How To Run An Interior Design Project

The most asked question that I get as an interior design mentor is how do interior designer’s get clients, and the next in line is how do I run an interior design project?

The biggest problem I see for start-up interior design businesses is the way they attempt to run a project is the standard way we were all taught. This is the same way projects have been run for years and honestly it’s quite outdated!

The biggest mistake I see even professional and established interior designers make when running a project is that they run every single project in the same way. In that, I mean they always use the traditional large interior design project management process.

Having run over a hundred projects now, I can tell you that that process is absolutely perfect, tried and tested on large, traditional interior design projects, especially ones that are over £60K. Unfortunately the majority of projects that start-up interior designers are working on are well under that figure and so this process doesn’t work, but unfortunately, it is still the only process being taught around the world in interior design schools.

The reason why I focus on start-up interior design businesses is because they have to deal with specific issues that established businesses don’t really have to deal with. Those issues, however usually span across at least the first 1-2 years of a startup interior designer’s career and are what will ultimately make his or her success (or failure).

These are the hardest times any business goes through, let alone an interior design business and it doesn’t help that professional and recognised schools are teaching us to run projects in ways that just aren’t relevant for a small business.

Because I started my interior design career after an architecture career, I had a lot of experience running different types of projects. This experience became invaluable to me when I started working with my first small interior design projects. I figured out that more than half of the “usual process” was just not relevant. In fact, I realized that I had to almost completely create a new way of working that was loosely based on a few of the typical services that low-cost projects required.

Because I had run so many construction and architecture projects by that stage, I was confident enough to alter the process in a way that made sense for these smaller projects, but I can see why so many startup interior designers just wouldn’t have the confidence to do this and so make HUUUUGE mistakes when running their first few interior design projects. This can often turn them off their dream career forever…

Many established interior designers just won’t understand this as the route they are using is perfectly fine for large or lucrative projects, however, these smaller projects often don’t require things like custom furniture design, detail design, turnkey styling, purchasing or construction information.


Typical Small Interior Design Project

Small or low-cost interior design projects that start-ups are working with will look something more like this:

A young family buying their first or second home and are looking for help to get the overall design right. They want a home that feels bright and airy but not like a show home. Thier budget for decorating, all work and including furniture is around £30K.  They want the house to flow and they want help with around 3 of the following things:

  • Choosing the overall colours
  • Help with finishes (and guidance on where to source them from)
  • Room Layouts
  • Help with communicating to trades (often these are just painters, decorators, handymen, electricians, furniture painters, upholsterers, plumbers or carpenters).
  • Lighting design
  • Help choosing window coverings (and guidance on where to source them from)
  • Help to visualize how the end result will look (3D visualization or sketches)
  • Sourcing furniture and passing on discounts
  • Styling
  • Sometimes, if they have the skills the interior designer could potentially project manage the project (although I strongly recommend they don’t as the risk of making a big mistake especially with trades at the early stages is too high).

As you can see, the services that small projects offer are more consulting services rather than supplying of products alongside project management. The typical large project route is completely different and just too complicated for a small project with lots of unnecessary parts that just don’t make sense.  Commercial projects whether large or small will also be fairly different especially because the interior designer is usually part of a larger consultant team and so again the standard project route isn’t really relevant as the interior designer’s specific project requirements are often negotiated separately for each individual project.

So although it is critical to understand the formal traditional interior design project route, the reality is that this is just too complicated for the majority of projects that startups are working on. No wonder I see so many confused interior design graduates who just don’t know how to run their first few projects, because the things they have been taught, just simply don’t apply to their projects.  I see them buying wordy, unnecessary legal contracts and trying to negotiate FF&E terms and conditions that just aren’t relevant.


So how do you run an interior design project?

I would stick with the traditional route for anything complex or large, but to run a small, online or low-cost interior design project you will need to:

  • Make sure you have a clear brief, agreement and terms and conditions in place.
  • Deliver what was agreed in the agreement.
  • Then make sure the client (not you) takes the responsibility for most of the tradesmen and purchasing.

The client basically pays for the information/designs but does the physical or purchasing work themselves.  This is unlike a large project where the client is paying a large sum for the interior designer to do pretty much everything; from purchasing, dealing with deliveries and also at times ironing the sheets for the styling shoot!

I know that there are many who disagree with this and I just wanted to make an additional point here as I have seen a lot of surprising negative comments about online and low-cost interior design services, possibly because they feel threatened that these new, wonderful and fresh interior designers are fishing in their ponds, but the reality is that these new designers are fishing in totally different ponds altogether, so they needn’t be afraid of increased competition!

The internet has opened up a completely new market for interior designers and those projects are wonderful because they are helping people who could never in their lives have afforded an interior designer but are still willing to invest into a professional consultant who can help them with minor issues that make a huge difference to their lives.

And there is no better way for an interior designer who is just starting out to get real-life experience than to provide life-changing solutions and services to those who really appreciate it!

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