I can’t tell you how many times in my career, I’ve gotten a “Oh how glamorous!” reaction after telling someone I’m an Interior Designer, or, my personal favourite, “Oh! So, you pick out paint colours and pillows and stuff?” (Cue steam blowing out of my ears).
If I’m being honest (which is the goal here), these reactions are infuriating.
Because it tells me that this professional industry is incredibly misunderstood (for MANY reasons, yes TV shows being one of them, but we can talk more about that another day), and as a result the
Interior Design profession is highly undervalued.
I am a huge advocate of what myself and other Interior Designers do, the value we offer, and how impactful and invaluable our services are. Today, I want to give a more comprehensive breakdown of what Interior Designers actually do and why this profession is a force to be reckoned with.
This blog merely skims the surface, and to be clear I am speaking from my own experience in what I have done on every project in my career and continue to do now with my clients. To help break it down I’m going to walk you through a project from start to finish based on a typical 5-phase Design Process:
1. Research + Analysis
2. Concept + Schematic Design
3. Design Development
1. Research + Analysis
This first phase is all about information gathering to establish project goals. This means we do a lot of listening, researching, documentation and analysis work based on the physical project space (existing or new), its limitations, client budget, client vision and time (schedule).
Through client meetings, questionnaires, study groups and working sessions, we learn about client lifestyles, how a current space is used, a brand or business vision, what is and isn’t working, and what a client needs the space to be presently and in the future.
We also review the project property with a fine-tooth comb to understand the physical make-up of what we’re about to design. This means we thoroughly document the site by taking measurements, videos and photographs of every visible nook and cranny. We also walkthrough the site with the client and consultants to assess the structural, mechanical, and electrical systems to see how they work now and what needs improvement. And then there’s the added research, a necessary (and time-consuming) step that involves pulling from our own memory bank as well as reaching out to others in the industry to select appropriate design solutions that could be applied to the project. Interior Designers, no different from engineers, need to be able to plan ten steps ahead to mitigate any problems that might present themselves. This cross-section of information is documented and synthesized by the Interior Designer, a much-needed deep dive to move forward and design a space.
2. Concept + Schematic Design
This second phase is all about establishing a Design Concept: a visual and conceptual narrative of what the space will look and feel like. We combine this concept with the researched parameters in phase one to develop schematic studies.
Creating an overarching Design Concept is a critical part of any project. A strong Design Concept is created by brainstorming ideas, finding meaningful inspiration images and defining the design foundations. These create a cohesive and intentional narrative about the function, look and feeling of the space. This takes dedicated time as it defines and supports every design decision that is in the project. We make sure this Concept is relevant, speaks to the client and isn’t just following the latest trend.
Once the Design Concept is established, start sketching out floor plans and 3d sketches via hand or drafting software. A lot of time is spent testing out multiple floor layouts and design visions, and evaluating what fits based on the project planning program and goals. All the while ensuring local building codes, ergonomic and anthropometric data are applied. Interior Designers coordinate with other consultants, such as engineers and architects, to make sure that the design we're conceptualizing can be constructed. This makes sure the project is holistically coordinated.
This phase is when we start sourcing preliminary finishes and furnishings to visually tell the physical story of the space. This ongoing task alone is a full-time job. Interior Designers find the best products to use in the space by meeting with supplier/manufacturer representatives. We learn everything about the products, understand the impact of using it, and we assess how appropriate that product would be for the space. It is also important to understand what could happen to the material over time and its long-term maintenance considerations. The list goes on and on! As designers, we are responsible for the materials we specify in our projects, so it’s critical we do our own due diligence from the outset.
3. Design Development
Everything and anything you see, touch, or feel in a space – Interior Designers are behind how and why it got there. All of these details get thoroughly figured out in this third phase. It is the most intensive, creative, and methodical part of a project, as it involves piecing together each element and their domino impact on each other.
Here we source more intently, making final selections based on appropriateness, cost, access, and time. We look at what’s going on the walls, the furniture, the lighting, the plumbing fixtures, the flooring, the visible mechanical and electrical devices, the door hardware, the tile patterns, the custom millwork, the accessories on an open shelf, the area rugs, the casing and trim - everything!
We assess how each component will be constructed, how it will be finished, and how it all looks together when completed. Through Developing floor plans, ceiling plans, finish plans, elevations, sketches and 3D renderings, all of these decisions are tested. We curate, edit, reselect and tweak until it’s just right.
Everything specified is reviewed to make sure it meets local building code requirements. This phase includes a lot of coordination with other consultants as the design develops so that what’s built matches the projects vision.
Photo realistic renderings and physical materials palettes are then created to present to the client. These are the easiest way for us to communicate the story of your cohesive designed interior space.
By the way - we’re still thinking 10 steps ahead, anticipating crucial client feedback. We are always ready with informed reasoning and alternative solutions.
The fourth phase is dedicated to the documentation and final coordination of the design. Construction Drawings and Specifications are created to be used for pricing (final trade quotes) and actual construction.
The drawings include floor plans, elevations, details and anything required to illustrate the design. We make sure everything is drawn accurately, labeled correctly, and figure out how these drawings will be organized and in what order according to trade.
These drawings are coordinated at every micro-detail with our consultants – this means paying attention to every possible detail that lives in the space AND behind the walls. We take the time to review the consultant’s drawing packages and make sure everything is accurately cross-referenced to the interior design. This multi-layered coordination is critical to catch potential problems ahead of time and to show areas that may need to be flexible and adaptable which ultimately saves time and money during construction. In special instances, we have drawing review meetings with city officials and contractors to ensure conformity to local building codes and special permissions.
All the projects furniture and finishes are written in a specification document. These documents are very layered and comprehensive. They contain all the information a contractor needs to purchase a finish or that a manufacturer/supplier needs to make a product. We take the time to review them over and over making sure they accurately capture the design that has been approved by the client.
This final phase takes place during the actual construction of a project. The Interior Designer becomes the project manager. We oversee every step of the process, from demolition and framing to furniture and accessory installation. All leading to the moment where the space is handed over to the client.
This involves weekly site-visit meetings with the client and the contractor, inspecting the progress of the project and ensuring it aligns to the design drawings. At this stage we review Shop Drawings (formal drawings sent to us by vendors, like a kitchen millworker) and Submittals (samples from the manufacturer of final finishes and anything custom) to make sure they have accurately captured the design and finishes before anything goes into production. At all times we must be hyper-attentive in this phase as the project moves fast and mistakes cost money.
Since we oversee the project so intimately, on behalf of our client we are sometimes responsible to review contractor invoices (aka Progress Draws) to assess if the work that is being invoiced has actually been completed on-site.
While all this is happening, I can’t tell you how many emergency phone calls we take from the contractor and trades. We work together as a team to problem-solve something that has unexpectedly come up to keep the project on track.
When the project hits the stage of what is called Substantial Completion (the site is deemed fit to be handed over to the client, but not totally complete), we go through deficiencies in the construction and make sure they are corrected. We help with furniture installation, inspect anything wrong, and oversee the remediation of those issues. We procure and install accessories that bring the necessary life into a new space.
On every project, despite our meticulous master-planning, some things do change along the way. Which is why the final step is to provide closure documents, which are a final record of what has been built in the space.
Then, maybe, we’re done.