Tips for Designers in Today’s Challenging Economy

With the economy on everyone’s minds, it seems a good time to broaden our focus to look at not only responsive design ideas, but also ideas in terms of approach for kitchen and bath designers. In my career, I’ve known phenomenal designers with less-than-strong client relations skills, and designers with only basic design skills who nonetheless could read their clients, adjust their designs to answer client needs and complete the magic by closing the sale.

My experience is the latter group is the one that has thrived and, as such, would like to offer a few “points to ponder” for design professionals working in the current economy.


First, it’s important to realize that no matter how tough it is, it’s not only about money. We encourage our clients to recognize that their design expenditure is an investment, with long-term returns in enjoyment and possibly eventual resale. In an economic downturn, more than ever, our efforts are an investment in our future, as well.

Through design work on a small project now, we can develop the client relationships that will bring us the larger jobs as the economy turns around. Helping a client to plan a job in stages will provide continued work as those stages progress.

Recently, I heard a designer who I much admire explaining to a client that a tight budget has the greatest need for the help of a design professional to be sure that limited dollars are spent most effectively in terms of function and finish, controlling costs and getting the most for each dollar spent.

Second, fewer demands and projects can provide us with the time to “cuddle and coddle” each client, focusing more specifically on their individual design needs. We live in an age when it’s really about the experience, and we can enhance the experience and our relationship with clients by taking extra time to service them beyond their expectations. We can also maintain communication with past clients. In the past, our office has done exit surveys about six weeks after a job is done to learn about details that have succeeded or missed the mark, and to check in on possible additional work and referral opportunities.


Of course ultimately, it’s critical that the design meets the clients’ needs. So first and foremost, we must establish our clients’ priorities with regard to their wish list and time, space and budget, and revisit this list as the design develops. Using a stone of lower cost on the island top may provide for that coveted integrated refrigerator; or reusing an existing appliance may provide for that stone top. It’s our job to identify the options and review the pros and cons of each decision.

In terms of design of the space, we can minimize cost in several ways. To begin with, working within existing space and minimizing changes in mechanical systems and connections will help. Moving or replacing doors and windows only when necessary to accomplish design priorities or improve function and energy-efficiency can also keep costs down. Once we have established the central focal point in a design, we can carefully allocate higher cost materials to emphasize that focus.

Regarding the products and materials, it may help to review current wisdom that the budget should break down to 40% for cabinets, 20% for appliances, 15% for counters, 10% for floors and 15% for any other details. Within this guide, there are many places to save or trade off on the cost of the parts and pieces to achieve a style and vision at different price points.

Tile, flooring, counters, cabinets, appliances, and sinks and faucets are among the items with huge swings in cost. Sometimes the savings is obvious – stock vs. custom cabinets or laminate vs. stone counters. Other times, it’s much more subtle – a subway tile that costs $4 per square foot versus one that costs $35 and up, or two ovens and a microwave versus one oven and a microwave convection combination. Kitchen and Bath Ideas, from Meredith Publishing, includes a great section called “One Kitchen, Two Budgets,” which offers interesting comparisons and ideas from various designers. It never fails to amaze me what a little comparison specifying can do.

Sustainability and environmental consciousness are ubiquitous in our world today, and there are some very real ways that these aspects of design and specifications can positively impact a client’s budgetary concerns. Being aware of available rebates in your area can return some of the dollars a client’s desires are costing. For example, and are two sites that provide information on local rebates for energy-saving appliances, and on the ROI of water- or energy-saving products. Some of our manufacturers have done this homework for us and, if not, we can do the homework to help our clients fit that budget.

Beyond this, we have opportunities to consider reuse of existing parts and pieces of the space. I am amazed at the sources I am finding around the country for obtaining recycled items as part of the overall project, and for disposing of unwanted items that may still have value. Again, we need to do our homework.

Color can be used to make a statement with minimal cost, and in the midst of economic stress, colors can also offer hope and comfort at home and in our kitchens and baths. Color forecasters are predicting shades of gray to be strong, along with the expected neutrals that never go away. Look for purple in softer levels to calm us and in more intense shades to add luxury and fun; yellows to brighten our attitude, and blues – from spa to deep shades.

Recall Michelle Obama in her purple dress on the campaign trail, and how it has usurped red as the new color for the “power tie.” Yellow, with its ability to add life to any space, is also gaining ground, in shades from bright sunlight to mustard. A look at laundry appliances confirms the uplift that color can bring to a space. The fact that we can make such a strong statement with minimal expense makes color an essential tool in the budget-wise kitchen or bath.

Hopefully, we all love what we do. Even so, there is a bottom line. In tough times, the balance seems to tip to an emphasis on the dollars and not the passion. Now, while the going is tougher, hopefully these ideas on approach, attitude and design will help swing the balance back to equal parts passion and profit.