Originally published in STIR®
Insight from 3 design professionals on handling client and color conundrums.

Which design tips do you offer to overcome color- and client-related job challenges? STIR asks three design professionals: MaryLys Jackson, ASID, IIDA, CAPS, Interior Connections LLC in Stonington, Conn.; Laura Doranin, More Décor Design, Inc. in Tulsa Okla; and Teri Kallem, Kallem Interior Design in Des Moines, Iowa.

STIR: What is one of the bigger challenges you face as an interior designer?

Kallem:It's funny, because that is such a timely question for me. I had an influx of situations this spring where I kept hearing this statement from new clients: "I wish I would have gotten you involved earlier." And I would think, "Oh, my goodness, yes. Me too."

A lot of people don't want to spend the money. They have the misconception that interior design is going to be too expensive. And that's just not the case. Many of my clients have found that if they would have gotten me involved earlier and had a master plan from which to work, it would have saved them a lot of money in the long run.

Doranin: One of the areas I specialize in is wallpaper hanging. One of the most common challenges I face is when customers just want to slap paint right over wallpaper. They think they'll save money by not having to tear down the old paper and prep the wall. But by doing so, they actually make a much bigger mess of the project. The moisture from the paint tends to cause the wallpaper to buckle and pucker. Then, when the paint dries, it forms a seal that makes it hard to dissolve the wallpaper adhesive and get it off the wall.

The same problem occurs when putting wallpaper straight onto old wallpaper. A majority of the wallpapers are activated by moisture, which can penetrate the old paper. Then, as the new paper dries on the old paper, it shrinks and pulls the other paper away from the wall.

I've lost jobs over the fact that I refuse to put wallpaper over wallpaper or paint over wallpaper.

STIR: At what point should a client hire the services of an interior designer?

Kallem: Right when they're starting to think about planning the project. I think it's so important to have a master plan to work from, even if they're not ready to execute all of it at that time. A master plan helps them know what the end result is going to be – it enables them to see the big picture. A design project is like a puzzle: You need to know how each piece fits in and contributes to the whole.

In addition, a lot of people have a hard time verbalizing what they want. So if they put together a scrapbook or visual collection of things they've seen that inspire them, it helps a lot. It could be a room shot from a magazine, a picture of a vase or a light fixture, a fabric sample – anything. Visuals are very, very important.

STIR: What do you do if a client runs out of money when you're in the middle of a project?

Doranin: Well, I always encourage clients to preplan so, should any budgetary issues arise, the project can still come together later. I'll say, "OK, here's what we still have left to do on the project. You need to prioritize what's important." I think this is a timely issue because, in our society today, we want to buy now and pay later. I really encourage my clients to do things on a budget. That's how you learn to be flexible when dealing with them. And realistically, sometimes that means telling them they have to wait six months to a year to finish the project.

STIR: How do you work with clients to select colors for their projects?

Kallem: I have a design questionnaire that I use even before I go in to meet them. It gives me a little background on their style. Are they formal or casual? Do they favor neutrals or vibrant colors? Do they gravitate to patterns or solids?

Because the questionnaire is about five pages long, I let clients take their own time finishing it. I want them to answer the questions as honestly and as thoughtfully as possible. Then I review the information before I meet with them. Also, we've probably had some preliminary phone conversations before the initial face-to-face interview.

Jackson: I've also created some written questionnaires. Plus, I engage in a lengthy interview process. You have to be highly receptive, extremely observant and a really great listener. It's never too early to start a dialogue, even if it's just for an hour consultation. And sometimes I just come right out and say, "What do you hate?" Then I work backward from the things they'd never be able to live with.

I also come armed with large paint samples of the colors they've chosen; I then have them live with them for a couple of weeks. They need to see how the colors perform on both cloudy and sunny days, during the daytime and at night; they have to see if the colors make them happy or sad, energized or fatigued, irritable or ambivalent, and so on. This test helps determine if they can really live with their initial color choices.

Doranin: It's a matter of asking a lot of questions to get a true feel for who they are and what they like. It's building a solid relationship from the start. Also, when I walk through the house, I ask my clients how long they've lived there and if they did the decorating. Was this the home décor when they bought it and now they want to put their own stamp on it? Or was this their initial sense of style and now they want something different?

STIR: How do you coax clients to go outside their comfort zone when selecting colors or decorating schemes, or even trust you enough to allow you full creative freedom?

Doranin: You know, in all honesty, I don't encourage full creative freedom as much as I try to get a feel for what their expectations are. For example, if a customer wants to be involved in the design process and the product selection, I take them shopping. This exercise helps me find out very quickly – even more so than the original interview – what they like and don't like. In fact, I might have gotten one impression when I was doing the initial interview, but when it comes down to actually making purchases, it turns out my initial impression – and perhaps even their own design idea – was off the mark.

Jackson: I'm not going to say, "You have to do it this way because I'm the designer and you're paying me!" But I have had success with this statement, "Hey it's just paint. If you don't like it in six months, we can always change it."

Doranin: I think client inhibition comes from fear of the unknown and not being able to visualize the finished project. So a lot of what I do is convince them to wait – to give us a chance to get things together for them to see before giving up on a concept.

STIR: As a designer, is it difficult to see things from your client's point of view — to get excited about their design style?

Kellam: So many people ask me, "What's your style? What do you like to do?" When I'm working with a client, I don't want them to know what my sense of style is, nor do I want it to influence the end design. It's not about me, and it's not about what I want to do. It's about them. My goal is to create a space that they're going to be happy living in. It doesn't matter if I'd be happy there or not.