Design Do-It-Yourselfers: Is it Really Possible?

Sometimes in design…as in Life…you have to know when to say: Uncle!

I’m sorry, my peeps. I think I am about to become the lone salmon swimming up stream as I publicly flout the 21st century cultural song we all want to march to, namely: “I Can Do It All Myself. And I Can Do It Well.” After my years in this business, I finally have to respectfully ask…”Really? Can we?”

A Parable:

Many years ago, I decided I could write my own contract. I did some research and I had at it. I was really pleased with myself. And oh – the dollars I saved – I thought. A few years later, I hired a talented, ethical, really likable attorney to take a look at it and my business contract needs in total. He called me to discuss everything after he’d reviewed things. “What’s your background?” he asked politely? “Fine Arts. Design,” I answered cautiously, not sure where he was going. “Well,” he said as he drew in a breath, “it’s certainly an artistic & creative contract that you wrote. Beyond that though – I have to say this contract is not just bad…(“Here it comes” I thought…hold on!”) “Donna, this contract is actually “textbook lousy,” he said, with emphasis, no less. (ouch). “It will never do for you what you really need a contract to do for you,” he added, then offering in a conciliatory manner – and because he was a really nice guy, “But it was fun to read.” (kerplunk) (I had it coming.)

Hey – if you’re going to go down – I say go down in flames! I didn’t just score ‘lousy,” I ranked into the high “textbook- lousy“- with-word-stress range! 🙂

Lesson: Sometimes you have to know when to say “Uncle” and call in a pro who actually studied the thing you think is so easy. Ever hear the expression…”He doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know.” This phrase is usually uttered by on-lookers who watch a brazen soul blatantly charge down the path…off a cliff.

The longer I live and breath and work in design, the more I have come to bristle when new clients tell me on the phone, “Oh, I’m addicted to HGTV.” That’s usually trouble. As they say this, I think of my contract debacle (and others like it). For the logical reality is – if we put our egos aside – no matter how many hours of THE LAW CHANNEL I watch, I will never be able to write a contract as well as an attorney. Watching “Martha” doesn’t give me her skill or talent and my layer cake will never, ever look like hers. No amount of “THE DENTAL CHANNEL” watching will enable to fill my own cavity or correctly remove my own plaque. Nor will being glued to the “ACCOUNTING CHANNEL” fill me with enough tax law knowledge or accounting finesse to be able to do my tax return as well as my accountant. No amount of THE GARDEN CHANNEL” will give me the skill, understanding or talent to enable to be plant a garden that looks like the ones that make me sigh with pleasure when I visit them on my travels. And let us forget the ‘end results’ for a moment. Let’s also consider the wasted dollars, the liability issues, the wasted time and the plain old angst-relief hiring a ‘pro’ saves us from when we hire them. Why? Because a pro is trained, practiced, talented and skilled at doing the thing that they do.

The Rub: Design Looks Easy (Like Ice Skating).

Last evening, I enjoyed a wonderful fun dinner in someones home. One of their other guests, knowing I was an interior designer, couldn’t wait to show me photos she brought with her of her former home that she “decorated all by herself.” I dreaded the experience to come, as she raced to retrieve the photos she had brought to show me. My heart sank because I knew I was about to be put into a bad social and ethical position. Lie? Be Honest? Be diplomatic? I chose to be as honest as possible while being completely and kindly diplomatic – yet without lying. As she proudly showed me about 10 different rooms, my heart raced. What do I say? I really like this woman. I was put into a consummately awful position. I smiled, I “hmm’d” with each photo and I said as I could:

1) What a fun shade of green on that wall.
2) Interesting choice on those tiles.
3) I can see you really really loved doing this.
4) And I can see you really loved living in this home.

All of this I felt was true. My lovely photo-shower looked still happy and pleased by the end of our exchange – just as I’d hoped. And I was relieved when we were done.

What would you have said and done? As an analogous aside, this individual is a medical professional and has trained and worked in her field for years. How would she react if I told her I had self prescribed my own blood pressure medication and started taking my husbands to control things. Same thing with cholesterol. No doubt – she would have had a strong “reaction” of sorts – and rightly so. (And thank heavens, I never did any such thing. But what if I had?? I would have been a dilettante. Hubris.)

Sometimes you have to know when it’s time to call in a pro.

Not Everyone Should Work With Professional.

Who said that? I did! I agree with this. In the end, I have never believed everyone should work with a designer. The person who wants the lowest possible price, always, should stay away from a designer because this individual will never value the insight, result or service a designer brings. Usually for these individuals, good enough is good enough. This is likely the same person who would not see the value in hiring an accountant or attorney. The other person who should never work with a design pro is “The do-it-yourselfer” who either believes, good-enough-is-good enough,” or “The do-it-yourselfer” like my lovely dinner companion thatt evening who believes she can paint like Renoir, sing like Sinatra and…well you get my point. This is the individual who should stay in the comfort zone of “she doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know.”

I know what you’re thinking – I can hear you through the blogosphere. I sound elitist. Far from it. Rather, I am taking the mature and logical view. I am talking about craft. And what about the cost of hiring a designer …what about that??!! I hear you. Interior designers are a luxury item. Interior design guidance – like that of any other ‘intelligence worker’ does come at some cost. But I maintain that if you are honest with your attorney, your accountant, your designer, your dentist, your landscaper about what you need and what you can and can’t do, you may be able to get more assistance than you think.

Be honest. Be respectful. Share your goals. Don’t ask someone to work for less – just ask them to do less work. Tell them honestly that “I don’t know how to get there exactly, but here is my budget.” Find a fair, honest and ethical designer who can say to you – “OK – let’s not do the whole project together, but lets commit to let’s say – 7 hours (or some other realistic base number). Let’s commit these hours to your project together to knock out the big decisions upon which all else rests: The key furnishings, the color, the fabrics, the agreement between adjoining rooms and so forth. Make these foundational decisions with a design pro – and ‘Do It Yourselfer’ – watch your end results improve exponentially! And…learn a few things from your pro while your at it too! I’d welcome a client like this: one I could teach about the larger early decisions and then cut loose and point in the right direction on items she could more easily handle successfully with some pointers.

For the record, I don’t believe every home can be, should be – or needs to be – fodder for the pages of House Beautiful. I still maintain that ‘home’ is about the individuals living there and must always please the owner first. But it’s when I see hard earned dollars thrown away on poor design decisions, lack of planning, lack of understanding, and just plain lack of know how… my heart breaks. It’s when I get called in by these same people to help correct things that I see these wasted dollars that my heart goes out. Spend a little more upfront to save big dollars and errors – dollars and errors with ramifications both now and down the road. Trust me, when I do get called in to help ‘fix things’ done by a do-it-yourselfer- what an uphill climb for all. And often not inexpensive.

So my do-it-yourselfers – ask yourself this. Do I want to do it myself at all costs – or do I want to protect ever dollar I spend in design so it is spent in support of long term and short term excellent decision making. Do you want an active hand in your design process? You can have one. You can have all this with the right designer. Go find her.

Design is a slippery slope – She is an expensive pursuit. No matter where you shop for your furnishings and accouterments, it all starts to add up. Don’t I know. Certainly in design, the cheapest thing to do will always be: do nothing. As soon as you decide to do “something” – it will cost you. But move wisely. Spend wisely. Call in a pro who can tell you how best to achieve what you’re looking for on your budget: where you can hit the mark; what to purchase that will have 10-12+ year staying power; what to avoid; where you can make some trade offs that won’t sting to much; and where you simply are going to have to either increase your budget, or break your project up into phases….just like normal people of all socio-econimic realms do all the time. (Hey…even Rockefeller had a budget.)

SO: Is “do-it-yourself” really possible in design? Can you really create for yourself a spectacular looking and feeling interior that will go the distance for you? Yes and no. I will say yes – but only if you wear a life jacket. Like a toddler learning to swim, you need ‘floaties.” You do need the guidance of a pro who will be able to tell it like it is, tell you when it’s time to anty up – when it’s time to cut you loose and let you go. Do-it-yourself design is best done with training wheels and a great teacher by your side.