Are Designers Too Competitive to Work Together?
Even designers in the same highly competitive market can benefit from trading advice, support, and hard-won experiences.
There is a myth out in the world that interior designers will climb over another designer's swatches to get where they want to go. While this is clearly not true, I think we all have known a fellow designer who is perhaps not as chummy as they might be. They may be polite, of course, but for some reason, there are people who see other designer's as competition to be held at arms length. But keeping competitors at arm's length can actually hold a design professional back, especially in this day of social media.
A few years ago, before Facebook and Tweetchats, two other designers and I started meeting on a monthly basis to talk about our businesses and the design industry. We had met in a women's business networking group, but found that we had specific industry issues that only we three understood. We called ourselves The Decorating Divas and met at each other's homes for a monthly breakfast. We had all had successful careers in other industries, gone back to design school, and then made mid-career transitions into the design industry within a couple of years of one another. We all lived geographically close by and although we were technically competitors in the same highly competitive market, we knew the value of trading information and offering support.
We talked about marketing, our websites and portfolios, how we kept our client files, and our accounting systems. While I will admit to keeping tabs on their Google Page ranks and who came up first in search engines, we were and still are genuinely friends. Interestingly enough, we would get surprised looks when we’d tell people of our little support group. On a larger scale, I am a member of the International Furnishing and Design Association (IFDA), New England Chapter. This is one of the few trade associations that is a mix of interior designers and vendors to the industry. As with my little Decorating Divas group, the designer members of IFDA are always wonderfully supportive of one another by sharing resources or even referring clients when appropriate. There are even two small designer-only breakout groups who meet regularly for mutual support.
When the previews began for the recent Bravo TV show "Million Dollar Decorators" they were heavy on the drama and I was frankly concerned. Would the designers, and by extension the design industry, be shown in a flattering light or would the editors play up their over-the-top personalities for dramatic effect? While some of that did happen, the best thing to come from the show was insight into the true long-term friendships that existed between the designers. I've had the pleasure of interviewing three of the designers – Kathryn Ireland, Nathan Turner and Martyn Lawrence Bullard – and the mutual respect between them is clearly no put on.
As the social media phenomenon has taken hold, designers from all over the world now regularly interact with one another in a way never before possible. We are friends and fans of each other's pages on Facebook, participate in subject-oriented TweetChats on Twitter and share "Pins" on Pinterest. Resources and references are traded and meet-ups happen all over the world. While the Internet has in some ways made our jobs harder, it has also opened up the world to those who take advantage of the connections it offers. Even this Designer Marketplace hosted by Williams-Sonoma, Inc. is an example of the value that sharing brings to our professional lives. All the writers here on this forum bring hard won experiences to the table and willingly share what we’ve learned. I certainly have learned and am inspired by my fellow writers and love that our words are seen by literally thousands of other designers across the world.
Every designer gets the wistful "oh, what a fun business you're in" type of comment by new acquaintances. If you're like me, I hear that and immediately think of the stress of late deliveries, mismatched dye lots and AWOL contractors. But, we smile and nod and say "oh yes!" because it is a fun business – most of the time. And yet it's only amongst ourselves that we can kick off the high heels, shed the façade and get real about the every day challenges of our "glamorous" profession. Works for me.
Linda Merrill is a residential interior decorator based in Massachusetts. Linda's design style can be described as "comfortable luxury" and she believes in working closely with clients throughout the entire design process. Her clients are mainly located between metro-Boston and Cape Cod and the Islands. Linda writes a nationally regarded design blog called ::Surroundings:: and is the host of the design podcast series The Skirted Roundtable.