How to Turn a Client's Vague Ideas into Real Designs

By Linda Merrill
How to Turn a Client’s Vague Ideas into Real Designs

Winning strategies for getting to great results – even when your clients aren't so good at telling you what they mean.

We've all experienced the client who can't express their design desires very well, whether it's because they don't know the "lingo" or simply don't want to focus on the process. The dream client, for me at least, is one who has been collecting images of what they like AND has taken the time to study the images to discern why they like what they see. If they've made notes in the margins, I am in heaven! I met with a woman once who proudly showed me her bulging notebook of ideas, but when I started pointing out trends that I was seeing, she was surprised and actually rejected my interpretations. For instance, after seeing several pages of painted cabinets, I commented that she seemed to prefer them to stained woods, and she looked at me like I had two heads. When flipping through her book, more often then not, she didn’t know what she’d seen in the image that she liked. I found that very fascinating.

Today, with Pinterest it's so easy for those contemplating a design project to create a "look book" of ideas representing what they want. But what if your client isn’t very good at communicating their ideas, or simply hasn't spent the time putting together their ideas?

How to Turn a Client’s Vague Ideas into Real Designs

The first thing I ask of all client prospects is that they fill in a brief three-page questionnaire about their project such as budget, level of service they want, time frame, their likes/dislikes, where they usually shop for furnishings, and what media they consume (magazines, websites and television shows). I request that this questionnaire be returned to me prior to our first meeting so that they have spent at least a few minutes thinking about their project and I come armed with some basic information. I think it puts both parties on a more even playing field. I also feel that the homeowner who is willing to spend a few minutes prior to meeting to provide me with this initial information is one who will be a more productive partner during the design process and my experience has actually born this out. Those who send back their responses quickly have hired me and we've had a great working relationship and those who don't get it done, claiming they are too busy, have not actually been ready to start the project at all.  For those who are ready to go but need help identifying their interests, this is a great first step.

Since I am a tech-girl and love my iPad, I've spent a lot of time loading up the photos library with a virtual library of furniture styles, window treatments, stair cases and banister styles, lighting and much more, sorted into albums. It's very easy when discussing concepts with the client to spin through the photos that I am thinking of for their designs and get a quick read on what they like. I then "clip" the photo to a Notebook in the iPad app Penultimate which allows me to write notes right on the image, take photos of their space and sketch in window treatment styles or sketch a quick floorplan.  Pulling concepts together quickly and efficiently right in front of the client's eyes makes it easy for them to simply point and say yes or no and helps me discern their preferences without overwhelming them.

For some reason, when I started my design business ten years ago, I met with several people who would walk me around their house, pointing to the items they "never really liked". More often then not, they had worked with a designer and still ended up with expensive items they didn't care for. This really shocked me. And the thing is, few of these people seemed like pushovers who could be railroaded by an aggressive designer. I think the issue is that they were too vague about what they wanted and didn't speak up if they didn't love something. And so, part of my process is to make sure the client truly loves everything. I'm leery of the "trust me, it will work" method of decorating. That's not to say we shouldn't work hard to gain the trust and buy-in of the client if they are being cautious, but the designer should do what they can to be sure the client is genuinely excited with their choices. On more than one occasion, I've pulled a fabric off the table (literally) and removed it from consideration because the client isn't really thrilled with it. When the question "how about this fabric" is met with "it's fine" said with a hint of boredom or even impatience, I find a speedy replacement. Today's "it’s fine" is tomorrow's "I never really liked it".

In the end, each client is different and the basis for their vagueness may be lack of knowledge, lack of interest or even timidity when expressing desires. Our job as designers is to figure this out and move past it.

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.