Originally published in STIR®
Can online design really deliver the same kind of professionally designed rooms clients get via hands-on design?

E-decorating is all the rage these days. In tough economic times, homeowners are getting creative to make their money stretch farther. The popularity of home decorating shows, design blogs and home design magazines has propelled interior design from an exclusive perk, once available only to the wealthy, to an accessible service for just about anyone. Armed with a sense of empowerment, and tightened purse strings, homeowners are seeking alternatives to in-home design services. So, is online design an opportunity ripe for the picking, or a potential waste of time and money?

Designers are split as to whether or not they can work solely in a virtual world. Online or off, “what you get from a designer is ten times better than doing it yourself,” says Maria Killam, CMG, IACC-NA, of Maria Killam Color and Design. Barbara Jacobs, IACC, of Integral Color concurs: “Virtual design can be real – it all depends on the client and the designer. Good communication skills are key, along with the ability to visualize and interpret, beyond being on-site. Lots of images, actual materials samples whenever possible and in-depth conversations are critical to success.

“I enjoy doing what I call 'long-distance' color work,” Jacobs adds. “I do consider it a great opportunity. Its success depends on the client's understanding that they are paying for professional services, and the payment has to be structured in such a way that the designer is fairly compensated in a timely, responsible and honest way.”

Establishing a virtual client-designer relationship can be challenging. Kelly Berg, IIDA, IACC-NA, of Arte Styling only works with clients in person. “There's an energy from both people and spaces that can't be translated through a computer; I really need to 'feel' things out first. Because of this, I don't think I'd ever feel 100 percent comfortable doing design strictly online,” explains Berg.

Other hurdles faced by online designers and color consultants include issues of scale, context, transitions, color accuracy and lighting.

However, armed with a clear understanding of the restrictions of Web-based design, designers can make the most of the resources they do have available. “I do think a lot of work, following one brief consultation, can be done online. Researching materials, furniture, accessories, communicating via e-mail, and drawing and sending floor plans are all easily done using the Web … and can make the entire design process very efficient,” Berg concedes.

Accurate color representation is key to successful design. The translation of subtractive color (paint, fabric, wood) to additive color (light from computer monitors, digital cameras, and so on) is not a precise one. Jennifer Mitchell of Jennifer Mitchell Design, LLC, and editor of Design Hole, says, “The obvious problem is that colors on monitors aren't consistent. I only work with things in real life. I'll specify paints, fabrics and wallpapers that I have samples of.” Killam goes so far as to require that all submitted photos be taken without flash before one or two in the afternoon, when natural lighting is best.

Can virtual specifications make it in the real world? Lori Sawaya, IACC-NA, of Color Strategies, LLC, has come up with a solution to bridge the difference between additive color on monitors and the subtractive nature of paint chips and samples. By providing her clients with digitally colored photographs and large archival-quality prints, she can assure her clients that the colors they see on the prints will accurately represent the paint colors in their virtual custom Exterior Color Strategy.

By taking advantage of the strengths inherent in the online world – while understanding and accounting for its limitations – designers can reach out to homeowners with a variety of virtual services. Designers are blazing a trail into the unknown, and figuring it out as they go along.

Rachel Perls, IACC-NA, is a San Francisco Bay Area-based architectural color consultant. Read her blog at hueconsulting.blogspot.com.