How to Pick a Great Chicago Interior Designer
After so many design awards and accolades, we are proud to be among the best interior designers Chicago has to offer. Experience has taught us that clients who put in the time up front and find the right match are much more likely to be happy with their design services – and with their end product. Here’s a list of tips to help choose the right interior design firm for you.
1. Personality First
Find a person you like, trust, and feel comfortable with. Designers vary widely in personality and style. If you’re business-like and detail-oriented, look for the same in your interior designer. If you’re bold and experimental, choose someone who mirrors your fearlessness. You’ll instinctively understand each other and be happier in the end. Look for a person you’d like to spend time with, because even for short projects, enjoying your time with your designer will likely get the creative juices flowing and yield a better result. This is even more important for large projects such as redesigning your home.
Never hire a designer who makes you feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or inept. Designers offer a world of possibilities, but no one knows more about your aesthetic and what you want your residence to be than you do. Your input is the main show. You also need to remember that you will be talking and working with this person so you want to make sure that you find with someone you can get along with.
Interior design is a creative journey, and creativity reveals itself best in a safe and supportive environment. A great interior decorator should be a partner, building the design around your wants and needs. They should encourage you to share your opinion and to let them know when they’re on the wrong track. You don’t want to work with a person who dismisses your ideas without hearing you out.
2. Check Their Design Portfolio
Any designer who has been working for a while will have an extensive portfolio. Check the quality and range of their projects. If their projects all look similar, expect that their work for you will follow suit. A narrow range often means the perspective designer is channeling their own wants rather than those of their clients.
Your designer’s work should inspire confidence. Their portfolio does not have to include the exact style you’re after. Many designers can work in a number of different styles. The key is ability. If they have ability, they can very likely help you get where you want to go.
Be cautious when a designer’s style exactly hits the mark. It’s hard to resist and it might be a great fit. But sometimes the distinct style that appeals so much on the first day wears thin over time. Rather, the designer who style is harder to pin down because each design uniquely reflects the choices of their clients may be a better choice for helping you find your style. If you think of design as a journey, the guide who helps you plumb the depth of your own wants will more likely give you a design that fits you like a glove. It will also resonate with you far better and longer than anything off the shelf. A great design expresses who you are and may even feel magical, bringing a smile to your face every time you enter the room.
Keep in mind that portfolios can be deceiving. The obvious deception is that the portfolio may not be the designer’s own work or they worked cooperatively with another designer. It happens. Be sure to ask questions such as how they arrived at this look and what specific role the designer played in each project,
Alternatively, excellent young designers can have a narrow portfolio from being pigeon-holed by their firm. Or, they just haven’t had that many clients. Ask. If this seems true, look closely for excellence. Rising stars have a way of breaking the mold even when they have to draw between the lines. If you see personality and a portfolio that shines, it might be worth taking a chance. With any luck, you’ll end up in their portfolio shortly.
3. Leader vs. Guide
Interior designers fall into two broad categories, those who are going to be your guide walking shoulder to shoulder with you and those who will walk ten feet ahead and expect you to follow. If you want your residence tailored to your wishes, and have time to participate in the process, the former is necessary. On the other hand, if you lack the time or interest to help and you just want a drop dead gorgeous place, the latter might be a better choice. It’s not that you won’t have any choices with the latter, just that the choices will be tailored to fit their vision. Like eating at a steakhouse, there will still be choices — all steak.
To get an idea of how a designer works, start with an open-ended question and let them talk. Usually it will be obvious, but if not, ask where they like to shop and whether you can shop on your own and bring your own choices to the project. Designers who lead from in front will have their favorite vendors and will explain that it’s to your benefit to use them to get the best result. Shopping on your own or having them confirm your choices will wrinkle their feathers. You can also ask about how many revisions you are allowed. If they resist revisions, your design is going to be their way.
If you want the design tailored to your wants, look for the designer who will work with you anyway you want to work, shop on any level you want to shop, and make as many revisions as it takes to make the design perfect for you. This doesn’t mean the designer won’t have their own way of working but they’ll adapt it to your needs.
For some clients being lead is preferred, for others having a partner is. One size doesn’t fill all, meaning you need to find your fit.
4. Organized vs. Disorganized
Not all designers are organized, and some of the best are entirely disorganized in their approach. Understanding the organizational skills of your designer will help set your expectations. If you have sharp deadlines, preserve your sanity. Some designers cannot hit a deadline no matter what. Others handle dates with near certainty.
A well-organized designer should be able to lay out the entire design process from beginning to end in a way that makes perfect sense. Large projects require a designer that can break the work down into phases, develop bids with contractors, and keep your project’s budget on track. After all, if you have $250K and six months to complete your project, you want a designer who lays out how that is going to get done on time, on budget – or who tells you it’s not possible. Only some designers can do this.
If you’re not in a rush, you’ll have more choices. Designers who are more artistic often meander in their approach. They can be a joy to work with professionally and personally. The more eccentric, artistic, or quirky you are, the better they might work. It’s really a question of whether that type of designer is right for you and fits the circumstances and project complexity.
5. Design Team vs. Solo Act
Many designers work on their own. A solo designer can build a relationship that few teams can match but their resources may be limited.
A team approach can bring a mix of talents, manpower, and cost savings (as less expensive team members may contribute.) It’s not uncommon for us to assign a team to larger projects and match the team’s talents and manpower with the projects requirements. An interior design company that can match artistic designers with organized designers can yield powerful results as the designers inspire each other and still hit deadlines.
A team can provide additional options. As in all endeavors, things can go wrong. You might realize after a few weeks that your designer is not working for you. If they’re part of a bigger team, a more suitable designer can take over. While this doesn’t happen often, we’ve had some successful projects develop this way. The new designer gets the wanted results and the client is happy they asked.
6. Check Timing And Availability
A quick designer is only quick when they have room in their schedule. Ask your designer when they can start and more importantly when they think they will finish. If you have deadlines, let them know so they can arrange their schedule accordingly or decline your job.
Be aware though that no matter what your designer estimates, time frames can be wildly off. The larger or more atypical the project, the more likely this is true. Clients may require many revisions, or be slow in making decisions. In the case of couples, they need to agree. Couples can take two or three times longer than individuals.
Overshooting time frames is not bad in itself if no hard deadlines are looming. Designing too fast also has its risks. Every client needs their own amount of time for things to percolate. Rushing decisions risks ending up unhappy.
Knowing that your six week summer project may stretch into fall requires you know your designer’s availability over the next three to six months. Designers take trips, get married, move – or they might only want to work on a very short time frame. You don’t want to have to rush your major renovation.
Every endeavor succeeds better with good communication. This is especially true in interior design with its many details.
Pay attention to how well your designer captures what you say. A designer that takes notes values your time and wants to catch details the first time around.
Try this: near the end of your first conversation, ask the designer to summarize what they heard. A good communicator will be able to reiterate the crux of your conversation. If they only vaguely recall what you said or get details wrong, assume this will be a recurrent theme. It may mean one day they will misunderstand your directions and go off entirely in the wrong direction.
A designer who takes communication seriously will summarize at the end of each conversation and confirm decisions by email to minimize errors. Good communication is far more difficult than it seems.
It’s also helpful to have a conversation upfront about the review process of their design work. Critiquing work is an expected part of the process. It should be welcomed. A designer who tells you that will never happen or makes you feel awkward for asking is actually saying “I’m not going to be listening to you.” A great interior designer will let you ask any question you want and make you feel good for asking it. After all, your questions are necessary to understanding your preferences.
Designers work in all different price ranges. Be sure to ask about the size of budgets they work with, and be prepared to share your budget to help decide if they’re a fit for you. Some designers won’t work with small budgets, while others work with budgets of all sizes and shop on all different levels. If your designer only shops at the Merchandise Mart and you’re thinking Crate and Barrel II, you’ve saved a lot of time by asking. There’s no value in a designer creating a $35K living room design when you only have $10K to spend.
It’s also important that your designer knows how to prevent sticker shock. It’s a surprisingly common problem resulting in many designs ending up in the trash.
It goes like this: You tell the designer you have $15,000 for your bathroom remodel and they show you appropriate materials and designs to make that happen… but you don’t like them. Then, they show you $30 per square foot tile, $2500 shower fixtures, a $1200 medicine cabinet, and you love them. Pumped, you ask for more. They add floor to ceiling tile on all the walls and you love this, too. On it goes, good idea after good idea – but no one has told you “your bathroom is headed toward $28,000.”
They haven’t told you because many designers find it surprisingly difficult to say “no” in order to adhere to a budget. They love creating beautiful things and hope you’ll be swept away by their designs and say “yes” to their price tag.
Designers also get it wrong because they don’t know (and perhaps can’t know) construction costs. Building a 1 by 5 foot vertical shower niche costs three-fold more when flipped it on its side and made horizontal. Small changes in design have huge construction cost impact.
Though there are designers who believe they can price major construction within 15 percent, we haven’t found one yet. The only way a designer can accurately price major projects is to work with an experienced construction team to assess choices, for example: “If we take off the back of the building and add 10 feet for a staircase how much will that cost compared to building a new staircase inside?”
If you’re going to undertake major construction, don’t ask your designer if they have experience. Ask them to articulate their method of controlling costs.
A reasonable approach is to start with the large strokes and agree on the outline of the project. With each refinement, the builder, the designer, and the client all meet to set realistic parameters for the next stage of design. This keeps the client in the loop, builds confidence in the process, and provides opportunities to make choices including changing the budget. Done well, it keeps the project construction costs in line with the client’s expectations. Though it’s time consuming and may add cost initially, it’s far less costly and devastating than tossing out six months of design and starting over again.
For smaller projects, we at Habitar find it optimal for designers and construction cost estimators to price the projects initially with allowances. Then as the project expands or contracts, the pricing estimate is updated with each change to keep clients in the know and to allow them to make informed decisions. This avoids surprises at the end.
9. Search And Verify
Your Aunt Helen might have some great leads on an interior designer, but checking those designer’s online reviews will be worth the time. Look for how recent the reviews are and if they are consistent over time. Just a few outstanding reviews from years ago with no additional reviews might have been done by friends. The best reviews are detailed and have the sound of truth rather than adoration. Consistently good reviews over time likely means the designer is focused on customer satisfaction and will work hard to get your good review as well.
Professional organizations like ASID can provide names. Recommendations from their list will have passed ASID’s examinations and be members in good standing. It indicates that they are trained and serious (the ASID tests require studying to pass). But they say nothing about a designer’s aesthetic or ability will make you happy. For that, check Houzz, Angie’s List, Yelp, and Google reviews.
Testimonials, however, are not the whole picture. Some designers don’t have reviews because they never ask for them. Others have great reviews but are not actually that good.
Don’t hesitate to ask for references. The larger the project, the more important it is that you take the time to talk to them. Ask for references that had projects similar to yours. This will ensure the designer can handle the scope of your project. If your project is small, ask for a reference in the last three months. This will make it harder for the designer to cherry pick from their best references giving you a more realistic picture.
When speaking to references, ask about project specifics. This will help you determine if their project is comparable or the reference is just someone selling the designer (because they like them). Expect most references will give glowing recommendations with just a few tiny parts that were not perfect. Be sure to follow up on those parts or simply ask to hear about a thing or two that didn’t go perfectly well and how the designer handled it. Understanding how the designer dealt with difficulties tells you a lot.
One final word on references: don’t hire a designer that cannot provide them. Don’t accept excuses. Every experienced designer should have a few clients they can turn to for a good word.
10. Ask About Work Product And Computer Capabilities
3D renderings are the best way to understand how your design will look when implemented. Not all designers offer this capability. Some depend on line drawings or simple improvisation. (I met one who used Microsoft Excel.) The shortcoming of not being up on technology is that the drawings leave a lot to the imagination and it’s harder to achieve precision in design or may require someone to redraw them.
Many designers still use idea boards suggesting colors, materials, and furnishings. These work sufficiently and cost-effectively in small, uncomplicated furnishing projects. However when it comes to built-ins, kitchens, bathrooms, or complicated spaces, precise drawings are necessary to to enable modifications before anything is built or purchased.
3D Google Sketch Up is excellent choice for furniture, tile, and cabinetry renderings. It works well in kitchens, bathrooms, and built-ins, but less so in large renovations. When multiple floors require architectural drawings, Chief Architect or CAD (Computer Assisted Design) are good capabilities. Chief Architect and 20-20 are excellent choices for kitchen, bathrooms and built-ins as they’re precise, fast, and automatically create 3D renderings. We find 3D Google Sketch Up more capable for furniture renderings than either of these.
Be sure to ask your designer what they use and make sure it make sense for your project.
Designers may price by the hour or by the job, based on a square-footage or their intuition. (For example, a 5000 square-foot house at 3 per square feet will be $15000.) When priced by the project, a limited number of revisions will be included and further work will be additional. When priced by the hour, the number of hours is simply multiplied by the hourly. If your designer works by the hour, be sure to ask for an estimated number of hours.
Almost all designers markup materials and furnishings that they purchase on your behalf. They may insist on providing all furnishings and construction while others will give you the option of purchasing on your own and hiring your own contractor.
Be sure to ask your designers for a list of their charges and their best estimate of your work all in. This information is better than comparing hourly charges because one designer may be five times faster than another. Some designers spend so much time they seem to have moved in.
When thinking about the designers pricing, consider this as well: Design is the least expensive part of your project and the most important. Good design with inexpensive materials will get a far better result than weak design with expensive materials. Good design will save you money in the long run as well, since good design endures.
No matter how much you save on your designer, if you’re not happy with the results, it’s not worth it. The converse is also true, no matter how much you spend (within reason), if you love the results, it will be.
Let cost be a consideration but not a determining factor.
To find a great interior designer for your project:
*Be honest with your perspective interior designers. Be thorough in your questioning, and don’t be afraid to gently challenge them. You’ll learn a lot more about them that way while also learning if this is someone you can work with.
*Start out honestly with your questions, and disclosure of information. Make sure you are confident in their abilities and integrity. Don’t worry if it takes you a few days to decide. Your intuition is worth trusting. The right designer will leave you with a good feeling.
*And of course, if you’re in Chicago, please include Habitar Design in your search for a top interior designer.
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