When a "Designer" Hands You Sketchy Drawings

Advice on structuring the process when a "designer" supplies you with vague, half-baked sketches and asks you to take on the job. November 14, 2014

A legit designer outfit with several employees on a prominent street in SF is asking me to price out a built-in that tucks into a wall (replacing an existing 70's or so built-in). I have given her a price but what are we (the makers) supposed to do with these rudimentary drawings (no plan, no side view, no details). Is this a case of the designer doesn’t know what they are doing and are relying on me to design it for them? The existing unit hasn’t been removed yet and until then (I have told them), we don’t really know what we are working with.

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This is what gets ripped out and replaced with new

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Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor Y:
Charge them for your design time.

From contributor T:
"Is this a case of the designer doesn't know what they are doing and are relying on me to design it for them?"

You are correct and you should bill them accordingly. You probably know to have them "sign off" on your drawings or you'll be screwed when they change their minds.

From contributor X:
I get drawings like this all the time. They are a godsend, since you get to work out the details to suit your process. Based on the layout you design a cabinet which looks similar to the proposed elevation yet is easy to make in the shop and install. Some people charge for shop drawings, some not - it all depends on the market.

From contributor U:
That's actually not too bad compared to some of the stuff I get. I have customers/designers that insist on sending me drawings by taking a picture of them on their phone and then texting them to me - talk about annoying. You just have to take it all in stride.

From contributor M:
I have a designer that doesn’t even do drawings anymore. She drags me to the customer’s house, bills the customer $100 an hour for her time to meet with me and tell me what she wants me to draw and quote for free. She then tells me she wants a discount as a kickback. I’m still struggling with how a designer’s time is worth $100 an hour.

From contributor S:
To answer the OP's question: yes it's pretty typical. Just work it out with the designer, talk through it, sketch up something with the dimentions and get them to agree. Charge for it or build it in. They provide the design, you provide the techniques. You get the freedom to work in your own methods.

From contributor K:
Ask for appliance and hardware specs. If they have done their homework, they will have them. The educational copy of Autodesk kind of screams "rookie". When they tell me each and every detail of every item, it can be worse. It's common for their designs to not even fit in the desired area. With all that said, designers usually bring customers with pretty deep pockets. That's not such a bad thing.

From contributor F:
I get drawings a lot worse than that, though usually not from designers. I get all sorts of ideas sketched on paper from clients. Sometimes they're actually pretty good, sometimes they're just a rough idea. My job is to figure out how to build it the way I build things.

Now that drawing is pretty short on information and if I got that I'd spend some time on the phone with the designer to work out the details. These days I can usually get most of what I need in a five minute conversation. Then I'd come up with a quote. If the quote was accepted by the client I'd then start up with a set of shop drawings which you would have to do regardless of how good the initial drawing is. That's also where you find a lot of the little hiccups you have to address along the way.

I do agree there tends to be a negative vibe when it comes to designers and architects. I also notice the same bad vibe between architects and designers. I don't get a lot of work through designers or architects and the stuff I do get usually goes fairly smoothly. I also look at it a bit differently than some others seem to. I figure the designer is there to get an overall look for a project. My job is to figure out how to make that look turn into a practical functioning piece. Yes, of course you should charge for the time you spend planning. That really should go without saying.

From Contributor O:
The largest single job I ever did started out as a sketch on the back of scrap paper. The client asked if we could do a 30' circular room, with wine storage, dome ceiling, etc. I smiled and said "Of course we could. All it takes is time and money." We hired an architect and got design drawings, and made shops from there. I loved it because I got to drive the bus, instead of just riding along on someone else's ideas of what it should be. This is often why people come to us - to solve problems. It sets us apart from all the box shops that want everything just so.

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From contributor C:
That's way better than what I get from my customers. I have very seldom worked with a designer, although the couple of times I did it ended up with me doing the design/engineering to make it work. One in particular was on a kitchen with a huge island made up of a U shaped section of cabinets and a radius panel closing off the open end with an overhang for seating. That left a large void in the center that the designer wanted accessible to hook up appliances in the island. He said to just make the radius end removable which would have left about 4' x 9' of 3cm granite hanging in space. After several questions from me he said, "this is just a concept, it's up to you to make it work." Then there's the customer drawings where they have a 48" space to work with and want to divide it into four equal 12" openings, which would almost work if I could build the cabinet out of pencil lines.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your insights. I will charge the designer to design it for them. I guess what confuses me is vague communication on the designer’s part. If I were told "this is just a concept, it's up to you to make it work", that'd be fine and I would understand their role better. Same as a napkin sketch which is obviously vague and not thought through. In talking with the designer on the phone - it feels like she hasn't anything specific in mind at all other than all of this is in walnut veneer. As I said, I quoted it already at around $6-7.5k and the client is fine with that. That figure does not include figuring out the puzzle and designing. If I now present the client with another $1000 or so as a design fee I bet he'll feel cheated. We'll see.

rich c.
From contributor R:
Never can understand all the hate for people that will bring in a qualified customer. Sure, not perfect, but all the designers I worked with had already done the job of selling "me" to the customer. It takes a real leap of faith for someone to write me a down payment check for $5,000 plus with a delivery in months. I'll gladly pay a few hundred for someone to do that for me.

To the original questioner: How much time will you have in the design? I think you could get most of your questions answered in a half hour meeting. Wouldn't you want to take your own field measurements anyway? Not sure I would charge that back to them. Another question, how were you able to give them a cost with so little information? You had to do some guessing, so why get so precise with design time charges?

From the original questioner:
I have no hatred for the designers, I’m just frustrated and confused to what they are generally asking of me. It is the clarity I am missing. I work with many designers and educating them all takes a lot of time which isn't usually billable.

For example:

Designer: “We want veneer.”
Me: “Veneer edge tape applied to veneered sheet, solid applied to veneered sheet, MDF with applied solid edge and then veneer?”
Designer: “What do you suggest?” Me: “It depends on the quality and expected longevity of the piece (budget).” Designer: “Could you do a kind item for all?” Me: “Yes (more time spent on the phone with veneer company, more time writing proposal).”

As for getting them a number with little info, I went high and added some money for back and forth communications and another site visit. A good reason to get more specific is for preliminary pricing, which seems a waste of time. I get plans all the time from architects and designers that go out to several shops for pricing - it's never apples to apples.

From contributor E:
This is no different than you going in and looking at the piece yourself. What is the purpose of the drawing?? Why didn't they just show you a piece? I would charge a design fee for your time as they obviously aren't a designer. I think the designer is hired to give you the ideas not ask you for them. I would expect something like this from a homeowner, not a designer.

From contributor A:
In a perfect world the customer would send you a check and you wouldn't have to do anything for them at all. Actually in a perfect world you would wake up in the morning, pour some coffee, check your email and learn they sent the money via PayPal but it's not a perfect world. You can turn the job down or take it on. Did the designer do a perfect job? No. Are you going to do a perfect job - probably not. Are you going to need to meet in the middle to make this happen? Probably, yes, if you want to make it happen.

The next designer will possibly be as good a designer as you would be if you had a design firm. Maybe the client didn't give the designer enough budget to make the glorious drawings you want. In this case you and the designer should both go on strike but then the customer would have to come to me. Figure out who your customer is. Then be the best at delivering what's needed on time.

From contributor F:
What you charge is of course up to you and what your client base will pay. However you should have already included time to do shop drawings in your estimate no? If so the actual "design" time on top of that shouldn't be more than say another hour or so? Unless of course there's all sorts of stuff going on we don't know about? If you have to add another $1000 and let's say for sake of argument your charging $100 per hour, you’re figuring on spending ten hours designing that little piece?

Also, and this is just my opinion so take it for what little it's worth, you may be expecting too much detail from people. If someone says to me "we want veneer" my next question is about stain. I'm not going to give them several options as if they had a strong opinion they would state it. Veneer doors means a veneered panel edge-banded sanded and finished. I build cabinetry a certain way that I believe is best for the clients I serve. They come to me as I'm the so called "expert", and most people don't want to be asked about every little detail on construction. At that point it can come off as though you’re asking them how to build it. Of course if it's an architect and they have it spec'd a certain way that covers every little detail then I may change the way I do it, but even then there can be wiggle room. Again it’s just my opinion but something to think about.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for some insight everyone. I feel better knowing that this is apparently the norm for many of you. I have a few friends in the business and I'm always seeing much more detailed drawings from which they are producing their shop drawings. I guess that's not the norm. I suppose the question is why they are called designers?
There isn't a design here as I see it. In the future I will just charge a design fee.

From contributor A:
The customer doesn't really care what you call it. They want a piece of built in furniture and it is worth X dollars to them. You might be able to sell lit for X plus Y but eventually you will come up against something the economists call price elasticity of demand. Parsing out the portion that goes to "design" interpretation is about as useful as presenting her with line item charges for jointing, ripping, unloading truck, drawing. She just wants a built in piece of furniture, not a lesson. The design firm that brought you this project is a legit outfit with several employees on a prominent street in SF. If you everybody happy they hired you for this project it is not unreasonable to expect you could get more work from this firm. If you go in with both barrels blasting and make the designer look incompetent it's not likely you will get more work from them or anybody they know. If the job isn't economic don't take it on. If you are going to be a whiner nobody will invite you to the next party and you won't have the opportunity to be taken advantage of again.

From Contributor O:

I think most of us, when we hung our shingle, did not give much thought to where we would/should be. We were more focused on equipment, labor, costs, and other more tangible things. As work came in we'd get flustered or bored, or both. As my business grew, I realized I liked the freedom of being able to interpret a bit and add my details and solutions. The least favorite project were the ones where every last detail was spelled out, inflexible and frankly, boring. I would find myself standing on my head to execute some obscure requirement that just was not our type of work.

I like and need an outlet for the creative side, and I have strong opinions about what is correct and what is not (hard to believe, eh?). For the most part, this has served us well, and brought in the work that is much more interesting and profitable. To be known as a problem solver is a good thing. It is not for everyone. Give it some thought as to what you like - what you are good at, and seek that type of work and market yourself as such.

From the original questioner:
Brilliant advice. I had this conversation last night with a friend. Ask yourself what type of work you would like to be doing. Thanks again.

From contributor L:
We would just make assumptions at bid time and clarify what we assumed when we give a price. It starts a dialog and keeps your hat in the ring. It’s simple to add an alternate to use x detail or add to use y material deduct. Make the customer think some more about what they want and narrow the criteria down as you do it. I don't see why a design fee would be required. We look at the picture make assumptions and give words back. They get shop drawings when they sign something and that is something we have to do for every project so it’s just the cost of keeping the doors open.

From Contributor B:
My position on this is that a designer in this situation presents me with little more information than a retail customer and other than the possibility of repeat business gets treated as such. The repeat business component of the relationship can very easily be diluted greatly by the headache and Prima donna factor but of course that has to be evaluated on a case by case basis. If the designer wants any form of a discount, kickback, and so on, they have to do nothing more than any other individual who walks through the door. You take on some of my work, or you bring in a level of clientele which will pay for both our time.

I have received drawing and photos far better and far worse than this from a retail customer (homeowner). The difference is, the homeowner is generally looking to you for input and guidance and as a general rule will defer to your knowledge. This of course isn’t always true but generally for me it’s the case. The designer on the other hand can be an absolute chore to deal with while expecting wholesale pricing.

We also sell some work wholesale and it’s priced the way it is for one simple fact, and that’s because the item is what it is. Someone else deals with the customer asking for a different shade, a bit wider, a bit taller, a bit thicker, will it look good in my room, can I return it if I don’t like it, collecting sales tax, and so on. All of those things are extremely costly to deal with and I am more than willing to stay locked in my shop making whatever is asked of me if its cash out the door. Often times a designer can want the best of all worlds and more.

Fair is fair and the OP's scenario doesn’t speak much with regards to compensation however I would simply present the designer with a range of options (usually three). One is the best price where they or their crew provide all the dimensions, drawings and so on for the project at hand. I make and am paid when they pick it up at my shop. Two is a back and forth with supplied dimensions and I make the drawings. Three (most expensive) is I go field measure, meet with designer and customer, work out the best solutions, deliver and either oversee or do the install. The designer picks which they are comfortable with. Option three is a retail job.