• August 13, 2020

How to hire the right designer for your next project

So, you want to hire an interior designer, or are thinking about it, but what kind of designer do you really need? We put together this comprehensive guide to help you make the best decision for you and your project.

Where to start: Is it a short-term project or long-term project?

Firstly, consider the scope of work for the project. Is this a larger project, like a new build or home renovation, or are you looking to do some refreshing and get selection advice for flooring, paint colours, furniture and the like? 

With the latter, where all you really want is advice and selection help, you just need to find a designer with opinions. Someone who can come to your home, take a quick look around and give you suggestions. There doesn’t need to be a big preamble, an intro consultation or a big interview, this could be a one-time visit to your home, with a potential follow-up session at a shop to help you select items if needed.

In this case, it’s not as important to find someone that you personally really like or that you feel you can relate to. Pick someone with an awesome aesthetic. The right interior designer for this type of project will be valuable to you because of their ideas, introducing things you haven’t thought of before, helping you edit what you have, make selections and tie things together.

Choosing a designer for a long-term project

The interior design of a home is, for most people, very personal and a reflection of themselves. With a larger scope project, that’s potentially more long-term, your connection with your designer is paramount. It’s almost as if you’re married to this person, over what can be months, a year, and you need to be able to trust them, be understood by them and be able to communicate well together. You need to trust that they have your best interest at heart, trust that they’ll stick up for your ideas and guide you throughout the process.

You have to be on the same page. And this brings us to a second level of distinction: who do you want to lead, you, or your designer?

The hands-on designer vs. the helpful guide

Are you the type of client who wants an interior designer to help you achieve your vision, or are you interested in deferring to a design expert who will create a plan and execute it, while keeping you in the loop?

Client-Led: If you’re in this category, you’ve got a vision for your future dream home and you’re looking for someone to help you execute it. In this case, the right designer for you is someone you can bounce ideas off of, someone you can collaborate with, someone who is receptive and open to your questions, ideas and Pinterest boards.

Getting along with your designer is going to be so important to this long-term relationship. You have to have chemistry, you have to like each other, otherwise, communication will be strained, the process won’t be enjoyable and, in the end, you won’t feel you got the right result. It’s not uncommon for our designers to get late-night texts from clients, weekend phone calls—this is a close relationship with high stakes (your budget, your home, your time on the line).

Designer-Led: A client in this category wants to be hands-off with the design and leave it up to the experts to manage it and ensure its success. In this case, you’re looking for a designer who is confident in addition to be skilled. They can build a profile about you, understand you and run with it, working to create exactly the design you didn’t know you needed.

This person will act as your agent, as opposed to your assistant.

Ask yourself, what kind of client am I, really?

In order to hire the right designer for your project, you need to be totally honest with yourself about what you need: a partner and confidant, or a leader and champion?

The designer to avoid

Regardless of scope or project type, what you don’t want is someone who’s going to steamroll you and tell you what you should like. This type of designer is arrogant, difficult to work with and will choose their portfolio needs over yours every time.

Our client wanted a dream bedroom for her granddaughters. Pink gingham wallpaper was a wild idea at the time, but we knew our client and she trusted us completely—now this room is one of the family’s favourites.

The designer to seek out

You want someone who can understand you and take you to a level you would never get to on your own. This often means showing you something outside your comfort zone. If that sounds scary, compare it to a workout session with a paid personal trainer, if they don’t push you, what’s the point? Similarly, if a designer shows you something you could have thought of yourself, what’s the point?

If your designer understands you, and has your best interest at heart, they can push you without going too far, towards something that you’ll truly love, something you didn’t even know you would like.

If you hire a designer and they show you nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing that challenges you, then you shouldn’t be paying them very much.

  • An example: Poke Five restaurant hired us to deliver a modern, minimalist poke quick stop and they were dead set on white walls. Instead, we painted the walls a wasabi green, built our own criss-cross wall millwork and made the eatery totally unforgettable.

The best kind of designer for a long-term project is one you trust, who will be professional, who will stick up for your best interest at meetings with the general contractor and who won’t wreak havoc on your timeline by changing their mind last minute or causing unnecessary delays in the construction process.

Inside Poke Five, a modestly sized (and very green) Japanese-inspired eatery with custom millwork walls.

Should an interior designer have advanced technical knowledge of building and design?

Many people look at interior design as picking pillows and paint, but it is highly technical. The architect draws up plans for the structure of a building or residence, but it’s the interior designer who draws the plans to finish every interior aspect of the home. A typical architectural package that’s needed to submit to the builder and the city is 12 pages. Our design packages are typically 250 to 400 pages and detail every single material from drywall to countertops to trim, as well as paint colours, light fixtures, layout, which way the carpet should flow, whether your window and door casings are stacked or mitred, etc. Every material or feature and the instructions about how to install them are planned by your designer.

Your designer has to have an appreciation for structural design, but they don’t need to be an expert. As soon as you want to remove a wall or something similar that will alter the building/structure, you have to get an engineer.

Why do you need a designer?

For a new build or renovation, it’s because your builder is going to ask you, what am I buying and how am I putting it in? And if you don’t have the answer, you don’t want to just leave it up to the builder’s discretion. A designer takes your client wants and needs, draws up the plan so that the contractor can execute it.

How important are credentials?

When judging a designer’s value and calibre, the credentials won’t be as good of an indicator as a designer’s portfolio. And understanding a designer’s portfolio is key.

Questions to ask about a designer’s portfolio:

Designers put a lot of photos on their websites, their social media, but they aren’t necessarily representations of their actual work. So, it’s important to ask, what did you do here in this project? Was everything designed and finished and you picked a sofa out and called it your own? Identify a project in particular that you like and ask them to walk you through what they did, and to tell you how the project went. Ask them why they decided to do things a certain way, and if they can’t give you answers about their own work then they might be inflating their portfolio and creative expertise.

Questions a good designer should ask you:

This is another great opportunity to learn about a designer. They should ask you things like, “What is something you’ve always wanted in your home, but you’ve never been able to get?” And, “Who owns the master bedroom? Sure, two of you may sleep there, but who is the person who really cares about what it looks like?” “What do you value more, aesthetics or functionality?”

Before: We wanted to make a kitchen where there wasn’t one, in a heritage building no less.
After: Meticulous planning and coordination between our designers and construction team on this Gastown loft project meant our clients got a new kitchen on budget and without any unnecessary delays or adjustments.

When should you hire a designer?

If you want your project to go well, you should hire your contractor first, and your designer shortly thereafter. This is because you need to determine a realistic budget that your designer can use to make their design plans.

If you hire a designer to create your vision, independent of a contractor, that vision won’t be based in reality, unless the designer works closely with a contractor or builder.

A designer makes plans, a builder organizes and executes them. If the two roles aren’t connected, there will be big holes that will cause big problems down the road. It is heartbreaking for people to spend a ton of money designing something they love, only to be told they can’t afford it.

Whichever you hire first, a general contractor or a designer, hire them within the same two-to-three-week period so that either side can’t get too far down the road without any checks or balances, this is how you avoid unnecessary delays and adjustments.

Avoid hiring a designer last-minute

In the last year we have had half a dozen people that have hired us after their home was drywalled because they got to a phase when the builder started asking questions about flooring and that’s when they started to panic. You don’t want to put yourself in the position where you’re hiring a design firm last-minute, that’s not an enjoyable experience and it’s a lot of pressure to find the right person to jump in and get started immediately.  

When you don’t need to hire a contractor

If the project is decorating, with furnishings, wall coverings and accessories, a contractor isn’t needed.

If you’re doing small home improvements, a designer can likely recommend specific contractors as requirements come up. But as soon as you involve five trades or more, that’s when it’s time to hire a general contractor, unless you have one multi-skilled person who can do it all. A bathroom may look like a small project, but it involves the same number of trades you would need to construct a whole house.

There should always be a contract

Starting with an agreed upon set of principles and practices will minimize confusion and potential disputes down the road. Things outlined in a designer’s contract should include: how they calculate their time, who is hiring who (a lot of projects include a couple, a multi-gen family or business client, so it’s important to know who is the decision maker and person with the authority to sign off on decisions and invoices). It should also outline a scope of work, pricing structure, timeline considerations, photography rights and the obligation for insurance (it should state who is responsible for securing insurance for the project; this should not be assumed). If something goes wrong, the litigator sues everyone involved, from the designer to the tile installer, and if you don’t have insurance you have to sweat it out and just wait until the dust settles.

How much should a designer cost?

If you’re hiring a creative person they should cost twice as much as a technical person. Any designer coming out of design school can draw you up something in AutoCAD. What you should pay for are great ideas. For every 500 people who can do technical design there is one person who can do creative design.

Hiring a creative person to do consulting on a project would be at least $150 per hour. A junior decorator might cost $50 to $75 an hour. If a designer is doing technical work, like drafting a CAD drawing for a builder, that could be $75 to $150 an hour, depending on the calibre of work they’re doing. If they’re the lead designer that goes on site, creates the concept, they could charge $150 to $300 an hour.


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