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My interior design process

I’m posting a few pictures of a part of my design studio for those of you who may be wondering what sort of interior an interior designer works in. As you can see, I prefer white and simple with plenty of sunlight. And given how much time I spend using it, the biggest computer screen you can find!

In an earlier post on the subject of interior design I noted that some people may be confused about what exactly interior designers do, and how they do it. It’s not unusual for clients with no previous experience of using interior designers to approach me with a potential commission. They may not have a clear idea of how interior design works because it may be their first large commercial venture. Or perhaps they are investing for the first time in off-plan property. Whatever the reason, I always take time to explain the design process. Even to clients who have previously used an interior designer. It is absolutely essential that the client understands how the interior design process works. Not only does it reassure them that there is a process, with a beginning, middle and end. But it also enables clients to understand where, when and how various aspects of the design will be addressed, and how they will be expected to contribute. Very often the client is in fact a group of shareholders, or family members. It is crucial that they themselves understand that clear decisions will be required at various stages of the interior design process. Here the interior designer must act as a facilitator to secure consensus amongst the client group. This is why a process is essential. Otherwise decisions taken by part of the client group could be overturned later by other members of the group. This could have considerable cost and time implications. The aim is therefore to show that the success of the interior design process depends on understanding and communication between the interior designer and the client(s).  The interior design process requires time and effort on all sides, which is often why busy clients will delegate later phases of the process to a Client Representative. You will see below that the process is ideally a virtuous circle of listening, proposing, adjusting and refining design options and details, with the dialogue sequence managed and recorded by the interior designer. Although the client’s written approval is needed to proceed from one step to the next.

1. Design Briefing(s)

As many face to face meetings as are needed to work through a series of questions to clarify the parameters of the interior design commission. These questions address the scope and purpose of the space, the technical and commercial requirements of the client, the constraints, budget and timeline, as well as overall expectations. If it is a commercial space, we need to understand how design will contribute to the business plan. If it is a private space, we must understand the needs of those who will be living there. These questions allow us to fully understand the client’s values and vision. A summary of the design briefing will then be submitted to the client for approval. We also use the design briefing as the basis of our Design Proposal and subsequent Design Services Contract. So its important to spend enough time at the beginning getting the answers to all the questions!

2. Layout Options

The next step is to consider how to partition the space in order to best meet the purpose identified in the design briefing. Normally two or three different layout options will be worked up and presented to the client. These layouts will demonstrate how people will move through and use the different dimensions required, depending on the purpose. For a commercial space, it is important to show how the layout will contribute to the business plan. There may be a requirement for a certain number of seated guests per restaurant sitting. Or for a certain number of seats at a bar. Some companies have in-house guidelines on the size of offices. For private space the layout demonstrates how all the functions of the dwelling relate, allowing for personal choices to be incorporated harmoniously. The client will choose one of the layout options, but this may be adapted to incorporate where possible elements from the other layouts in to one optimum layout. This final layout is then signed-off by the client before we move to the concept design.

3. Concept Design

This is where we focus on the ‘look and feel’ of a space. Using the details from the design briefing we work up a variety of presentations using a number of colour schemes, materials, fixtures and fittings. Depending on client preference, we may use Mood Boards, Swatches, Samples and/or 3D renderings to stimulate decision making over the final concept design. How many concepts we present, and how many revisions are made depends on the client and on the space. If it is a commercial space, we may have to refer to design motifs from existing corporate identity guidelines. For private space we must ensure that all decision makers have their say over colours and materials. Mood boards and 3D imagery are extremely useful as many clients are understandably unable to ‘read’ 2D plans and architectural drawings. As with the layout, the client will sign-off the final concept design before we move to the next phase.

4. Design Dossier

Next we take the layout and the concept and we turn them into a Technical Design Dossier. This is a book of all the plans, sections, elevations and samples needed to execute the interior design. The Dossier may include a demolition and construction plan, electrical/mechanical plan, lighting plan, and sanitary plan. Everything we need in order to have the interior design costed up in a Bill of Quantities by a Quantity Surveyor. Drafting a clear, concise and accurate Dossier is obviously critical. This is where the eye for detail is required. Any mistakes in the Dossier could have time and money consequences later on when it is passed to the contractor for execution. And of course, the Dossier is signed-off by the client.

5. Tender Support

For commercial commissions we very often are asked by the client to assist in the development of Tender Documents and in the selection of contractors and sub-contractors. If so, our job is to quality control the accuracy of the Tender and assess the cost and delivery schedule of the subsequent bids. It may be that the client does not have a presence in the country where the project is being implemented. It is not unusual for the interior designer to work as the Client Representative on these types of projects, relaying information, advising on courses of action, and then communicating decisions made. The objective is always to select the most capable contractor at the most reasonable price. Very often this is not the cheapest price. There is a trade off between reliability, quality and cost.

6. Execution Supervision

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of the selection of a competent contractor. No matter how good the interior design concept and interior design Dossier is, ultimately what people will notice is the quality of the finished work of the contractor. There is therefore a symbiosis between interior designer and contractor. Every contractor wants to execute an interior design that will enhance their reputation. And every interior designer wants their design executed to the highest standard. Neither can succeed without the other. That is why execution supervision is so important. In this stage of the process the interior designer will work on site to ensure that the contractor is using the materials and finishes detailed in the Design Dossier. The interior designer is also on hand to make adjustments to solve unforeseen issues that may come up during execution. But it is important to understand that the interior designer is not supervising the quality of the contractor’s work, as we are not contractually responsible for this. Rather we are looking to ensure that the interior design is faithfully executed. Each time the interior designer visits the site they complete a site visit report detailing issues and agreed solutions. This is circulated to the client and the contractor as a record of what has been agreed and how snags will be resolved.

7. Design Debriefing

Hopefully by now the interior design is complete and the client is extremely happy with their new space. If the communication throughout the process has been effective, then there is no reason for the client to be anything but happy. However, we always conduct a design debriefing to enable the client to voice any comments that they may have regarding their experience with us. We always welcome constructive criticism. It is a key part of the learning process. So we focus our questions on whether we fully understood the client’s needs, whether the completed design reflects those needs, whether the design documentation was sufficiently detailed, whether the materials and finishes are satisfactory, if the design process was well managed, if we communicated effectively and most importantly if the client feels that they got value for money.

What we normally take away from these debriefings is the value of clear, concise and timely communication. That in my view is the secret to a successful interior design process. I hope this post has helped clarify how and why we do what we do. Feel free to comment.

images © sinaida challita sarl 2010

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