MultiBrief: Have Zoom, will design

Interior designers are on the move — literally and virtually. Concerns about health and safety, including the need for social distancing and limited in-person contact whether with colleagues or clients, have uprooted many designers from their offices. In the months since COVID-19 caused large portions of the populace to shelter […]

Interior designers are on the move — literally and virtually. Concerns about health and safety, including the need for social distancing and limited in-person contact whether with colleagues or clients, have uprooted many designers from their offices.

In the months since COVID-19 caused large portions of the populace to shelter in place, designers have adapted to working remotely, and more of them have embraced e-design and virtual design service models.

Providing interior design services via the internet is not new. The number of e-design sites has been growing steadily for more than a decade. For the most part, though, these sites marketed themselves to individuals who cannot afford standard interior design fees by offering low-cost consultations and fixed-price packages containing color schemes, floor plans and general design advice.

What’s changed as a result of the pandemic is that firms that previously eschewed virtual design or considered it a niche service have now embraced it as a way to continue offering their services while unable to interact with clients face-to-face. In doing so, they have raised the bar for virtual design and remote working, moving them from the marginal to the mainstream.

One of the things that has made this rapid transition so successful is that designers and their clients find themselves in the same boat. Industry surveys and trade media interviews with designers show that clients are reluctant to meet with designers or have them enter their homes, and designers likewise are reluctant to meet in person with clients or perform work while the client is at home. In addition, most clients, too, are having to work remotely, and thus have become more accustomed to participating in virtual meetings, reviewing digital files, and signing electronic documents.

Some of these practices have been around for a while in commercial design, where coordination and collaboration among various distributed teams have made conference calls and virtual presentations of plans and renderings fairly commonplace.

High-end residential design, on the other hand, has always been anchored in the personal relationship between the designer and client. That in itself has not changed. Rather, what’s different is that the dynamic has shifted to a virtual environment. Designers have had to quickly learn how to operate and engage clients through virtual communications platforms like Zoom and manage their team via cloud-based workspaces like Slack.

The services high-end designers are offering their clients virtually are, for the most part, not those typical of most e-design websites. They are the same bespoke, full-service design and project management models they have always offered. The process and delivery have altered somewhat, and extra precautions are taken to ensure the project site is safe and sanitized before, during and after any work is done. Otherwise, the same standards of high quality of design, selection of products and materials, and performance are maintained.

Another sector that has profited from the pandemic is e-tail. Unable or unwilling to leave their homes, people have become even more accustomed to shopping online for just about anything and everything. That includes furniture, appliances, lighting fixtures, plumbing fixtures, beds and bedding, and all sorts of accessories for the home. Whether through online retail outlets or direct from the factory, online sales of home goods are booming.

That has presented challenges for designers who rely on the markup from purchases to make projects profitable. Often clients have already researched products before talking with a designer and know they can easily purchase them themselves. Designers are having to walk a fine line between educating clients about product quality and sources, to direct them toward a better choice, and adjusting their fees and contracts to compensate for purchases clients want to make themselves. New ways of working will require new business models as well.

With more millennials buying homes and engaging professionals to help them renovate those homes to their liking, it’s very likely that these changes in how designers interact with their clients and conduct their practices would eventually have become more routine. In a way, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst to propel the industry faster in a direction toward which it was already moving.

Although it may still seem novel, virtual and remote working should prove to be liberating for designers, opening up opportunities for new markets and niches, and making quality design available to more people.

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