Interior design is an extremely competitive industry, and any edge you can gain over larger firms is essential. Many design and decorating programs focus on achieving an aesthetic, putting together a functional space, and the basics of managing a design project. However they stop short of specific project management strategies that medium- and large-sized businesses can leverage.
Interior design projects can be complex, involving multiple stakeholders, service providers, and vendors. By using a structured plan, you can stay in budget, avoid risks, and stick to your schedule. Project management is an extremely well-explored field, with time-tested solutions and its standards are followed in all kinds of disciplines from major construction sites to aerospace engineering projects worldwide. It can also be easily integrated with the existing interior design processes you are probably familiar with. Consulting, conceptualizing, sourcing, and styling – all of these activities can be integrated within project management processes.
We’ve created a guide based on common project management techniques, and tailored it for an interior design project. If you’re familiar with project management processes, you’ll note that we’ve simplified the processes into 12 simple stages. We’ve done this to customize the plan for an interior design purposes.
The key to successfully using this guide is to follow the stages in their proper order. The stages are arranged specifically to avoid backtracking and to assure that you’re never missing any information at a later stage in your project. However, depending on the size of your organization and the scope of your project, you may not need to spend a great deal of time on every single step. For example, if you’re working on a small project, the initial stage “Formalize Project,” might only take 10 minutes.
Stage 1: Formalize Project
Formalizing begins after your initial consultation, and after your client has signed a general contract, or agreed to take on your services in writing. A contract will serve as the first document you can add to your project folder or repository. It should be general enough so that budgets and schedules can be specified later, but specific enough so that you will be compensated for your time if your client gets cold feet. Along with your contract, make a note of the key stakeholders involved. For a small project, it may only be your client. For a commercial project, it could involve your boss, landlords, builders, etc. Anyone who will need to be notified or whose approval you may require in the future should be included, along with their contact information.
Formalizing is mostly an internal stage. Formalize your project by setting a clear internal purpose and objective for the project. It can be as simple as creating a text document on your desktop, or it can be as complex as notifying staff and setting interdepartmental strategic and financial objectives.
This document will serve as your project plan. Includes the very basics, such as your client, your goals, and a simple project outline. At this early stage, focus on “clearing space” for the new project. A large- or medium-sized business could choose someone to manage the project, create accounts for the client, etc. A small (or one-person!) business should consider documenting internal goals such as financial growth, generating portfolio assets, or getting positive reviews. It’s easy to take these goals for granted, and miss key opportunities once the project is underway.
From this point onwards, keep track of the time you spend. It will not only serve to invoice your customers, but like your goals is key internal information to help you plan future projects. It’s best to keep track from the very beginning, and it’s a great reminder that your time is valuable.
Stage 2: Collect Requirements
Collecting requirements from your client can come in many forms, and you may already have a solid image from your initial consultation. At this stage, we want to throw a wide net, and cover all the variables that may impact the final result. What is your client’s budget range? What are their primary goals? What are the time constraints? It will likely be necessary to set up a meeting, which will go through the details more thoroughly than your initial consultation.
Requirements at this stage should be general enough to get an overall understanding of the project, and avoid specifics. For a particular room or subproject, your client may desire a certain colour, but there’s no need to know the exact shade yet. For a particular room or subproject, your client might say their budget is $20,000, but at this point, find out if it’s a tight $19,000-$21,000 or a looser $15,000-$25,000. It’s not possible or wise to agree on exact figures at this stage.
Think of the boundaries of your project. These are quantitative, measurable factors. What spaces will be involved? What are their measurements? What are you client’s functional expectations? Then consider your client’s qualitative goals. What are you client’s aesthetic expectations? What will be the depth of work (eg. furnishings, paint, fixtures, construction)? Another important qualitative aspect of collecting requirements is your client’s service expectations. Will you need to seek approval for every item you purchase? Do they want to test furniture, or sample paints? Getting this information now is key to avoiding delays and setting your schedule later on.
While it still a bit early to prepare an official budget, if you are sufficiently experienced (or your client sufficiently naïve), it is appropriate to advise if their budget is not realistic. In fact, it’s a great time to start managing expectations, which will set your client up for satisfaction once the work is complete.
Stage 3: Formalize Scope
When you’ve finished collecting requirements from your client, it’s time to set firm boundaries around the project you’ve undertaken. This should be a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, document the initial state of the specific rooms, depth of work, and physical boundaries of your project. Then from your previous requirements-gathering, note anything you plan to purchase, alter, or destroy. Be sure to send this to your client and get their approval. This document sets the stage for keeping their expectations curtailed and is essential to navigating delays later on.
Second, create a document just for you to describe how you would react if your client asks for more than laid out in your agreement. If your client wants to repaint, will you only consider it after the project? Or will you change your schedule? It’s a huge advantage to make these decisions early, because you still have recent memory of your client’s expectations, and your mind is unclouded by the business of an ongoing project.
Changes to scope can have profound, unexpected impacts on your project and budget. For that reason it’s best to avoid your scope creeping at all cost and prepare your answers early if your client asks for alterations later on. However, if your client’s schedule is particularly flexible, it’s still best practice to allocate this flexibility. You can put your mind at ease by deciding early on where you can best make use of this adjustable time.
Stage 4: Select Activities
At this stage, you probably already have a general idea of the tasks that will be needed to complete your project. Take the time to reflect carefully, and list every single task you will need to accomplish. If this is your first project, you might not consider including “browsing” or “sourcing” products, but these are considerably time-consuming and under-estimated tasks which should be included. However, resist the urge to start scheduling (putting tasks in order). Simply focus on listing every single task you will need to accomplish.
If certain tasks need to be accomplished by a third-party or service provider, remember to include meeting with the provider or getting quotes. Which brings us to the next stage.
Stage 5: Collect Estimates
Despite having “estimates” in the name, it’s still not time to start pricing out your project. It’s important to set the schedule first, as the timing of your project will often be more dynamic and variable than costs like supplies and labour.
Estimating is just what it sounds like. With requirements set and a detailed list of tasks to be done, it’s time to estimate the time it will take to achieve each action. For a detailed project or a client with a tight schedule, you will want to use possible ranges and definite cut-offs. A definite cut-off could be considered the minimum time required and the maximum likely to occur.
Call third-party service providers, suppliers such as furniture and lighting stores, to get more detailed estimates for delivery or sourcing a range of products. You might already have some pieces in mind based on your requirements gathering, but continue to get generalized timelines instead of relying on specific products or services. It’s far better to over-estimate your timeline and avoid delays later on.
Key to making estimates is also considering any possible risks. What could go wrong for each activity? How long would it take to resolve the issue? These questions are key to setting practical estimates and will set you up for completing your project early or on schedule. For each service provider, such as a mover or plumber, consider finding an alternate you can fall back on if necessary and compare their availability.
Stage 6: Formalize Schedule
At this point you should have a detailed list of activities, as well as an estimated range of durations for each. Now it’s time to put them all together. We’ve collected estimates before making a schedule for many reasons. Some actions will be dependent on finishing others (eg. you can’t style a room until the furniture is delivered), and some actions can be completed simultaneously (eg. you can browse for filler décor while paint is drying).You’ll find it’s far easier to consider situations like these once every task is listed, rather than trying to create a schedule out of thin air.
At this stage, start placing your listed activities in order. I strongly suggest making a Gantt chart in Excel or Google Sheets. They’re simple to make and you shouldn’t even need a template. Stack activities which can be completed simultaneously, and indicate when one activity is dependent on a previous activity, or place it in the same row. Once completed, it is good practice to share it with your client, especially if you will need their approval for service and furniture delivery. Many businesses will use a shared Gantt chart throughout the entire execution of the project, to keep track of the progress and any delays.
Stage 7: Collect Costs
With a clear picture of the tasks required and your client’s expectations for quality, it’s time to start sourcing products and getting quotes. It’s still not the time to pull the trigger on precise items or services, but if you already have an idea of some products and services you’ll be sourcing, it can be helpful to get an idea of product stock or service provider availability, but don’t forget to get estimates for alternatives, too.
Based on your client’s priorities and expectations, now is the time to gather price ranges and determine what key items and services could cost. Similar to collecting estimates, you should be looking for ranges, so you have an idea of upper and lower limits on the items and services you will need to complete the project.
Service providers (and to a lesser extent, suppliers) will also present risks. Just like when you collected estimates, consider what could go wrong, and what it could cost to remedy the situation. For suppliers, are your alternatives readily available? For products, is your client expecting a niche item that will be expensive to replace?
Stage 8: Formalize Budget
Formalize your budget by assigning an official range of values to each room. You should now have a selection of items and services priced-out, but we’ve waited until now to create a budget for very good reasons. At the very beginning of the project, it can be tempting to simply divide up your budget by square footage, adding a bit in your client’s most important spaces, and subtracting a bit somewhere else. The reality is that your client will have functional requirements which cannot be evenly divided. Now that you have costed lower limits, you might discover that smaller rooms can only be so cheap, and your client’s priorities have limits. This is yet another reason that setting expectations early is so important.
Send your formal budget to your client and get approval via writing or email. You can include the ranges you determined, or use the average amount and indicate a plus-or-minus value for the range. Once the budget is signed off, (as well as your schedule from previous steps), it’s time to start procurement in the next stage, collect resources.
Stage 9: Collect Resources
Finally! It’s time to design. With a budget to keep track of your planned expenses, a schedule to prevent you from browsing too long, and a good idea of the market prices you’ll face, you should now be completely prepared to make the key design choices. With price ranges and schedules planned, all the tedious decisions which usually delay the actual art of interior design are already made. Plus, thanks to the risks you analyzed earlier, you are also prepared to deal with any surprises quickly and professionally.
Create your design or decorating plan. If you’re working on a large project or for a detail-oriented company, now would be the time to put together a sketch or CAD model. You are now making official decisions on what class or style of items and services will be in your final design and where they will be placed.
If you are dealing with an individual homeowner, or your business requires approval, this stage can largely be a sequence of selecting items, and getting approval, which can go on for quite a while depending on your client. In fact, you’ll be glad to have a shared schedule or Gantt chart, as your client will have direct visibility of the delays they cause themselves.
When selecting service providers, you won’t likely need to place a deposit, but they may need to visit the site before giving an estimate, which is another reason we made our schedule before making actual procurements. It’s wise to approach multiple providers (the alternatives you had selected earlier) to get the best quote, so try not to fall in love with the first provider you had selected.
If it’s your first project or your business terms require it, now is an acceptable time to submit your strategy, with their approved items itemized, service providers selected, and request a procurement deposit to make purchases.
Stage 10: Formalize Strategy
Now that you’ve designed your project’s spaces, selected items, and scheduled third parties, it’s time to lay out your procurement plan. Depending on your contract, your client may have paid up front, or paid a deposit. The same is true of your third-party service providers. Decide on how you document your expenses (for a small business, excel should be fine), and decide where you will keep receipts, contracts, and any other documents related to expensing your client, or paying yourself and your taxes.
No matter your payment terms, now is the time to lay out your ultimate estimates for items, based on the specific costs you’re planning to incur from the previous step. If you are going over budget or saving too much in certain rooms or sub-projects, you can select alternate items and make changes to your deposits and procurements. This should be a breeze, because you’ve already selected ranges for every aspect of your project from the outset. And it’s also why we avoided making specific estimates from the start.
Most furniture stores will accept deposits to reserve items, and if you have specialty items that may run low on stock, now is the time to start placing deposits. Act on any risks you outlined while collecting costs. Consider alternative items and make notes while browsing.
By the end of this stage, you should have a complete idea of what will take place, when, and what the result will be. The next four stages will execute your project, starting with managing the project’s scope. While executing your project, you will need to alternate from one stage to another as necessary, so we’ve labelled these stages 11-A to 11-D.
Stage 11-A: Manage Scope
The next four stages will ultimately be the execution of your project, and you will likely be performing them all at the same time. While items are being delivered, and service providers are on sight, keep each one of the four stages in your mind, and consider taking action relevant to each stage throughout the final completion of your project.
Managing scope will require reminding your client (and yourself) of the limits you had set originally. Your client may tempted to ask service providers for additional services “while they’re here.” Or they may change their mind about a specific piece of furniture. Now is the time to stand firm (if necessary), communicate the impact on their budget and schedule, or follow-through on the alternative actions you had planned earlier while formalizing the scope.
This is precisely why we decided on risk responses early on. We say to avoid scope creep whenever possible, but if your client’s schedule was flexible from the start, you can relax when making alterations to your schedule, because it had been planned from the start. Even so, if you are attempting to please your client, adding tasks last minute can have unintentional side effects. In our opinion, if you can fix something once the project is complete, it is always preferable to fixing it in the middle of execution.
Stage 11-B: Execute Schedule
Now is the time to execute your schedule. Manage service providers, schedule deliveries, and do everything else you had planned, including any painting, installation, arranging, styling, etc. Regularly check back with your schedule, and if necessary, implement any risk mitigation activities you documented while collecting estimates. If you’ve shared your schedule with your client, now will also be the time to tick things off and update your Gantt chart as tasks are completed or delayed.
Stage 11-C: Manage Budget
Along with maintaining the scope of your project, you’ll want to take time to manage your budget, including pricing any risks you predicted while collecting resources. You may need more (or less) last minute filler décor when you get to styling the room on your schedule. You might need to change hardware or call back a service provider. Luckily, based on the cost estimates and alternate items you selected earlier, it should be easy to choose alternatives if necessary.
Stage 11-D: Execute Strategy
Along with your schedule and your budget, your heaviest procurements (including services) will now be bought and delivered. Your procurement strategy has largely been drawn out, and provided you have reliable service providers, this stage will largely be providing payment, making detailed accounting of the payments and additional expenses you incur, and keeping track of contracts, agreements, and receipts. Keep these documents secure and well-organized, as you planned while formalizing your strategy.
Now is also the time to consider your fees. While you should have agreed on payment terms prior to beginning the project, by the time you’ve worked with your client for hours and hours, now is the time to rack up the charges and make sure you pay yourself fairly for the work you’ve done as outlined in your initial strategy. You’ll be glad you started tracking your hours from the start.
Stage 12: Complete Project
Completing your project is much more important than simply “finishing the project.” These tasks are key to succeeding as a business and understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and they are largely ignored by small businesses.
Before you lose access to the site, document everything. Get photos for your portfolio, and create micro content that you can use later. Consider getting different angles, times of day, and with different light sources. You should assume that your client won’t allow you to access the site later. So go nuts!
Once the job is done, look back at your project plan. What went wrong? What could use improvement? What did you get right? Did you accomplish your internal goals? Answering these types of questions will provide key insights that are easy to miss if you had not made a plan from the start. This type of reflection is the best way to learn and improve for next time, because your project plan has retained the perspective you held at the beginning of the project.
Past clients are a major lightning rod for future clients, as well as key influencers who can have an outsized impact on your brand’s image. After a project is complete, it can be tempting to shake hands and part ways with your client, but resist that urge. Feedback is essential. Take this opportunity to get insights from your client. Ask them directly. If they’re satisfied, don’t hesitate to ask for an online review. This is a key moment to build your portfolio and the window is very small. If you plan on submitting your design in a magazine or industry newsletter, ask if they would consider being featured. All these small requests are far more likely to get a “yes” while the space is fresh. In a few weeks’ time, your client will be much more distant and the space will once again be part of their home, and no longer “your” project.
If you have followed every step in this plan, your client had every opportunity to voice their opinion during the project, and it’s extremely unlikely they will be disappointed. However, if your client is unsatisfied, you can only find out by asking. At this late stage, the only thing you can do is earnestly listen to your client’s complaints and try to understand their feelings. Make an effort to see their perspective, and avoid assigning blame or associating their concerns with their personality. Even if your client appears to be uniquely difficult or impossible to please, they could still provide some insight that can help you with a future, more rational client.
By using a strategic approach based on industry-leading project management practices, you can use the same techniques that give medium- and large-sized businesses an edge. The key to following this strategy is following each stage in the correct order. You probably noted how each stage naturally leads to the next, and this is ultimately the core strength of this detailed approach. Additionally, by enveloping traditional design processes within project management processes, you can guarantee that your internal goals are catered to, and that no time is lost sourcing alternatives or making desperate last-minute fixes.