December 11, 2017

When Design Becomes a Commodity

Historically the A&E industry has been won and lost on qualifications. In fact, until recently, it was frowned upon for A&E firms to even market themselves. There was a simpler time when reputation and word of mouth were all that differentiated whether or not designers won commissions. Rightfully so, no matter how much technology is involved, design is a specialized and personalized craft. Shopping for a quality designer is like saying I want a Picasso, but I only want to pay Walmart prices. These days, however, where time and money is king, the industry is feeling increased pressure to compete for the lowest common denominator.


The major problem when clients are “shopping” design fees are actually getting a real apples to apples comparison. Without an accurate scope of work and understanding of the client’s needs and goals, there can be huge differences in what is perceived as necessary design services. When a client looks at design in terms of what is the best price, they generally get what they pay for. One must understand that in order to meet these lower fee expectations, design professionals are forced to eliminate what are generally considered necessary services. This has a negative impact on the success and quality of the finished project. When a client’s HGTV expectations are crushed by a tight design budget, this not only has a negative outcome for that client and designer but it tarnishes the whole industry. When designers are wired to push the envelope further in order to be more creative, more innovative and more inspiring, they are typically being asked to do so for less. As fees continue to be tightened, good design is being stifled.


I find with new clients, an initial discussion on expectations is critical. A client may be “kicking the tires” to see if your design firm is the right fit for them, but likewise, you as the designer, need to be interviewing the client to see if they are a good fit for you and your team.  You don’t want to find yourself halfway through design before you discover that you need to cut corners and jeopardize your reputation or worse yet, risk increased and unexpected liability.