The New Normal
A new normal, where consumers scour the web for goods
and services, comparison shopping, and price checking, has
awakened the design community to hit the reset button. As a
result, designers are zeroing in on educating, and reeducating,
consumers now informed by the vast digital marketplace,
a resource that often can be misleading. An experienced
designer, for example, will be able to steer clients away from
the countless knockoff goods masquerading online as
original designs, a consistent issue for the design industry
(see “One of a Kind,” p. 36).
The community is shifting its messaging, placing the emphasis
on the rarified, highly specialized expertise and institutional
knowledge that the professional design trade brings to crafting
interiors, a skill set that even countless online shopping sites
can’t replace, designers say.
The message: They’re trained to provide custom design, not
design for the masses.
But, the design community also has work to do in bringing a
greater level of cost transparency to their own businesses.
Despite these new challenges, the democratization of design does
have its gifts, according to both designers and retailers. Designers,
online players, and traditional merchants are finding new ways
to co-exist, cost-effectively complement each other’s business,
and streamline projects, be it via platforms ranging from retailers’
design-trade programs to digital-idea boards.
Designers, online players,
Sell “Brilliance,” Not Merchandise, with a New Transparency
and traditional merchants are finding
new ways to co-exist,
cost-effectively complement each
other’s business, and streamline
projects, be it via platforms ranging
from retailers’ design-trade programs
to digital-idea boards.
One of today’s challenges is that designers are grappling with the paradox of choice.
They are curating from exhaustive global sources online “that didn’t exist before,” says
Harbinger, while clients also have launched their own exhaustive product and design
searches. So, it’s not uncommon for a consumer to latch on to the product-procurement
element of the designer/client relationship. However, that’s ultimately not the fundamental
contribution a professional designer brings to the equation, she notes.
To counter that narrative, Harbinger reminds her designer clients, “You’re selling your
unique brilliance and intellectual property, [so] start thinking of charging for [that], instead
of charging for the things that you buy.” For example, “a shopper might see a couch
they like online but the scale is all wrong. We’re curating a selection for aesthetics and
appropriateness,” which is not the expertise of a layperson, she says.
Some designers have taken to offering “planning services,” where they specify everything,
charge a flat fee for that service, and then leave it to the client to do the purchasing.
That’s mostly how Harbinger has always done business, counter to how much of the design
community has worked. “Normally, designers pay for all the merchandise being bought
for clients. The client gives you a retainer, and you deduct for the retainer, and that worked
for many decades,” she explains.
But, it doesn’t anymore, as the web opened Pandora’s box. “Once the internet really started
to come alive, [clients] became savvy about what they thought something would cost,” says
Harbinger. “The marketplace has made it so that you have to be transparent.”
As a general proposition, paying for a client’s merchandise can cloud the value of what
a professional designer offers, which is “to curate spaces where people live, work, play,
and heal,” she notes. The shopping model also can invite the impression among consumers,
who can price check an item in minutes on their phone, that they’re being overcharged.
So, “clients are pushing back now,” says Harbinger.
She skirts all that by charging a flat fee for her design services. If a client opts for “purchase
management,” where the firm orders and tracks goods for a project, they’re charged a
30 percent to 35 percent fee for that service. But, when it comes to the merchandise itself,
says Harbinger, “there is no markup on the sale, they give me their credit card.”