The Most Valuable Lessons I Learned Working in a Design Firm
Having spent years working in the showrooms in Chicago’s design center while attending design school, I thought I was well prepared and ready to take on the residential design world upon graduation. Then, when I scored a position at one of the top firms in the country, I realized that I, in fact, did not know it all. But after years of working for some of the best design minds out there and being a part of some truly incredible projects, I picked up a few new skills and developed some lifelong habits that have been invaluable ever since. From keeping an open mind when it comes to design decisions to anticipating problems that may (and will) arise, the below seven lessons have helped shape my career.
When working at a high-end luxury business where service is key, it was always tempting to grant promises to clients and vendors even if I knew there was little likelihood this ideal scenario I would be guaranteeing would ever take shape. Promising a side table would arrive in a week when it still hadn’t shipped from France would seem easy at the time and a way to satisfy clients for a few days, but dealing with the disappointment and frustrated emails the following week when they would still be waiting on the table is not fun. I learned that you’re much better off delivering less-than-stellar news upfront than making promises you can’t keep. The same concept would apply to my internal conversations with the firm’s design directors. I never promised a custom quote would come in later that afternoon if I had even the slightest sense that we might not receive it for a day or two. If it did come in that afternoon, great! I’d rather be ahead of schedule than late.
Keeping an open mind and being willing to try new things is so important, especially in a creative and collaborative environment. Often colleagues would pull fabrics or furniture for client presentations that I would never normally gravitate to, and my first thought would be “huh?” But come installation day, when every component of the design came together and you could see all of the pieces actually in the space, it would work. And oftentimes, the questionable pick didn’t just work—it made the room.
Maintaining great relationships is key to your success at any job, but especially in a role where you’re overseeing projects with many, many moving parts. Having a great rapport with your vendors, clients, colleagues, and even your UPS delivery person is essential. If a vintage lamp came in damaged and needed to be fixed immediately for install later that week, I knew our lighting specialist could save the day because we were on great terms. If a custom item’s lead time was far too long for our project, a good relationship with the vendor often meant we could rush the job without paying extra. The ability to avoid having to break bad news to a client is every designer’s dream.
When you’re trying to convince clients to spend a lot of money on a concept, it’s essential that the way you present the idea be clear and focused. Any tools we could use to convey our ideas, from floor plans to sketches to material samples and inspiration images, were all presented in an orderly, professional manner, and the vast majority of the time, they convinced the client that our ideas were going to be amazing.
There are bound to be issues and hiccups with each project and each installation. Again, you’re dealing with a wide variety of vendors, often receiving furniture and lighting from around the world, communicating with contractors, and desperately trying to stick to a project schedule and budget. Anticipating where things might go awry and brainstorming a backup plan I could execute at a moment’s notice did not go unrecognized by the clients or my superiors. If I knew we were presenting a fabric that had limited stock, I would pull some identical replacements in case the client wanted to proceed and the yardage was no longer available. Once, a custom coffee table wasn’t going to be complete by our installation time, so I worked with the vendor to have a temporary alternate option sent so our client didn’t have to go a month without a table. Not ideal, but much better than having no solution at all.
Pitching abstract ideas to clients or convincing them that pairing an antique French chair with a midcentury side table will look amazing works a lot better and is a lot easier when you’re confident in your views and convey them with ease. The same can be said for presenting ideas in internal meetings. If I’d found a crazy (but chic!) tile that I thought we should use, the design team would be much more receptive if I was confident and convincing rather than coming across like I was asking. “Should we use this sort-of-wacky tile?” Is never as exciting as “We have to use this amazing tile.”
On slow afternoons at the office or during any downtime at all, I would seize the opportunity to study past projects that were before my time, read up on furniture designers, seek out new resources, get familiar with the work other firms were putting out, or just check out the newest collections available from some of our go-to retailers. Being familiar with what was happening on the design scene and what new products were available allowed me to be a resource to my colleagues on where to find the perfect chair we needed or a lamp that recalled a vintage piece but was more in-line with our client’s budget. If we were considering doing something different with a bathroom floor, being able to point out another designer’s recent work to use as inspiration made me a big help. Plus, when you’re working in a field you love, why wouldn’t you want to know as much about the business as you possibly could?
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Opening photo: Studio McGee