It's one of the first topics new potential clients ask me about when I'm interviewing for a project is "walk me through your process". I think its a super important question for a savvy client to ask and I'm happy to dive in and explain how I approach the design process. Its also something I'm surprised few future designers (those interested in changing career paths and diving into the design industry) look into what's involved before they make the jump.
I realize every designer's process is different, but lately I'm starting to question how different it can be. For me, its actually very technical, nuanced, and intense. Its so much more than pinning pretty lighting and chairs into a folder. Its also about sharing your concepts and refining them WITH the client so its a truly collaborative process and they feel like they are getting a voice in the design of their own house. You know, the one they are going to live in. Not be dictated how you want it to look. That's the cornerstone of my design philosophy, which drives the process, so here we go.
I do start with a Pinterest board to define the look I'm after for their space based on the description they give me of their aesthetic goals and the architectural style of the house. After starting the board with 10 or so images, I invite my clients to add pins as well. They leave comments on my pins to explain what they do and don't like. I delete their pins that I think are not quite right. We feel each other out and edit it down to a nice set of a dozen or so "Inspiration" pins to set the tone and direction for the project.
Then I hunker down and spend about 2 weeks formulating my concept. Room by room I create a design board with specific items like lighting, tile, paint colors, and hardware to give a sense of how the colors and forms will look together. I may visit a few showrooms to see which new products will fit well for this project, but mostly I draw from the product files I already know or have ear marked for future use. I also build up 3D renderings as I go with notes of the construction details I feel its important to share for each space.
These documents work together to communicate my plans for each room. I find that clients can't really visualize spaces in plans or elevations. They need as close as possible a guide to show them the colors and forms to be able to get a sense of what's happening. When I have the complete package for each concept pulled together, then I'm ready to walk the client through. I think its worth the wait to see how all the spaces will tie together as a complete and continuous package instead of presenting each room piece meal as its developed. With material samples and cut sheets collected to give additional information about the products I'm suggesting.
Usually this is a lot for them to take in and they need another week or two to marinate and pull together their notes on my initial concept. Sometimes they think its brilliant from the get go and only ask for minor changes. Other times they have copius notes that then I have to think through and find the solution to the issues they had.
About a week or two later I'm ready to show them round two. A refined version of the first presentation with items swapped out and changes made based on their feedback. I like this part of the design development because the project starts to take on a life of its own and a direction I may not have anticipated, but that feels new and different to me. Something developed that's unique to their specific personalities and lifestyle.
We may go through one last sweep of refining - a metal tone here, reducing the width of a cabinet there. And we are done. Usually the design development is complete within 4-6 weeks for a full house if we have good communication. I have the clients take one final look at the latest versions of each space and grant their approval. We are more or less locked in. I will gladly change a detail, but I can't redesign the space without asking for additional fees once we have come this far if they change their minds. I make sure they are satisfied before moving into the next phase: documentation.
I hate this phase so much. Its tedious and laborious and if you make a mistake in documentation it creates expensive problems down the road. It involves converting the pretty 3D and tactile elements from design development into dry and technical construction documents to coordinate with the architect's building set and pass along to the contractor for installation instructions. I do get support in house putting together this bid set of construction documents, but because I developed the concept, I still need to spend a lot of time in AutoCAD making sure its all communicated correctly. AutoCAD is not an intuitive software program for me and I truly dread this part of the process. But its a must if you are working on bigger builds. There really isn't a good way to communicate the details in the technical language the design build industry uses. So I push through this boring and time consuming stage to create interior partition plans, demolition plans, reflected ceiling plans, finish plans, interior elevations, door and window schedules, finish and fixture specifications. I can usually get a bid set together in another 4 weeks.
Its now about 10-12 weeks from when we started and we have come a long way. We have all the project details sorted out in an impressive collection of renderings and construction documents to share with the builder. Design development and documentation is over. I will refer to this set of documents months down the road because I won't remember the exact shade of gray we decided on or where we wanted a sconce.
Now we move into construction management which involves placing material orders (spreadsheets keep me thoroughly organized when tracking orders) in coordination with the builder's construction schedule and overseeing that the materials are installed correctly in the right rooms with frequent site visits. Even though I spent days putting together the bid set documents, they rarely read them :/ I do tape print outs of the pretty renderings and design boards in each room to keep the subcontractors on task for accomplishing the end goal (since i know they won't read the bid set documents).
This oversight portion will span over the course of months until we get to the build-out completion. I love this messy dirty part. Its way less intense for me mentally and you see the fruits of your digital labor come together in real life slowly but surely. I'm very hands on and like to be involved in the problem solving that is required as we discover field conditions don't line up with what we had imagined. Because I know what to expect at each stage of the build out having seen it through so many times now, I can tell if things are getting done correctly and on schedule and will call out the builder if they are not. Which is something a lot of clients just don't have the knowledge base to do and I'm glad to fill that void and be their advocate on site.
I hope this sheds some light on what goes into putting together a design package. I'm surprised by designers that don't involve their clients in the design development. Or when they hand over the design and call it a day without caring about the install. I'm also surprised when they don't create a complete set of documents to communicate their ideas and leave builders scratching their heads and frustrated. My way takes longer and is more exhaustive, but I think its the fair and transparent thing to offer the client who has entrusted you with their house. Its how I was trained and its the standard I feel most designers should be striving to offer.