How To Work With Designers

Communicate and cooperate, but don't give your expertise away. April 22, 2014

After many years of working with designers I still haven't found a good way of getting straight information from them. Many say they are certified or licensed. You would think they would know something I donít. You would think they would specify thicknesses/roundover radii or chamfer degrees/shelf setbacks and the like. They are always vague (usually a bit condescending too) and I canít get my head around how to charge them for shop drawings as they usually get clients to sign off on elevations with no numbers and no detail. We need the work, but man, the agony.

Do you charge for shop drawings? Is it included in your price? We usually get smaller projects like a 10x10 built-in or the like and adding $500 to the price could be a deal breaker. Is there any verbage for them to make it obvious it is their job to hash out these details as they are the designers? Am I getting it wrong?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From Contributor O:
I think the strategy is to embrace the vague as it were. Consider the alternative - specifying really odd dimensions, or profiles you have to have made, or odd materials no one ever can find. You and I are technical people - someone says 1/4" round over, we know exactly what is going on. We feel safe. If they just say edge detail we light up - "Which edge detail - I have 200 of them!"

Embrace the vague. Then, make them look good. Talk to them on the side and tell them your goal is to secure good work for your shop. Let them know you realize their goal is to secure good work for their clients and get good word of mouth. Make a few suggestions, let them feel like they are in control, steer them to lower cost alternates that will fall well within your comfort zone. Learn and use the buzz words they like.

Offer to do a few sections with your ideas, based on their design. Collaborate. Be sure to put a copyright stamp and ďno reproduction by any meansĒ on your drawings. Mention that these are for their use, but only if you get the work. Insert foot into door, not into mouth. Gain their confidence. Praise their work in front of the clients, point out nice details, things you were able to do with their good design. Play nicely. It is not about being facetious - be genuine. It is ok to let your passion show. It really is about learning to work together and being on their side instead of an adversary.

From contributor M:
I can agree, and sympathize wholeheartedly when it comes time to work with a difficult customer. They are employed in all different industries and come from all walks of life, and each pose their own unique set of challenges.

As a woodwork professional I was recently in the shoes of the designer when I had to purchase material from a metalworking supplier. I had only a vague understanding of what I needed, and I am sure that I was not their favorite customer of the day.

In business to be successful we must often find ways to work with vastly different groups which may not be entirely on the same page. The two options are to embrace the situation as suggested, or focus on a different customer base that better suits your business strategy. I would emphasize however that in the case of the design professional one day, it may be general contractors, or commercial clients that test your nerves the following.

Put yourself in the designerís shoes and consider that they more than likely have good intentions, and are just as passionate as you are about their career path. Don't be afraid to open a line of communication and discuss concerns that you may have to best help them express what they would like to purchase.

From contributor G:
We only work with designers and have been doing it for 32 years. I never do drawings until I receive a deposit. They give me a sketch or photo with some detail on wood species, etc. and I do a quote. They give me a deposit and I do the drawings. They sign my drawings for approval and we build the furniture. I decide details like roundovers, radius, how to best construct the piece. I send emails and call them during the process to make sure they approve our layouts and any specific questions from the shop. We never have problems on the completed piece and I make sure they visit the shop to look at their work during construction. Some are very good with detail and some are very bad. I over communicate with the weak ones.

From contributor M:
Designers are like woodworkers, they come in all flavors. Some pick finishes and fabric, and some are interior architects that create complete environments. We don't expect the framing crew to build cabinets, nor do we expect cabinetmakers to show up on site with a bundle of 2x4's and go to town. All kinds of woodworkers have value, and all kinds of designers have value. Just don't expect one type to work like the other.

From the original questioner:
My only concern is in making the decisions like roundovers, set- backs, and etc. is I prefer to make these decisions as the piece progresses. Should this be stated on the proposal? Something like "detailing of piece left to discretion of fabricator unless otherwise stated by designer and listed in this proposal"?

From contributor R:
I always assumed they came to me because they liked my work, and trusted me to make all the decisions about what looked good on that style of furniture. If fact, I preferred for them to not make those decisions. Overall scale, color, wood species, sure, but not what size chamfer. As mentioned, communication is the key. Ask them if they want to be included in the details. I bet many of them will say they trust you to make that decision.

From contributor C:
The relationship and motivation of the designer and fabricator must be fully understood on both sides. I am a designer and a salesman but know what details are required. Let the designer be dumb, it puts you in the driver seat. I have sold cabinets and a high line window for years. I also say embrace the vague. At the outset I make a design that I fully understand and make sure the end customer and the designer don't quite get it. I study them carefully giving them everything they want, special features, grid designs, everything. I know that we can do it all and that my competition can, they just won't. I find it easier to sell the highest price than to fight the lowest price. All of our stuff is custom in design and ask them to pay for it. If they want and insist on the lowest price Iím probably not their supplier. I want them to love what they see just not know how I did it. So as we go along I continue to refine my side of the proposal and just continue to make them want it. Then when I get a deposit I answer all of the questions and details. They generally let me make detail decisions because, after all, I gave them what they wanted. It's like insurance, they donít want us to figure it out, then we donít understand the better for them.

Please don't misunderstand, knowing that once we start fabrication or order the windows, the details are on the money and explained to the customer. I just got tired of detailing everything to them at the outset and then they take it to my competitor. They can get competing bids they will just have to go through all of the details again with the other guy and most of them are not willing to invest that time. I love making it just complicated enough, just not too many details until we have the money. If the designer would learn the details they could drive, but since they don't, I will.

From Contributor O:
Contributor C's last sentence sums it up well. You need to drive (the details), but you do not want the designer to feel like you are. Just don't be public about it - in front of the client. You say you like to refine some details as you go - that is fine. Simply be sure to say that you like to have the freedom to make little improvements - changes - as you go, and that everyone will be happy with the result.

From contributor F:
The thought process to make all the parts work and fit can be done in the office if we want to spend the time to detail it and think it through. The timing of the decision when we are further along in the fabrication stage is not fair to the customer or designer when the drawing we present to them to sign off on was an incomplete document.

Some of this could be covered by standard details that show two profiles offset or how they join with a note that says adjustment may vary based on final profiles. I see two main issues, one the customer is either expecting guidance from you or the designer for a look and secondly a high percentage of the customers don't even notice many of these minor details. Which gets us back to at some point in the process before installation is complete there are a lot of details that need to be solved prior to completion. Choosing to solve the problem later in the production process limits the number of workable solutions. It would seem to me the goal should be to resolve as many of these details as possible after receiving the order and prior to starting work. The fewer unknowns allow production to move faster with fewer interruptions and also allow for delegating the production process to others.

Asking a designer that may focus on overall concept for details may be beyond their capability. This can be determined early on with a simple sketch and ask if they like this detail. If they can sketch something slightly different and describe why they prefer it then you need to be more detailed and defer or collaborate with them. If they need a magazine or a picture of somebody else's work to describe the solution then you need to work at a higher concept level and word the proposal to use standard details and solutions. We see the same issues in retail store fixtures but the difference is we may build 500 of a single item so itís worth our time to make every detail work and if need be mock one up prior to production.

From contributor Z:
Lots of great advice here. I work with several designers and they all appreciate feedback, suggestions and cabinetmakers that do not confuse them with too many technical details. Thatís why they are using us. I find that even the best designers do not know the difference between MDF, melamine, particle board or plywood. Many architects still insist on wood veneer doors being made on a plywood core and cannot be convinced that an MDF core is more stable. Take control of the technical parts and keep them in the loop and they will love you for it.

We recently got a re-facing job from a designer that is really busy with several projects on the fire at once. We had to build an additional wall for this kitchen with a fridge, oven/micro combo and pantry. I could not get the designer to give me the specs for the appliances so we could build this wall and complete the install. I called him and asked him if he likes KitchenAid and can I pick the models and email him the model numbers. He was relieved to hear that I was going to handle it. I picked the appliances, sent him the models to order and delivered the job next day. He gave us two new projects in the same building and told me it was the first time a cabinetshop owner took the initiative and got the job done.