Is it fair that companies ask several interior design firms for a concept for free before deciding which one to go with?
It is utterly unfair for companies to have more than one interior design firm working on a design concept at the same time without payment, according to Lee Wylde, lecturer interior design, American University of Sharjah, who said the trend started around three years ago when the first wave of financial dismay hit the industry.
“Quite literally overnight many companies took the stance that if you wanted their work, then you would have to show them what you could produce. Gone are the days it seems when design firms were hired on the strength of their portfolios and the notoriety of their previous projects,” he added.
Wylde believes this significant shift in attitude towards the interior design industry has seriously altered the way firms operate today and needs revising.
“Companies who offer interior design firms ‘potential business’ if they put a concept together for them for free need to be educated on how we operate, not only from a creative side but as a business. Quite simply, we do not work for free,” he said.
“In today’s market not only does the client expect a free concept proposal but an indicative BOQ (Bill of Quantities). It seems ultimate transparency is required in all elements of a concept design, but for what reason? Why should we create a concept, price it, and hand it over to a company without receiving a stage payment? Why should we show where we make a profit?
“Is it feasible to imagine that this potential client will take your concept and pricing and see if he can have it fitted out at a significantly cheaper cost? If you have not asked yourself these questions then you should, as the answers will determine the success of your company.”
Wylde added there have been many occurrences in the past, where small, medium and large interior design firms have not protected themselves by having a contractual framework in place.
“On the other hand, are times that tough where interior design firms are willing to risk losing fees and committing resources for potential? How do you measure potential? Potential can make you, but equally potential can break you.The golden rule is cash flow is king,” he said.
“It is a competitive market but I truly believe that if you want to be successful, you need to establish standard operating guidelines and stick to them. In doing so, the client will equally respect you and your working relationship will be stronger, especially if you know you are being paid.”
Maja Kozel, chief designer, Gemaco Interiors, has worked for architectural consultancy firms in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and has a broad experience of conceptual design, especially when it comes to competition.
“Within a short timeframe (even working weekends and overnight), we are required to come up with an entire concept and design.
If only there was more time to qualify the project and to know the client’s business inside out, to have answers to all our questions, and only then would you be able to come up with a truly innovative design,” she said.
“To be part of the competitive design market in the UAE you have to join the competition and provide a full presentation. Clients want to see a design with that wow factor. They expect full concepts, complete with specifications and pricing, which fits their corporate style and budget.”
Gemaco Interiors has a dedicated sales and design team to support the architectural and design community, project managers, real estate agents and end users. The company explores the best approach for each kind of tender submission, building a relationship with the client and the consultant.
It is a commercial approach, calculating if it is worth spending time in the research and resources for the concept design. Understanding the deliverables, looking at the corporate identity of the client and what the timeline and budgets are for the project.
“By putting yourself in the shoes of the client and understanding their situation it might give you a different perspective; for example if you buy a new car you would also visit several showrooms and ask for a test drive?,” said Kozel.
“It is just a matter of selling your design in the right way, finding the boundary and the balance between what to present, how much to present and to keep the client interested and wanting to see more.
“More importantly we strive for quality over quantity.”
According to Martin Wojnowski, regional director, Middle East and Asia, CRA Design, it is fair to ask but unfair to demand and said it is like asking a hairdresser for a free cut to see if you like the style before deciding whether to choose their salon for your next haircut or not.
“Unfortunately, this habit of demanding a concept prior to signing up an interior design consultant is widespread. A concept forms the backbone of the ID package and it should never be released by a design firm free of charge. The concept can easily be developed by the client without a designer’s participation,” he said.
“Designers themselves are to blame by accepting such terms. The minute you walk into a lawyer’s office he puts a stop watch on and you are charged for his time. Nobody objects to that and nobody even tries to demand advice for free.
“In my company we are asked to provide concepts but we never do it for free. We simply charge clients a nominal fee. This is then deducted from the Fee Proposal if we get the job. We also try to limit any deliverables, retaining ownership of the materials. What we bring to the presentation we take back with us after.”
Wojnowski added, the client who demands a free concept is not the type of client he wants to work with because, in his experience, such demands indicate the client is not prepared to pay at all, and will struggle to keep the payment schedule up-to-date.
“By the same token, a professional designer who offers a free service is not someone you can trust regarding the quality of deliverables. Legitimate firms simply don’t work pro bono. Would anyone go for a free facelift, dental service or MEP calculations? Offering a free concept is deeply unprofessional and can be interpreted as a sign of a studio’s strenuous financial position or lack of experience.”
Mark Marin, of Mark Marin Design, Dubai, agrees and said any prospective client who wants a designer to work on their project should be prepared to pay at least some fee for that work.
“If you have a legal or accounting problem, do you ask several lawyers or accountants to prepare a document and then decide which one to go for? No. Architects and designers are trained professional consultants who provide design services in exchange for fees,” he said.
“Having said that, we are all guilty on occasion of preparing pitches for free in the hope of winning a project but in agreeing to do so we all collectively de-value our expertise and services.
“Obviously, this becomes more prevalent in a tight market, and as such, has been the case globally in recent years.”
Marin believes the more we give in to this temptation the worse the situation gets and clients take this for granted.
He added, designers should be commissioned on the strength of expertise, attitude, appropriateness of style, qualifications and portfolio of both built and unbuilt work and the proposed fee.
If clients want a consultant to work specifically on a brief then they should be prepared to pay.
“A large part of the problem in the UAE is many clients turn to design and construction companies rather than design consultancies exclusively and these D&C companies can afford to prepare free pitches because their profits are made in the construction component of the project and design is seen as a cost and delivered in the cheapest possible means,” said Marin.
“More informed clients understand design as an investment and that good consultants do not give away their services for free and the better the consultant the better their project will be.”.