Working with "Designers"

In the cabinetmaking and furniture trades, some "designers" bring little to the table beyond a back-of-a-napkin concept sketch. What's good business when handling those jobs? October 17, 2012

We do a lot of custom work for interior designers. Lately their drawings have been very basic - no details, some to scale, some not, etc. Some we can bid with no problem, but others may need special hardware and such that could affect the cost. We have had this problem in the past, but less frequently. We are happy to engineer the piece, but not for free. I was thinking of making a qualifying sheet of items that need to be submitted to us for a bid. I think this would weed out the designers that have no training in this field or the lazy ones that want you to do all the work. Do any of you do this?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor C:
Sounds like a good way of weeding out 99% of designers. Actually sounds good, but in my experience they all are lacking the ability to nail it down. I have had this conversation many times with fellow cab/furniture makers and now I think "designers" should be called "conceptualists." After many mockups and emails and phone calls with designers throughout my career, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that submitting a detailed proposal based on vague plans and just doing it and being a yes man based on the vagueness is the reality. It is so difficult. Many cabinetmakers are bidding on the same job and they are not bidding apples to apples. Maybe a brief phone call to the designer trying to educate them in the difference between dovetailed solid hardwood drawers and plywood and such would help.

From the original questioner:
I have to agree with contributor C, but why would you not take the time to lay out the details so that they will not have to rework their design? I just had one yesterday that was a small entertainment center that had no scale or dimension on it. When I call the designer and asked her about that, she said "it's just a regular one." What does that mean, I ask, and she said, you know - to hold a TV and to display some things. So I left it and said I would need more information to give her a bid.

Her client's name and phone number were on the drawing, so I called and said we are bidding your entertainment center and received drawings from your designer that have no details whatsoever on them, not even the dimensions. They told me that she charged them 2k to have professional drawings done so that it would be perfect. I received an email this morning from the designer telling me she would not need a bid from us because she has left the job. The client called me this morning, wanting us to work with them and thanking me for informing them about what this designer has done.

From contributor U:
I look at the drawings given by designers as a napkin sketch. I then redraw it myself in a way that works, and performs the task they were trying to achieve, and bid it from there, after submission of the revised concept. Too much input from designers, who really have no experience whatsoever with hardware, clearances, conflicts with real life construction, is just counterproductive. It is up to the fabricator to produce something that works and can be produced for a reasonable cost.

From contributor C:
Yes, making a working drawing that is comprehensible to the designer and client and maker is a great idea, but... who pays for that and the inevitable revisions and revisions of the revisions? How do you deal with that? I am starting to charge $450 for 3 CAD designs (Sketchup fast sketches without too much detail) and telling them it will go toward the cost if I get the job. 9 out of 10 times I get the job and can still be vague as to details and decide while in the construction phase. If you have a better way, please educate me.

From contributor U:
Well... It is up to you to try to separate the tire kickers, etc., from those who you will get work from. Making drawings is part of the job. If you are not likely to get the job, don't waste your time doing much work for it. If you can get away with charging $450 for vague concept drawings, then you sound like you are doing just fine.

From the original questioner:
I agree that designers have no clue on the hardware, etc. I have worked for furniture designers and it is a way different way of designing. Working drawing from them, hardware list with part numbers and manufacturer's names. This way we can bid apples to apples with other companies and if the clients reject the piece for design reasons, it's not our responsibility. But if you engineer the hardware now, it becomes your responsibility. Not saying you did something wrong, but who pays for the changes now? If you have to do the design, we are going to have to charge for them and have designers sign off on them.

From contributor G:
We deal totally with designers and they are all different. I can quote a job based on basic input and if we get a deposit I will draw the shops and work out all of the details at that time. I never do drawings until I receive a deposit check. I have never contacted the end user without discussing it with the designer. That will lose the client and we deal only wholesale to the design trade, so no win for me by doing so.

From contributor D:
Use the vague drawings and specs as an opportunity to create a relationship and expand your scope of work as well as solve problems that the designers has. Offer to specify hardware and dimensions and to make a workable product off of their creation/inspiration/design/whatever. Either ask for or suggest a budget number out there fast and early to stop any wasting of your mutual time.

If you do so pleasantly, without insinuating they are clueless, and present good options, then you have converted them. A little education goes a long way. Once they realize they can sketch out anything and you can make it work, then you are a valuable resource to that designer.

Do not give them your drawings or specifications, or label them up in such a way as to prevent the "copy and shop" that is sometimes a problem with marginal designers.

Think of it like this - instead of the two of you on opposite sides of the table, arm wrestling, you are both on one side, the same side, figuring out how best to do it - together. Include yourself in all the language as if your involvement is a foregone conclusion.

From contributor N:
I get this all the time! Either it's designers who leave out details or clients who want to (after the fact) “fix” the work of a carpenter and designer who (of course) blame each other for mistakes, misrepresentations, or just sloppy work.

In one of the better designs, she asked for three quotes - one for veneer, one Formica, and one chip board with melamine. There are no details other than basic dimensions. I don’t think designers know anything about joinery or specs on hardware other than brand names.

I did a restaurant recently and the designer neglected to take measurements at the job site. And it turned out that he didn’t ask for details on the registers the client would be using, so I had to uninstall countertops, make cut outs, and reinstall them fast because the restaurant was due to open. This guy was better than most, though! I thought it was funny when all his designs came written on a program with "educational auto desk" written across the top and sides.

From contributor W:
There are good designers, decent ones, and bad ones. If their initial presentation is vague to you, it is an opportunity to start a conversation. The easier you can make their job, the better, but you need to make sure you are compensated. You should be able to come up with a ballpark price fairly quickly after some conversation. This may weed out some problems. I have had designers give me full scale drawings and 3:1 scale. There are usually some minor details that need to be worked, but it is no big deal really. With other non-designer clients, I always get paid to draw, either separately or included in the price. It is all different. You want them to get very comfortable with you and your quality to the point where they do not price shop.

From the original questioner:
Do you think that location or style of furniture has anything to do with the quality of the designers? I am in the Midwest and we see blocky style furniture a lot. Most of it is veneer work, some solid wood. I have worked with some designers from out east and I find them to be more professional. Maybe the higher the quality of furniture, the more professional the designers.

From contributor W:
I don't have direct experience with any designers out west, but I would bet there will be better ones where there is money. That being said, the designer has access to the clients and money and that is what you want. Look at them as an opportunity to improve your work/portfolio if they can afford it. That is where the communication with them comes into play. I am not an expert in dealing with them. I have had my fair share of annoyances, but I have also gotten some great work out of them. If they start to get annoying or difficult, on the next job they get charged the annoyance tax.

From contributor Q:

As a parts supplier to the trade, all of this can be said of cabinet shops as well. I tell shops all the time all I need is wood, dimensioned drawings, and a deposit. Rarely do I get all 3 at the same time. The money in this business is made early in the game, not the mad scramble to finish in the week before delivery. Too many shops want me to start milling for molds or doors before they have even laid the job out or completed field dimension checks. Commonly this leads to changes, double work, delays, lost wood and time. Business done on a handshake with a napkin sketch, I think, leads to the lousy reputation that a lot of this business has. Good contracts specifying wood, finish, hardware, dimensions, installation conditions, schedule and payment are the way to go. Changes in writing and paid per hour. Yes, all that takes time when you want to get that deposit, but saves headaches later.

From contributor C:
This is what I do for all customers - individuals, designers, architects, and contractors (though I rarely work with the latter, probably because of the following).

After a shop visit or after they send me some info and I ask a few questions, I put together an estimate. The estimate is simply a ballpark figure and even says on the top that the final price can vary widely, 15% or more in either direction depending on "things."

I begin the design process after receipt of a 10% design retainer (10% of the estimate). That retainer pays for my time researching issues and hardware as well as drawing. At the end I present them with a proposal detailing the specifications, final total price, and drawings.

After they approve the proposal, I collect the fabrication deposit and start construction. Eventually I finish, eventually they pay me the rest, and eventually they get their project. The final payment is the total price less the fabrication deposit and the design retainer.

If they don't want to proceed, then it's all good: they got a design and I got paid.