Designers often get upset that the outcome of giving free advice to friends and family does not go well. They end up feeling used, and after spending all that time sharing their expertise, their advice sometimes isn’t even taken anyway.
The problem with free advice is that people rarely listen to it. When people are paying me, they take notes. When they’re not paying me, they often treat my advice like they are adding it to a poll they are doing with everyone, including their dog, their aunt or their best friend.
My sisters pretty much listen to my advice. They know better. They know that if they don’t follow my advice, their house will not be as awesome as it otherwise could have been.
When my sister Lea proudly showed me the Tiffany lamp she had ordered on-line at first I thought ‘Wait, you didn’t ask me. . . ‘ and then I realized, my sister has this Bohemian style and she doesn’t need my advice for every little thing, especially because I would have said no to the lamp. But it suits her. This is a glimpse of her kitchen we worked on 3 years ago, and thanks to me, the finishes coordinate.
My sisters know how important a fun blog post is for me so when it came time to take these photos, Lea was the perfect assistant as we ran around moving everything around to get the perfect shot. I was grateful.
I’ve helped my sister Elizabeth with her house many times, here, here and here. Many of her decorating projects we work on together just because it’s fun and we’re hanging out anyway. And she goes out of her way to reciprocate.
Whenever people ask me the best way to handle it when friends and family ask for free advice I respond with “Working with friends and family is hard, I don’t think there is a magical, standard way to handle it.”
There are some designers who have so many friends they would go broke if they helped everyone for free or with a big discounted rate. So they simply have a policy called “I don’t do design work for friends”. If that works for you, great! But it doesn’t work for everyone.
Doctors and Lawyers go through this as well, it’s no different. Anytime you can help someone by just talking (and not actually physically having to DO SOMETHING) you’ll get asked. That’s just the way it is.
If your brother was a painter and you were building a house, you probably wouldn’t expect him to paint your entire house for free. You might expect a discount, but you wouldn’t expect him to do it for nothing. This is because people understand labour.
Advice is trickier. Notice this advice is also free, but for the sake of your relationships, you might want to listen.
So here’s my best advice for getting free help from your designer friend:
DO the research yourself. HELP me help you!
If someone sends me a note that goes like this “Maria, can you recommend a chair for my living room?”
For me to help you, I now need to ask for measurements, a photo, and I need to go online and find one. This takes me away from my paying clients.
My advice is, make it as painless as possible.
Find five chairs that fit your requirements, make sure they are the right size, etc. Basically, do the best you can. Then it’s easy for me to just respond with “Go with chair number four”, or if none of them will work, now I know the size, the style you are considering, and I might just have a recommendation I can make from the top of my head.
And it makes me feel better that you’ve done some legwork at your end too instead of just looking for me to do everything.
When you ask me for colour advice that you’re sure will take no time at all, this is often true. But it’s taken me 20 years and 20,000 hours to be able to take one look at your house and tell you what colour it should be.
My favourite line was from my good friend Liz years ago when a client balked at her design fee and asked how long it would take, she responded “17 years and as long as it takes me”.
When asking your designer friends for their advice, be mindful that this is their intellectual property. This is how we make a living. It’s worth money when we respond with advice that saves you thousands of dollars or simply saves you from having to live with a mistake you’ve just installed for as long as you live in that house.
Related post: How to Sell Interior Design
DON’T take design advice without offering something in return
If you have a designer friend whose advice you need, treat it like a bartering system. Find out what you can do for them to reciprocate. Then you’ll still end up friends.
I have one neighbour who I have helped twice. Not only does she follow my advice, she immediately makes herself available when it’s convenient for me AND I have been able to turn her project into a blog post which in turn helps my business. In addition to that, she always shows up with flowers or chocolates and lots of appreciation. This is someone whom I am delighted to help, I feel appreciated and I get something out of it too. It’s a win-win for both of us.
Many years ago, I offered a neighbour a ‘friends and family bargain rate’ to come to her house and help her with layout and sourcing some new pieces. Since I had cut my rates by 1/3, I asked to be paid in cash. She pretended she hadn’t read that request and proceeded to write me a check. Then she sent me emails for weeks afterward, like the one hour she paid for covered all that extra time (It did not). So I just ended up feeling used and as I didn’t want to feel like that, the next time she sent me a note asking when I could drop by again, well, it just so happened that I was booked solid.
DON’T say: Next time you’re shopping and you see a lamp that might work for that corner in my living room, let me know.
When I’m sourcing for a client, I’m single focused on their project. If I’m online looking for a blue ottoman, I’m trying to find that ottoman as fast as I can so I can source the next item on my list. I don’t have five projects (or your lamp) in my head as I’m looking for that blue ottoman. That would considerably slow me down.
Again. The fact that I can spot which lamp works in your living room even if I am out shopping and bump right into it, still took me years of practicing my craft to be able to notice.
That’s still worth money. Or wine, or flowers. Or dinner. Something.
DO make a habit of emailing over texting
Texting outside of business hours can be intrusive. I have clients who occassionally text me but it’s rare and when they do it’s appropriate. I don’t mind then.
However, texting is instant. It immediately makes you feel like you have to respond right away no matter what time of day you receive it.
Now that texting is so common, designers are constantly asking for advice on how to handle the texts they get from their clients. Especially if you have a lot of projects on the go, it is difficult to keep track.
But as designers, we also need to set boundaries and be responsible for how we handle client communication.
Your clients aren’t actually TRYING to take advantage of you. They are simply filling the space that YOU have given them.
Did you get that previous sentence? Read it again to let it really sink in.
And then, simply ask your clients to send you emails with their questions so it’s easier to keep track of billing and let them know you will respond during business hours.
Managing relationships is a big part of a designers job whether it’s with our paying clients or our friends and family.
There’s no such thing as free advice. There’s nothing free about it, it costs somebody something. When you’re asking a professional for their advice, be considerate and thoughtful and offer some kind of reciprocity even if it’s small. A card or a cupcake goes a long way to maintaining your friendship and good relations because it shows that you respect the givers time.
If you are a new designer and you are doing a lot of free work because you are building your experience, it’s harder to know when to say no. In the beginning of my design career, faux finishing was really big, a friend of mine loved what I had done with my apartment so much, she asked if I’d faux finish her friends living room.
On a Saturday, I arrived at the apartment (she wasn’t home) faux finished her walls and left. For free. In the beginning this worked for me, but if you are a designer who is doing so much free work that it starts taking you away from your paying clients, it’s better to set boundaries while you can still be graceful instead of waiting until you are pushed to the limit.
Over to you my lovelies! If you’re a designer, how do you like to be treated if you’re giving free advice, or If you’ve been on the receiving end of free advice and how have you reciprocated? We are all on both sides at some point!
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