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jamesthomas Interiors on Transparency in Interior Design

Transparency is a word tossed around in nearly every industry today, from food and beverage to manufacturing all the way to the government, and the interior design industry is no different. Many designers are shifting to make clarity and communication a priority in their working relationships with clients.

The information available to us via the internet has changed how consumers and clients operate -- they expect to fully understand their options and what they are purchasing, no matter what that purchase may be!  And when it comes to something as personal as their designing their homes, it is important for homeowners to feel a sense of comfort and clarity about the process.

When we at Refined Haystack think about transparency in interior design, jamesthomas Interiors is one of the first firms that comes to mind. Their approach to client communication is to be incredibly clear and upfront, a key building block for them when building strong relationships with clients.

jamesthomas Interiors

We caught up with James Dolenc, co-owner of jamesthomas Interiors, to hear more about their philosophy. Whether you’re a designer working to be more transparent with your clients or a homeowner trying to navigate the process of finding and working with a designer, it’s certainly worth reading!

What are the ways in which you are transparent with your clients?
Contracts: I think the key for us is being upfront with what our billing practices are from the beginning, and then outline it all very clearly in the contract. There should be no grey area -- whether the charge is an hourly rate, a project rate, markups on product, or a mixture, it should be explained and agreed upon before moving into the project.

Timelines: From the first meeting after a contract is signed, we set up a schedule. Sometimes designers make the mistake of not properly structuring the process, and then there is a lack of comfort and trust for the homeowner. You want clients to feel at peace knowing that you’re a true professional guiding them through the project, and being transparent about the way things will be structured will encourage that feeling of security.

Budgeting: It’s exciting to start a new project, both for homeowners and designers -- but it’s important not to dive in and begin ordering pieces before a firm budget has been set. Some designers and clients set a budget first and then work toward it, while others make some preliminary selections and then set a budget based off that and go from there. Either way, communication on this needs to be very clear.

jamesthomas Interiors

All of these pieces you’ve mentioned are so important and closely related. How do you take the first step to be transparent when you meet a potential client?
After meeting with a potential client, we create a formal proposal from the scope of services we discussed. You don’t want to walk into the relationship without a mutual understanding of how the project will be executed and billed. This can be difficult for some designers because we’re very creatively-minded, but it’s absolutely vital to being a good businessperson.

It may seem like it just makes sense to be transparent with clients, but it doesn’t always come naturally or without deliberate effort. How have you learned to be more transparent over the years?
Unfortunately, design school doesn’t teach it to you! It’s just something I have learned with time. I would tell a young designer to go take a business course so they can learn about setting up contracts, communicating with clients, and how to manage people. As for me, I came from the corporate side of design, which often means that budget comes first, timeline second, and design third. So now, even though I’m able to make design a priority with my residential clients, I still consider budget and timeline so important that I make it a point to balance them.

jamesthomas Interiors

Why do you think there can sometimes be a sense of fear around transparency for designers?
I feel that this industry is going through a monumental shift that goes to the core of how designers do business. Hiring a designer really used to be about getting access to trade only product that you couldn’t get without going through them -- everything was shielded. And though that is obviously still a piece of it, I want people to hire me for my design talent, not just for my ability to sell them product. So why is there a fear? I think there’s a fear because designers don’t know how to give themselves enough credit for their talent. It’s just about having confidence in your skills and knowledge, and that’s a hard, but very important, shift for designers to make.

How do you think technology has changed transparency for interior designers?
By looking at trade only resources and design projects online, homeowners can now gather ideas they like that they might not have been able to access before -- but that still doesn’t mean they have the skill to put it all together. And that’s the key; they are coming to you for guidance. So while designers are steering the ship in terms of the design process, it’s important to look at a homeowner as a collaborator and respect the information, knowledge, and preferences that they do have.


It’s not just our designers that are talking about transparency; the country’s top business publications are, too! Here are some takeaways we think designers should consider:

From Forbes: “With smartphone penetration at 75 percent, everyone’s a potential reporter. If an issue arises, chances are good that someone will comment on it.”

From Harvard Business Review: “By giving people a window into its workings, a company can show it has a sound process that it’s adhering to. It can avoid asking customers to have faith in a black box. The greater the transparency, in other words, the greater the trust.”

From Entrepreneur: “Withholding or cleverly reshaping information is no longer a viable option for this new era of consumers who are savvier than any generation before them and for whom skepticism seems to be a default setting. In order to build brand loyalty, companies need to first build trust.”

And for homeowners: see more of James & Tom’s work here, or start browsing for a designer in Chicago or Atlanta to begin your next project!

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