November 12, 2012:

Valuing the Creative

There is a danger in being good at what you do - you run the risk of making it look easy and therefore something that anyone can do. It is a sad reality that designers (graphic, interior and the like) are often approached and or hired to work on a project and then find themselves dismissed with a "I can do what s/he does for free," by the client.

It happens a lot.

Now some people would argue that this is a taboo topic and shouldn't be spoken about in public, let alone on a blog. There is this unwritten rule in the design community that we must suffer in silence or some such.  Get a bunch of designers together and they inevitably unleash a torrent of horror stories especially when they find that their company has experience the same sort of trauma/horror/misfortune. It is quite a spectacle to behold. Some information regarding a project I worked on this past spring/summer came my way and it's too good a story to NOT share so here I go, airing some dirty-ish laundry avert your eyes if you are not able to cope. (The mere mention of such a thing will guarantee your attention though - am I right?)

I was at my local hair salon when I was approached by the owners (I saw one of their stylists) because they had some questions about process. They were working with a designer at the time to overhaul their space. This is something of an awkward situation for any designer given that A) you don't want to malign a fellow designer B)you may be horrified by what said designer is proposing C)you are only getting one very skewed side of the story and D) you may actually want a chance at the job but feel conflicted based on A-C.  They pulled out the plans and explained what they were after and it was very obvious to me that what they wanted was not what was being presented to them. They seemed pretty specific about what they were after and immediately I said to them that I saw a disconnect and perhaps they needed to reiterate what they told me to their designer. I also said, that if they still weren't happy with the direction they were headed, they could conclude their business with said designer (ie: PAY HER/HIM) and we could discuss next steps.

Sure enough, they did decide that they were not happy with their first choice and retained our services. I was aware of the budget they wanted to keep within and advised them immediately that they needed to be prepared to put in some sweat equity to meet this goal. They were on board. Of course, the list of wants grew. We put together a concept which was approved and then began to budget it out. Before we truly dove in, I should add, we ran some preliminary numbers by the salon and they didn't seem to be too phased by what we provided them with number wise..

Salon Equipment is expensive. Shipping Salon Equipment is expensive. Our budget came in at the high end. In fact it was higher than the high end but I wanted to present it to the owners because it would help them prioritize and make selections/choices based on these so that we could scale it back to a number that they were more comfortable investing. They had some pretty definite must haves and these were all expensive so we gave them options in terms of phasing things in. Suddenly, their number became fixed at the lower end of the range and I was now told that that was the max. This number, was entirely unrealistic. They left our office to mull things over and review the numbers we had provided them with.

Crickets. 3 weeks worth of Crickets. I finally got ahold of one of the partners by email and was told that they couldn't afford the budget I provided them with and that they would take over from there and go it alone.

Beyond disappointed but we parted on good terms. They had paid for the conceptual we had delivered and took it upon themselves to implement. It happens. I arrived for a hair appointment a few weeks later and saw that they had opted for a much different ceiling tile than I had specified. MUCH. It was oh so wrong but I said nothing. They had put in fluorescents that would not have been my choice but more upsetting was the temperature of the bulbs they went with. It was too cool, too blue and did NOTHING for their patrons. This was NOT something to settle for. My husband had an appointment a week later for a trim and I told him to take one of the partners aside and advise him on the correct temperature and to give him directions on where to buy them. I mean if you don't look good leaving the salon, you won't come back right...? I care.

A month went by and I got a message from my stylist that she had moved to a new salon. I follow the stylist - salons won't keep me based on the salon. It's the stylist that matters. So I happily followed her. I asked how the renovation went and she felt that she could be forthcoming in that it didn't go well. Then, she dropped a huge bomb on me. Two in fact: A) When patrons were asking the partners about the status of the renovation, they said that I the designer had gouged them and that they decided to do it themselves. I was beyond horrified but I get that pride can get in the way and saying to your clients "Hey, I can't afford to invest that much into the space," isn't exactly sexy. Hair is sexy. So I understood. But then the big bomb dropped. Apparently she'd been sworn to secrecy while she was working there but one of the partners (hold on for shouty capitals) HIS FATHER HAD WON $50 MILLION IN THE LOTTERY AND HE'D BEEN SITTING ON A NICE LIL NEST EGG THE ENTIRE TIME I WAS MEETING WITH THEM.

I'll let that sink in just a bit.

If I've said it once, I will say it again. Never ever mislead your designer about your budget. Trying to get an $80,000 renvovation for $30,000 can't happen. It just can't. The margins are not there. Sure there are some that will gouge you in any industry but when you do the math or look at an itemized estimate that allows you to do the math, you gotta know, the margins aren't there to soak you. Designers are business people, we have responsibilities that need to be taken care of and surprise, we actually want to make some money on occasion. I'm not being glib, it's just something that people (especially women) feel like they should or need to apologize for. We invest in our clients and their projects and we want them to succeed. I won't even tell you about the number of times a project doesn't move forward for budget reasons only to find out that the clients took it on themselves and ended up paying what we estimated or more for LESS. That happens A LOT.

It would have been such a beautiful space. What started out as disappointment that they couldn't phase or move ahead with parts of the design has morphed into complete and utter disbelief. 

"The Designer Gouged Us...." Um... ya... no.