Toxicity of free design proposals

Juliana Chan

5 Aug 2021

Sharing experiences when clients fish for free designs.
#saynotofreedesign, #nofreedesignmovement

General Observations

Many interior design firms offer a one-stop station ranging from design to 3D visualisations as well as design-to-build process. During pitching, the competitions between interior design companies are intense when price, service and time play huge factors in getting projects. Clients take advantage of this to fish for multiple design proposals since it is free to them by hopping from one company to the other. It is also fair to say that not every designer is suitable to individual style or needs. Clients have the rights to find out more about the designer's potential before formal engagement. Some design companies might offer cookie-cutter designs to come up with quick designs to catch potential feeds, while some have the upper hand with the capacity to invest in resources to come up with designs in a short time and throw in free 3D renders to entice clients. All these for free. The battle of securing projects by throwing up freebies created a toxicity in the design industry.

To date, we have come to realisation that we have fed the clients too much that they expect this to be a norm. This also led them to belittle the design profession - the effort and time spent on coming up with designs, the craftsmanship and the years of experience that have gone through and learnt to hone our skills.

Pitching is not wrong but the method of how we do it. How can we do it such that we can both help clients to reach their decisions while preventing abuse of resources and manpower. We need to be more efficient, and the long term effect of saving time and resources eventually benefits both parties. For challenging times like this, we need to achieve win-win situation. Designers need to be given faith and respect to encourage better quality designs.

Personal encounters to free proposal requests

A few encounters, not too many thankfully. But I am partly responsible for these situations to happen as well. It happened especially for those who are usually relatives of existing clientele or indirect connections of someone I know. It is out of my goodwill initially to help them solve issues and give design advice. I am not a mercenary person and I often want to help people when it comes to design. It often led to further requests for more substantial design proposals to help them visualise or help convince them how the design solutions work.

One interesting case I came across was a long duration spent on solving a client's kitchen layout aside to the rest of the design for the unit. The kitchen layout took up most of the discussion as the owner wanted to explore many options to find the best to suit his needs. However he was also facing indecisiveness and reluctance to convince himself to accept Fengshui limitations that affected his designs. Aside to the hours of phone calls over a week solely on kitchen layout, we also spent a full day together for materials and fittings selections in a few shops. The whole engagement ended after my issuance of drawings to the owner, who later found a contractor of lower costs claiming that they can do both drawings for design and build.

What are your advice to prevent situations like the above?

For cases like I mentioned above, it could have been easily prevented by keeping my foot on the ground instead of getting carried away by eagerness to solve his design issue. We should also not get swayed by the referrer's own judgement of the potential clients. No one is able to be responsible for how the client actually turns out to be and vice versa. We should also hold back on going into material and fitting selections too early at the design stage even if clients are very eager to do so or when they claimed that they are very sure of what they want. Usually making selections would be more meaningful when the design is more or less finalised, especially when both designer and owner have agreed on the overall effect.

Designers can start by providing certain design directions and sketches if necessary to illustrate some critical views. Any further, or whenever you feel reasonable, should be negotiated with the owner on how to proceed with the engagement, such as issue draft fee proposal to kickstart the conversation. Terms and conditions to be clearly explained to avoid any conflicts in future.