Open Your Eyes And Jump! Transitioning From Commercial To Residential Design
Reality 13 years ago No Comments


contributed by Teri L. Larsen, ASID [interior designer, House Calls Fine Interiors / blogger / artist / mom of 2 great kids / generally very busy person]

Coming out of design school, most fresh-faced designers feel very prepared for their careers in the world of high interior design. Most university interior design programs offer a variety of courses in both commercial and openyoureyes2.gifresidential design. Oh sure, you learn the basics of programming, space planning and finish selection for a plethora of projects. But, how different are these two design animals” If you can do one type of design, you can do the other, right” Perhaps, but a job with a commercial design firm differs in some surprising ways from a position in residential design.

What” Not A (gasp) Decorator!

I made the jump from commercial design to residential design over seven years ago. When I graduated with my degree, I never dreamed that I would want to be a residential designer – too much decorating and not enough design, I thought. Although I got my first taste of design by touring historic homes near my hometown, the world of commercial design just beckoned to me – much more exciting!

When I made the big switch, I noticed several differences between commercial and residential design. Keep in mind, these are my experiences; firms vary in their business practices, and you will find many variations as you stroll through your own career.

Slow And Steady Wins The Race”

The first thing I noticed when I started my residential design position was the change in pace. As a commercial designer, I ordered a carpet sample and expected it on my desk the next morning – if not the same day! I ordered my first residential carpet sample and found out it would take about a week to get.

The biggest surprise to me was that my clients were okay with that! Who wants to wait a week for a sample, I thought” Well, evidently they did. Residential projects tend to proceed at a slower pace than the quick turnaround I was used to in the tenant planning and corporate design world.

Please – No Tears

Beyond the pace of the project, I found that residential design clients have an emotional connection to their projects, which was missing with my corporate clients. When a business owner contacts a designer to help define her company and create an efficient, productive space for her employees, she is rarely thinking of that project on a personal level. She is all business. She thinks, “How can this designer make my business work better, smarter and add value for employee retention”” Since time is money, design decisions are made quickly, and the owner moves on to the next project on his plate.

A residential design client, however, sees her project in a completely different light. Designing a home for someone is an emotional experience; a home is a reflection of its owner in the most personal way. Every design becomes a wrenching, agonizing exercise for some clients. Consequently, the design process, in general, encompasses a much longer timeframe than a small commercial project will demand.

“How Does That Make You Feel””

Along with the emotional aspects of a residential project goes a fair bit of psychology and handholding as the project progresses. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever realize that “marriage counselor” would be a part of my job description! I have played mediator, counselor, negotiator and psychologist more times than I can count as couples attempt to navigate the murky waters of an extensive home design project.

Design for a home should be a fun process, and I strive to keep it that way for my clients. When designing an office, restaurant or bank, however, I was not often called upon to be a hand-holder for the decision-maker in the process. Yes, I answered questions here and there, but quite often, these clients had been through this process before, and knew the drill.

Again, without the emotional attachment to the project, small details were often left in the care of designers and contractors. Business owners were also very cognizant of the design fee structure and did not want to incur extra charges by making changes halfway through the process.

Pay Up!

That fee structure leads me to my final observation about the difference between commercial and residential clients. As a commercial designer, I rarely had someone dispute my fees. There may have been small squabbles about the exact number of photocopies they were being charged for, or the number of hours spent on a project. But, overall, business owners understand that I provided them a service for which I expect to be paid.

I have had more residential clients who want “free advice” than I ever encountered in my commercial design career. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often, but I have had clients who requested consultation services, only to feel they don’t need to pay me for those services. When the product you are selling is intangible, such as helping someone select a paint color for her bedroom, she may not feel like she “got” anything for her money.

Although fees are always discussed before meeting with a client, whether a business client or a residential one, I have found they don’t always listen to what you have said. The lesson here, of course, is to make sure you have solid contracts for your services, and to use them. And that holds true whether you prefer commercial or residential projects.

Which Species Are You

Although much of the design fundamentals of commercial and residential projects are the same, the execution of those basic ideas manifests itself in very different ways. I successfully made the change from commercially focused designer to residentially focused designer. However, there are aspects of the commercial design world that I do miss, and there are other parts of my past life that I can do without!

The same goes for residential design – I love many facets of my job, but there are others that I don’t care for. Each design animal has its own personality; finding which one appeals to you is a personal journey, and your preferences may change over time. I find that residential design, with its slower pace and more flexible schedule, works for my life right now. But, who knows what the future holds”