative review. Sue is the kind of client designers hope we NEVER come across. She basically got design plans for FREE from the designer. It’s not our jobs as designers to do beautiful work on a cheap budget,… Read more »

CS in DC

Wow. Are you sure you aren’t the designer in this scenario??

Sara

You are a cautionary tale of the perils of hiring a “professional” in this industry. When a client gives you their budget, that is the budget. If it is not possible for that design to be completed within, or close to, that amount, it is incumbent upon the designer to tell the potential client. It is not the client’s job to know how much it is going to cost—that is why they are hiring an expert. Just because you lack the ability to design for a larger range of price points does not mean that this client is wrong. You… Read more »

Sara

I was responding to Jenny in my reply above. Not the OP.

A McNInja

Emily! Kudos to this post! I love the transparency and honesty you’re aiming for these days.

I know that in Cali there isn’t much rain to contend with, but did the Captain America sofa stand up to the elements in it’s short little life? I’m thinking of doing a similar concept for my covered patio furniture. ?

My husband and I are both engineers, so by profession, we are sticklers for plans and details. While I agree with most of your points, we’ve found the best thing for the client is to be as explicit as possible. We recently had an addition added to our house and being the worry-warts we are, we listed out every single detail we could think of before any papers were signed. From dimensions to lights and outlet placement to what type of skylights, everything. It gave us the reassurance that if anything went wrong, it must have deviated from the plan… Read more »

AZRN

Construction is never perfect. No professional likes to be nickel and dimed, especially b/c there is no guarantee what’s behind walls etc. I’m surprised that the contractor continued with a contract like that. I would have ran the other way!

Lauren

I sort of thought that contractors appreciated more details? That way they have clear instructions on what to do?

Katherine

Yes. I’m an architect, and BY FAR the smoothest projects are the ones that have a complete set of plans that are bid and stuck to. Yes, unforeseen conditions exist, but there are clauses in the standard AIA owner-contractor contract that set out who’s responsible for what. That’s why those contracts exist, hint hint 🙂 Owners often think it’s cheaper to go with a really basic drawing set just to get the permit and then ‘work the details out with the contractor.’ For every one project for which this method ends up being cheaper and easier (usually when the client… Read more »

Katherine, thanks for your feedback. I love the confirmation from the other side of things. AZRN, when I said additional, it was an external structure, not attached to the main house. The only potential unknowns from the get-go were due to the land it was on. Things like the slight slope of the hill the structure would occupy. However, as someone who has no experience with gradients and how that affects construction, I absolutely expect that to be in the scope of the knowledge of the person I’m hiring. The contractor would have been well within their rights to bring… Read more »

As an aspiring and amateur designer, this is really helpful and interesting to read! It really is applicable to other industries as well too, such as web design. I had a situation when my blog was being designed (not by the current designer of it), where she was doing a few updates I’d paid for and decided to install an updated template at the same time, without telling me – which caused me to lose Disqus and all of my comments. From years worth of blogging. It was a shock and though in the scheme of things it doesn’t actually… Read more »

And when someone asks for a referral for web design, she won’t get your vote. That’s all you can do at this point. But yes, very frustrating!

MD

As an Architect, I LOVED this article. I think your points were fantastic and honest. Sure there are times when as designers we could be hardnosed and refuse to pay for a mess up that is ‘technically’ not our fault, but that never leads to a happy client (nor a repeat client). I think your article gives potential clients a great view of the MULTITUDES of items/details that designers juggle to make a great projects LOOK easy.

Deirdre Cerasa

I love this post! I have mostly chosen things myself because I love to do it and feel confident in my choices. I have had some custom pieces made and in those instances I relied on the pros and was very satisfied. What you have explained seems very fair to me for both client and designer. As you said transparency is best for everyone. Thank you.

Kim

We’re dealing with this right now, too, with our brand new driveway of our brand new house. It was poured last November in a rush by the builder (my personal view is that it should have been done a month earlier when they were done using large machinery at the build) and some workers obviously walked on it before it was fully cured – leaving muddy boot prints all over the approach from the street. We were told to wait until spring so they could clean/powerwash it, so we did. Well it looks just awful and so far isn’t right.… Read more »

Auburn

At the end of last year, I hired my friend, an interior designer who recently went out on her own (side note: NEVER hire a friend for anything) to assist with a few discrete projects around my house. While at my house, she made a few suggestions for improving our dining room, including adding wallpaper to one wall, which I loved. She provided samples and my husband and I picked out a neutral/blue toned grasscloth. I directly paid the designer for the wallpaper (which was expensive) plus the cost of the installer (who my friend had referred/arranged) plus shipping for… Read more »

At first, I wasn’t sure I’d be into reading about mistakes – but my god is it reassuring! Luckily I don’t have major, major examples to provide, but I do break into a minor sweat every time I tell a client “that sofa is totally going to fit through your impossibly tiny front door.” I spec’d a grey paint shade for a client and the green undertones came through too loudly. I felt horrible, as she asked if I knew that was going to happen. You’re totally right, mini mistakes happen all the time and each situation is almost always… Read more »

This was such an interesting post. I’m a graphic designer, but many of your experiences could easily transfer to other industries, including mine. (This would also be a great conference session topic.)

Great post Emily. My husband is a builder (what you’d call a contractor) and it’s completely depressing how people expect perfection in custom building jobs – we are not pumping out project houses that are all the same, we are doing bespoke renovations of which every single one is unique. We find a lot of customers are not at all reasonable when it comes to mistakes and costs. The laws around building are pretty strict here and my husband is currently fixing a leaking planter box that he originally built over 8 years ago. At the time, he told the… Read more »

Lisa

This was such a great post! My husband and I thought we were nearing the end of our kitchen remodel then our new counters arrived and everything has come to a halt. We had been working with a local kitchen design store who only works with one stone fabricator. We chose our stone, edge finish (standard eased edge) at the design store and the fabricator came out to make the template of our counters. It’s a large space, we have a wrap-around counter plus an island so we needed to purchase 3 slabs to accommodate all surfaces. So, when our… Read more »

I agree with you Lisa! They should ask you. Just because you didn’t specify doesn’t mean they just do what they want. Complain to your kitchen contractor.

Lauren

What a nightmare! Was this curve communicated in drawings? If no drawings were provided, ask why?

April

They should absolutely fix the issue at 100% their cost. If you didn’t specify rounded corners when the template was being made, there should not be rounded corners. Rounded corners is a style that is not assumed, it’s something that they typically ask if you want or not. It’s extremely uncomfortable to have that conversation but stand your ground, it’s an aesthetic choice that you didn’t make and it’s something you’ll regret seeing every day for many reasons. I’m an interior designer who recently had the opposite problem. My client and I spent an hour with the template maker on… Read more »

This post answers so many questions for me. Some of the issues have me scratching my head about the contractors though. Why didn’t your tile guy do that from the beginning?? Shouldn’t the dyeing company should have informed you up front of the shrinkage? I feel like some issues could be avoided if people just did their jobs. I understand mistakes are made, but somethings are avoidable.

christine Conte

OMG….THIS is why I love you!!!! You are so honest, so much more so than you need to be or that may even be good for you. But that’s why you are so awesome! This is a super generous commentary on how, no mater how hard we try, s#@% happens and I really appreciate seeing through your experienced eyes just whose mess it is and who has the ownership to clean it up.

Margo

Such an interesting and informative post Emily! Thank you for being so candid, it’s what really sets your blog apart. I imagine it must be very difficult to be held liable for jobs completed by contractors and subcontractors if you aren’t directly providing the service. Is there another layer to this? Like if the wallpaper was for a client not yourself, would you as the designer be able to hold the installer liable for the issue and offer the client a recompense from what you work out with the installer? I paid to have wallpaper removed and walls prepped for… Read more »

Emma

Great post! There’s a little typo though. It should be “as are we” not “as our we” in the sentence “They are reasonable people, as our we, so we both chipped in to fix the mistake…”

kelly

It’s so true about failure being the best teacher. Excellent post! I read it twice.

i love this post. i worked for designers, architects and contractors before building my own design-build company in san francisco 8 years ago so i’ve seen every side of the “who pays for mistakes” issue. since we do all architecture, interior design and construction in-house, we pay for all mistakes unless it’s clearly a client issue. this requires us to be very organized and systematic since we ultimately are responsible. my experience is the more people involved, the more “mistakes” there are. all it takes is someone’s assistant to approve something without knowing what they are doing and boom, you… Read more »

Megan

This is such a timely article for our family. We chose our contractor for our New Orleans historic home renovation because of their awesome carpentry skills. They built beautiful pieces with reclaimed wood (barn doors, shelves, vanities and medicine cabinets) that turned out were covered in lead based paint. We moved out of our dream home because our 1 year old tested for elevated lead levels and we have been meeting with specialists to determine the best strategy to make our home safe for our baby. It seems to me that I shouldn’t have had to specify, “don’t build furniture… Read more »

A few years ago I had picked out some great barstools for a client’s kitchen. They were perfect! They were inexpensive enough to reupholster in a gorgeous velvet that matched her new drapery, add nailhead and then cut them down to be the height she wanted (totaling up to 1K each)…. I had measured (a few times) the dimensions of her existing bar stools and the new ones, because she wanted them to be the same size. What I DIDN’T account for was that the new ones had a slight lip to them that took away about an inch of… Read more »

Jennifer

Great post! Curious to know your thoughts on the extent of the responsibility of the interior designer when it comes to the work of the subs. For example, if you (as the designer) bring in a wallpaper hanger who does a sloppy job, should the client hold you responsible for the work of that sub? And what about if the client just doesn’t like the work they signed off on? Who pays there?

Lauren

I thought I’d chime in if that’s ok. I find that if drawings and 3D views of the space are provided with materials boards, etc, there is a minimal chance the client wo t like the finished product. Because they have been already able to visualize it…

Thank you so much for this post! I am a designer in LA and, frankly, I’m just glad to see that other designers make mistakes too! Sometimes I feel like people think we have magic powers and can use them to effortlessly create a beautiful room. But it’s hard; it’s really hard to get it just right. There are constantly fires to put out. (Like the contractor picked up the wrong order and installed the incorrect flooring in most of the house. Shoot me now.) Some people also think it’s fun to go “shopping” with other people’s money, but it’s… Read more »

Lauren

Such a great comment! Totally agree. Like when the client already has a rug that’s too small, and expect you to wave their magic wand to make it bigger because they don’t want to spend more money on a new one! Ha ha. And wouldn’t it be nice if our job was just ‘shopping!’

Lindy

I work for a general contractor in the commercial/multi family realm and we abide by the same rules. We never make a client pay for our mistakes, and often we end up paying for the interior designer’s and architect’s and engineer’s mistakes as well. We recently absorbed a $20K change order when the interior designer called out the wrong paint sheen on her finish schedule. But not all GCs are like the company I work for. And not all projects have the budget to absorb mistakes. So yes, make your mistakes in school or while working for a big firm… Read more »

Ivana

Dear Emily, this has been sooo useful! Thank you thank you thank you!

Thank you, Emily, for this very insightful article! It is great to hear from someone with your experience how you handle this often delicate topic. I started my own interior design company last year and we have had some projects where things did not go as planned. As we are still a young company, money is always an issue and paying for mistakes – whoever caused them – can have an almost devastating effects. I would like to give two examples of issues we had and would love to hear your (and your readers’) comments: 1) Client provides visual inspiration… Read more »

Lauren

That sounds like a nightmare. Your first client wanted to pay you to tell her that she had created a wonderful mood board. Time waster! I would try to stick to my guns, and take the time to describe why your design would work etc.
The second example is so tricky. I would show her many examples of the kind of dark room you were talking about and create a colored 3D drawing or rendering to show exactly how amazing your design is. Otherwise they can’t visualize it and freak out! Yes please let us know what happened!

Thank you, Lauren, for your comment! The first one was a nightmare indeed… we tried to explain our ideas but the client wasn’t reasonable. As you say, the client was pretty happy with their designs, what they would have needed was a project manager of some kind rather than a designer… in the end the client paid parts of our fee, but not all. For this one I am still not sure if we weren’t being too nice, but we decided to focus on new projects rather than slowing ourselves down trying to figure out this mess. You are absolutely… Read more »

The first one seems pretty clear in your contract. You have an hourly rate, you are billing for the time. I generally take a 50% deposit to cover myself. I learned that one the hard way….

Thanks, Christine, for your reply. You are right about the deposit, we need to be more strict about this and should probably increase it to 50% (currently still 30%).

jill

I actually had a client who wanted a dark wall – a black one. I think because it was a big trend and she was seeing it on pinterest. I love black walls (but I agree with you, I wouldn’t do just one dark accent wall) With this project though, black wasn’t going to flow with the rest of the home and I expressed to the client that I didn’t think it was the right move. But I said, your the client, try it if you want. She did it independently – her dime for labor + materials – and… Read more »

Thank you Jill for sharing your experience! Preparing more visuals would definitely have been helpful and I will make sure to keep that in mind for future projects with “big” changes such as dark walls. I also liked what you said about reminding clients about the initial design plan… so important, but when you are in the middle of it, it’s so easy to lose sight… but that’s why they client hired a professional in the first place.

Great post!!!
May be putting this in my future contracts 😀
“1. When you hire artists, you get something unique and beautiful just for you – something they’ve never done before. Therefore, no matter how much experience they have, there will be tweaks, returns, and style disagreements. This can take some time, and if you are being billed hourly, then time is money. But hiring a generic designer that shops for everyone online and takes no risks gets you a generic home.”

Debbe

Emily you are my hero! Loved this post! So honest… I’m addicted to your blog!

Loved this post. Really good practical advice. Actually I love all your posts.

Christa

Emily, your amazing in your work and your willingness to be open about the realities of your business. This post and the comments are so helpful. I’ve had years of experience in graphic design, and recently started doing some interior design/project management after doing my own renovation projects. In all of that work, I really hate the blame game when mistakes happen. As long as everyone is doing their best, we just work to solve the problem and try to split the costs – client pays for materials, designer and contractors accept a reduced rate for the rework. On the… Read more »

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