Are We Losing the Art of Design?

I recently spoke with a kitchen designer who’s closing her business – and not for the reasons one might expect. In fact, she said that while business has been a bit slow, she’s still making a pretty good living, so the economy wasn’t the deciding factor in her decision.

Rather, a medical scare led her to re-evaluate her life, and she’d come to feel that her job just wasn’t much fun anymore. As she put it, “Lately it seems like the art of design has become exclusively about the business of design, and the almighty dollar...there are so many ‘rules’ about how we should work, there’s just no joy in it anymore.”

I imagine she’s not the only one who feels that way. For years now, we’ve been told to work differently. In the boom of the early 2000s, when we could barely keep up with all the customers clamoring for new kitchens and baths, we were told to “work faster.” When business slowed down and money was no longer pouring in, we needed to “work harder.” When the economy forced cutbacks in resources, it was all about “working smarter.”

Along the way, experts have counseled us to get back to basics or completely rethink our business model. We’ve been told to streamline operations, or, alternatively, to expand into other niches.

We’ve heard that we should concentrate on the long-term picture, or focus on the here and now (or there might not be a long-term picture!).

We’ve been overwhelmed with suggestions for everything from marketing through social networking to repackaging our services in order to target a different market segment – the eco-conscious, the aging Baby Boomers, the super affluent, the younger, more value-conscious Gen Xers.

Interestingly, though, no one has talked that much about the primary service kitchen and bath designers offer: design.

Yes, it’s trendier to talk about green marketing or social networking. And yes, it’s easier to measure financials than design creativity.

But great marketing is useless unless you have something special to market. And as important as the financials are, you don’t make money if you don’t have something of value to sell, beyond the same products that consumers can buy from dozens of other places, both online and off.

In fact, the only thing your clients can’t get just anywhere…is you. Your ideas. Your creativity. Your design talents. Your ability to fuse your knowledge and skills with their needs and desires to create a vision – and to transform that vision into a real life space that’s uniquely personalized to their needs, their, dreams, their lifestyle.

Sure, that may seem a bit intangible. Yet the intangibles are, at the center of it all, what you sell. And that’s why, in times as challenging as these, perhaps it’s time to remember what’s at the core of this business called design.

Have you gotten creative with your designs lately, or is it all just about dollars and cents? Sure, there’s a lot of pressure to pump up the profit these days. But have you ever considered that when your sole focus becomes the bottom line, you lose the passion and creativity that makes you so marketable in the first place?

In this month’s “Designer’s Notebook” (see story, Page 34), Ellen Cheever talks about the value of tapping into your creative wellspring – even when that creative idea isn’t going to sell. As she explains it, when you show prospective clients options that include a more creative choice, they might opt for the more traditional approach....but, “They may be so impressed with your other ideas they decide to shop no further! The key is not whether they pick the more avant-garde solution – the key is that they buy you rather than the less professional, less experienced, less creative, dollar-focused competitor who is vying for the client’s business against you.”

That’s not to say it’s okay to ignore dollars and cents. But it’s important to remember, too, that the art of design is a key part of the business of design.