Do you really need an interior designer?

Do you really need an interior designer? That’s an awkward question. As a member of the interior design profession, I am often asked, “Why in the world would I ever need to enlist the help of an interior designer? I love doing my own decorating.”

I truly understand the value of that question, I do. With the offerings on HGTV, the Internet and the growing number of home furnishing magazines, (and don’t forget my articles) why would you want another bill in your life? However, as a proud member of this profession, I know there are certain times when assistance from a pro is not only sensible but very wise.

I do agree that the amazing ideas and creativity acquired while watching your favorite HGTV program are magic in an hour. While watching TV, surfing the web and reading magazines, you can get great ideas for that new kitchen, the bathroom remodel and the color palette for a refresh of the family room. In addition to a full-on remodeling project, you can easily learn about trends and get some astonishing ideas for sprucing things up here and there to give a room a quick spirit lift. Tuck all those ideas into an “idea folder” to help you with that dream project when the time comes. But in the meantime, please bear in mind that a professional designer was most certainly involved with the design in everything you see in the media—and that designer is not going to come to your home! (At least, I’m pretty sure of that!) And your home is just that—your home—so despite whatever inspiration you find, you want it to suit your personality and your space. This is where the pro comes in.

When to Hire an Interior Designer

Consider engaging a professional interior designer in the following situations:

Downsizing: When a family is downsizing after the kids leave home, it’s the perfect time to enlist the assistance of a designer. The designer can help you with measurements and space plans that allow you to take the best and most beneficial items to your new, cozier home.

Windows: Custom window treatments developed by an experienced designer really have many benefits beyond being a beautiful vision. A designer will have the resources for fabrics, a workroom to fabricate the window treatments, and a professional installer.

Color change: You will never be sorry hiring a designer to help with an extensive color palette change in your home. Many variables—beyond simply loving a color—go into selecting the best interior colors. A seasoned designer will consider millwork, natural as well as artificial lighting, and flooring in the final decisions.

Continuity: Developing a home where a common color palette travels through the home enables a home to flow from room to room. Making furniture choices that will give you the freedom to take the pair of wing back chairs from the hearth room and place them as host and hostess chairs for a special dinner in the dining room-is the wisdom of a well trained designer. Seeing the larger picture in your home and not limiting your design perimeters to just one particular room, but considering other possibilities!

A skilled designer: will compile a file for each project, giving the designer a complete history at his or her fingertips. If any questions arise along the way or down the road, the designer will have records!

Benefits of Working with an Interior Designer

Experience with fabrics and where and why to use, surfaces, flooring, lighting and more to ensure quality and longevity.

A stable of professional contractors such as painters, wallpaper hangers, electricians, finish carpenters, and the like.

An eye for design directions that will last versus fly-by-night trends that end up being a waste of money.

Training in color, style and proportions so that a room you pull together is harmonious.

Creative ideas you might never have thought of. (Just ask one of my clients about a collection of over scaled giraffe print pillows combined with turquoise cheetah decorative pillows that were just the cat's meow and showcased beautifully on a 1940s Victorian-style silk sofa.)

How Interior Designers Work

Before diving in with paint decks and carpet samples, as a homeowner might, an experienced interior designer will spend some time interviewing you in a process called “programming.” A skilled designer will ask a series of questions during the initial interview or the beginning of a project in order to create a good, solid design plan. Programming allows the designer to identify any issues and produce a well-developed project that meets all the homeowners’ needs and desires.

The designer will kick off the programming process by visiting your home. In fact, for a designer to really understand the scope of a project, he or she must stand in the room to have a firm understanding of its possibilities. If the home is not yet constructed, a designer must understand how to read and interpret a blueprint. I have done many a project from blueprint and have learned to understand the pitfalls and the promises of the space to come.

Programming questions include topics such as:

What is your budget? We all hate the money issue, but I can assure you that establishing a budget is a must from both sides.

Do any of your family members have allergies? If so, what sorts of allergies are there and what exactly is that person allergic to. My first allergy question is always in regards to feathers- I am a huge fan of down filled decorative pillows; if there is an allergy to feathers, an alternative will need to be chosen.

Are there pets in the home, and if so are they allowed on the furniture?

What colors do you love to be surrounded with? What colors do you find to be revolting?

What are your hopes for this room? Does it need to be able to accommodate extra people during holidays and celebrations?

Will all of the decision-makers be available throughout the project?

This might seem intrusive, but let me assure you it is how a good quality design is assembled to meet all your needs. At the end of the design project, you as a client should be incredible happy and feel that the money and the invasion of privacy were well worth it.

How to Hire an Interior Designer

If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on advice, you want a qualified candidate. How can you find one?

References are a must! If you have personally sat in a room composed by one of my fellow designers and found it just your cup of tea, then find out more and maybe even make a call to that designer for an introductory meeting. Make sure the project you admire was completed on time and on budget. Also confirm that if any issues arose, they were handled with the utmost level of professional standards—meaning that everyone was happy and still speaking to each other at the end of the project! A revealing question to ask is whether the person would do it all over again with that same designer.

I find that designers who are part of a professional organization such as the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) is a wise place to start your search. These individuals have college degrees in interior design, have years working within the field, and must continue to acquire continuing education credits to maintain their membership. Visit HYPERLINK "" for a list of qualified designers in your area.

You can spot an inexperienced designer pretty easily. If he or she arrives without the following, think long and hard about engaging them for assistance!

A notebook and something to write on. Taking notes on deposit slips and borrowing a pen is a no, no!

A camera to take pictures. The designer should not ask you to take the pictures.

A tape measure is one of the most valuable tools a designer owns, so having it on hand is a must!

A professional business card—don’t accept a cell number scribbled on a torn grocery store receipt!

Clear and understandable fees. A designer should be clear about charging for their time or up-charging (cost plus a mark-up for product)!

On the other hand, if the person who arrives at your door seems prepared and has all of the above equipment, then sit down and talk!

Risks and Rewards of Using a Designer

Let’s start with the risks and what to watch out for. I have a client who had been through four other designers before we met! My client purchased an entryway rug that retailed for $500. By the time the previous designer attached her hourly fees to the rug, the price paid to the designer was $1,100—that’s right, $600 for the time involved in shopping for the rug. This is unfortunate for both parties, so please understand how you will be billed!

Now let me give you an example where a designer (me) saved the day and whole lot of money to boot!! Please let me apologize for that bit of self indulgence, but I am good at what I do, I bet you are good at what you do too! Moving on! I had a client that I had been working with for sometime: window treatments, custom bedding, wall paper selections, paint color changes, in general a whole host of design involvement in their home. They decided to finish their unfinished basement, much to my dismay I was not consulted with the planning process. A high end basement finisher came for an interview and listened to the dreams for the basement. Shortly after the first meeting a set of drawings were created and presented to my clients. I was at the home for an installation and ask if I might take a peek at the construction drawings. My face must have shown my disappointed as my client quickly inquired "what's wrong"! Without hesitation I said this does not fit your needs at all, this is not the way your family lives. I asked if I might have a copy of the drawings to make my suggestions to make it fit their needs. A relieved look came over her face, she did not realize my skills reached beyond just the pretty stuff and that she was sorry for not consulting me. The original design was going to cost a minimum of $5,000 and that was if there were no changes. I knew this family I had learned what their likes and dislikes were and in a couple of days I came back with my ideas, you guessed it they built my design. It gave them everything they desired in the space as well as some unexpected surprises and saved them thousands of dollars! Needless to say I was consulted from that point forward!

I certainly hope you consider an interior designer for a complex project, a good one will be well worth the money you spend and here is why! They will catch potential mistakes and in the long run assist you with making decisions that you will love for years and years.

Dorothy Draper was a well respected designer who's interiors are still praised today, long after her death in 1969! The Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue in New York City as well as The Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia retain her elegant touch even today. At the Carlyle you can almost smell her fragrance lingering, very little has changed within those interiors. Confirming that good design is timeless and when directed by a talented designer the outcome can be astonishing. I am going to leave you some wise words from Dorothy.

"Too often when we're buying a building or house we do not consider each room. We are carried away by one charming feature and are blind to details that will give us trouble later on."

See you next week!

Jan Colvin has been a professional interior designer for over 25 years (Allied ASID). She accredits her mother Pat Robinson and Lucille Chase for her intense interest and love for design. 

She has taught interior design at the college level and operated her private design business since 2001. Today she spends a majority of her time completing her new book which will be available in the first quarter of 2013. After many years in the traditional interior design profession, "I found that the educational aspect is far more satisfying for me personally.”

Jan welcomes questions, which will be answered in her columns. Send your questions to: