Finding Out How Clients Think

August 15, 1998 · by DesignIntelligence

A study by the American Society of Interiror Designers released this year, aimed at showing how far apart 'business' and 'design' can be even when they are using the same language.

Dallas-based Trey Garrison recently reported that Italian Prima Donna Catherine de Medici was known to spar with those artists who immortalized every feckless moment of her self-indulgent, self-important life. And so it is today--with left-brained, business-minded executives on one side and right-brained interior architects and designers on the other. Thus the geness of a study by the American Society of Interiror Designers released this year, aimed at showing how far apart 'business' and 'design' can be even when they are using the same language.

With a name like “strategic mapping research,” it sounds more like a battle plan for cartographers than anything else, but Barbara Nugent, one of the team members at Benson Hlavaty & Paret Architects in Dallas, said it’s invaluable. “So often we’re all using the same terms and phrases, but we are worlds apart in what we think each word means,” Nugent said. “It may sound elementary, but from the study we have learned that a client wants to know what the effect of an office design will be, not what the design is.”

ASID staff members say the mapping study clearly confirms some differences between designers and clients. The most critical difference is over the importance of understanding, especially in the area of a client’s needs. Clients want consultant, not imposition. They are less concerned than designers with portfolios, except as a useful tool to express what they think they want. “One of the biggest areas of difference comes when we talk about words like cost controls or value,” Nugent said.

According to the ASID’s study, designers are significantly more likely to think that cost control means staying within a pre-set budget. Clients are much more likely to value a designer who optimizes and justifies the budget, whatever it amounts to.”

Another area where clients and designers have a gulf between them bridged by a single concept is the value of the designer or architect themselves. Designers say their No. 1 goal for the profession is to build awareness of the value they bring.

Designers also stress issues like training, education, government licensing and regulation, and better business alliances with contractors important to establishing their competency and credentials. “Clients,” Harke said, “really don’t care about all that.” “Designers want to make a point about their competence—‘tell them that we can save them money,’” he said. “But clients want performance specific to projects—‘tell me what costs are involved for my project.’”

In the big picture, clients don’t really care about the big picture, the study by ASID found. Clients—be they office, industrial or retail real estate users—don’t care as much about the latest trends or what designers consider great ideas as much as they care about the specifics of their project. Sandra Paret, one of the principals at Benson Hlavaty, said the mapping study’s conclusions have been an effective tool in better understanding clients. “When we talked with a client about productivity, do they mean working efficiently or working effectively?” Paret asked. “It helps us decide quicker and deliver better,” Paret said. “Clients more often say things like ‘You really know what I need.’”

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