How to choose a designer

    July 1, 2010


    What type of designer do you need?

    The job designation ‘Designer’ is not defined by law, and all sorts of people with all kinds of professional backgrounds (and even without any solid training) can and do call themselves ‘Designer’.
    There is an effort by a number of various professional boards to come up with a way to regulate this , but in BC this might still be a number of years away from being implemented.
    Personally I don’t care very much for those regulations – no matter what, if you want to be a successful designer you better prepare yourself for constant learning and updating in all areas of your field, otherwise you won’t be competitive.
    I find that the results typically speak for themselves, that’s the nice thing with jobs that result in ‘physical evidence’ (ie a finished interior).

    I think it’s easier to break this large and rather undefined profession up into a number of groups of areas of expertise.

    Home Stager

    helps you arrange your existing furniture and home accessories
    to make the most out of your space
    gives some advise on colour schemes
    when hired to prepare a home for selling they can bring in furniture from their own resources


    In general a decorator puts the finishing touches on a space

    colour concepts
    furniture layout
    some ( basic) lighting
    tile plans, flooring patterns
    soft furnishings, window treatments and upholstery
    art and accessory schedule


    Creates a unity of form, proportion, light and texture

    Space concepts reflective of clients agenda – both commercial and residential
    Complete working drawings from conceptual sketch, through elevations to production details
    Full lighting and electrical concepts
    Can act as agent for the homeowner with regards to the municipality and the construction crew

    Interior Architect

    Please note that this term is NOT used in Canada, however, such a profession exists in Europe.
    An Interior Architect bridges both the Architectural and the Interior Design field.
    They assist homeowners, builders and architects to bring the architectural language of a building inside.
    They are also trained to create a new architectural matrix within an existing space, which would be imporant when it comes to the redevelopment of old structures, and commercial design on a grander scale.
    They are also trained to conceptualize the architectural design of additions and single family homes.

    (My own background is 2-fold. I had an education and 6 years of practise in the field of costume and set design, and then I went through a 4 year university program to become what is called an ‘Interior Architect’ in Germany.)


    There are designers who specialise in kitchen and bath design, some do mainly design for offices, some focus on commercial interiors….

    This whole design field is incredibly varied, so I understand that it must be very confusing for a client to find out what they really need.

    It is a bit tiresome to constantly have to justify ones qualifications – there are tons of people with excellent decorating taste out there, who are very good at selecting colours and finishes for their home.
    This does not make them a designer,though, as intriguing a term that might be.

    Being a designer is not what is being portrayed on TV – although our results are very tangible and certainly ( if it’s a job done well) highly gratifying, it’s certainly not a FUN profession. It’s highly stressful and demanding, and requires a physically and mentally stable personality.
    The results might be fun, though!

    I ‘roll’ around in the dust on jobsites, get my hands and clothes dirty, discuss tiny but important details with the trades on site and make workshop visits.
    I am often a marriage councellor and mediator, I have to do bylaw research and talk to city officials for hours, keep budgets in mind, keep an eye on all kinds of product developments, differenciate between trends and really cool new materials that are going to be around for a long time and be a bit of a psychologist by analyzing clients current (and potential future) lifestyles.
    Math is a huge factor in my field (all you girls who go to design college, forget the ‘I will never use math in my life’ idea!!! I keep on hearing this comment from teachers at design colleges – very funny!), and a measuring tape is my best friend and constant accomplice.
    I often sit on my drafting board (I am old fashioned and truly believe in the magic that happens between my brain and my hand on a piece of paper) until midnight, and – if you are self employed- you do invoicing or proposals on Sunday afternoons.
    The cool ideas happen in between breakfast and the drive to the first jobsite at 7.30 in the morning.
    Or at 2 o’clock in the morning…

    But that’s just a note on the side…

    Back to the question – how do you find someone who can be that magic match for you and your project?

    First of all – don’t go by the amount of awards the designer might have collected.
    (I am saying that despite my obvious success in that field.)
    Although awards are (potentially) a sign for the ability to create very successful and visually appealing projects it does not speak to a personality match between the client and the designer.
    If all you are looking at is the number of awards you are certainly NOT the right client for me.

    Check out the designers projects first – a website is nowadays a basic requirement for any design business, and you should be able to see a good cross section of fairly current projects.
    This gives you an idea about the range of work a design company offers, and also a sense of the kind of styles the designer can assist in creating.

    Having said that brings up another issue – the difference between a decorating designer and an artistic designer.
    Having seen enough designer websites I had to come to the conclusion that some designers recreate their own personal style in minor variations – so a client can choose between the one designer who does modest contemporary, or the one that offers a traditional style compared to another one who is more inclined to create a country feel.
    Simply put it’s like prefering one brand of cereal over the other.

    Artistic designers (and I count myself into that category) have in my opinion a more ecclectic approach to design, don’t go by what’s trendy (an amusing note – even the designers that I would consider as being more on the trendy decorating side nowadays state in interviews that they are not using trendy products…), are more daring in their approach to colours and finishes and are overall more out-of-the-box with their designs, most of the time being able to create a number of different looks.

    (I have to say that it took me a number of years to realize this – it was an issue of Architectural Digest featuring artists homes and studios, that made me realise that the rather ecclectic and daring mix of colours and furniture was what my own home looked like. Before this I had always wondered why the often featured grand and stylish private homes of Designers hadn’t appealed to me at all.
    Ever since that illuminating experience I study my collegues work more from this angle, and find that once I know more about their own interests and backgrounds that I can understand and appreciate their results much better. )

    So, if you identify yourself with a look one particular designer creates, then by all means interview this person.
    Chances might be high that your personalities jive – so go ahead, check some previous references, make sure you like their approach to your project and that you understand their fee structure.

    If you want someone to assist you with developing your own style then it might be more difficult.
    You should then look at a range of design companies (and don’t limit yourself to the local ones- with nowadays technology like skype and cheap flights it might be worth while to hire someone from out of town – this depends of course on the budget parameters), set up times for interviews, and ask for their range of services and request some references.

    (Sidenote – we offer a free-of-charge intial 1 hour meeting in our office, where we discuss our scope of services, we go over our portfolio and discuss the general procedure.
    The other approach I started to take a few months back, and which proved quite well accepted, is a flat fee for a 1 ½ hour pick-my-brain session on site, which gets me to see the space first hand and discuss the project. This is also very useful for clients who need me more as a one-time sounding board for their product selection and ideas.)

    Perhaps you can even visit one or two previous clients and tour their projects – once I establish what it is a cient is looking for I will certainly see if I can arrange something like this.

    The range of services is necessary to know – a lot of renovations require blueprints submitted to the municipality for approval, in which case you need someone who not only comes up with a good idea and footprint, but with the full set of permit drawings, additional notes from a structural engineer, the inclusion of a land surveyor, electrical layout etc.

    If you like a design company’s work but can’t see something in their portfolio that reflects your special needs or requirements – talk to them about it!
    I might have knowledge os certain topics, but haven’t had a chance to incorporate this knowledge in a current project.
    Sometimes it takes 2 years to get a project with photos ‘online’ – so I might have something in the works that would be helpful for you to see, but how would I know if you don’t tell me about it…
    Or I just don’t stress certain aspects as much as might be expected (like the whole green building topic – it’s a big marketing tool at the moment, and we at THE SKY IS THE LIMIT don’t work this tool very much. This doesn’t mean that we are not knowledgable about it, or that we don’t incorporate earth friendly materials in our designs – on the contrary, it’s so common place for us to do so, that we don’t make a point out of it)

    And even if I have not much experience in a particular area – the design field is all about constant learning and education.
    Once you talk to a designer about your concerns, they might have a chance to communicate with you and find a solution that satisfies your needs.

    And design is also all about connections – after many years in the business a designer should have assembled a network of professionals whom he/she can ask for advice.
    The construction industry is total teamwork, and not an area for primadonnas.

    What does a designer expect from you, the client?

    Open honesty.
    I need to find out who you are, what your lifestyle is all about, what is hiding in your closets, what kind of a budget you intend to spend and where you want to go with this project.
    There is a high chance that the client might not know the answers to many of those questions – no problem, that’s part of the process.
    I tend to share experiences from results of finished jobs and compare them to a clients current lifestyle.

    Although basic needs are very much the same no matter who the client is, there is a difference in approach when designing a space for a client with a young family (which means 8 or 10 years down the road we are dealing with teenagers) versus the retired empty nesters, who want to create their second or third residence.
    This is not about judging a clients motifs – if one of your main goals is to really impress your neighbours, tell me about it, and we make their heads spin (while still achieving the really important goals)!

    How am supposed to come up with the best solution for you if I am missing information?
    If the basic trust isn’t there, then you rather go and find a designer that makes you feel more comfortable. Or – as in our case at THE SKY IS THE LIMIT – perhaps another designer in the same office can take over and be your main accomplice? That way you still get the benefit of the design company’s philosophy, artistry and knowlegde.

    Of course I have to read between the lines very often, and also rely on a good deal of intuition, but in any case I (and all the trades involved) prefer open communication between the client, myself and a contractor.
    Any other scenario doesn’t make for a good and creative work environment.

    Good luck!


    THE SKY IS THE LIMIT DESIGN is a national and international award winning, full service architectural and interior design firm. We service Vancouver, Kelowna and the BC Mainland, Victoria and Vancouver Island, Seattle and the Gulf Islands as well as international clients. Principal Ines Hanl and her team specialize in the creation of artful, bespoke interiors in any style for their discerning clientele.

    web site by: starglobal