Exploring the Design Process

Being a kitchen designer can be vastly rewarding; the combination of industry knowledge and continuing education gives the kitchen professional great influence over everything from design trends to product selections to how environmentally friendly a project will be.

At the same time, the design process itself presents numerous challenges, from dealing with clients’ unrealistic budget expectations to determining whether to employ design fees to keeping up with technology. And, while designers overall love the creative aspects of the job, many still dislike the business aspects, such as handling finances and dealing with business management issues.

That’s according to a recent survey that looks at what it means to be a kitchen designer, from the greatest challenges to the best ways to learn about clients’ needs, preferences and desires to when and how to “fire” a difficult client.

The newly released study, which polled more than 265 kitchen designers and dealers about the design process, was conducted by Kitchen & Bath Design News’ research partner, the Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence (RICKI), a Charlotte, NC-based organization of manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers and others whose revenues derive from activities that take place in the kitchen.


Pain Points

Design professionals may love what they do, but there are always some parts of the job that are less than fun, and topping that list is having to deal with clients who have unrealistic budget expectations. In fact, when asked about their biggest challenges, a whopping 79% cited this as a problem (see Graph 1). The next most commonly cited challenge was clients who want free designs and then shop them around to competitors, with 55% of those polled mentioning this as an issue.

Unrealistic design expectations were also cited by 37% of respondents as a key challenge, while 12% noted appliances specs and/or long lead times as major challenges. Of those surveyed, some 10% viewed a lack of creative opportunities and/or dealing with other professionals on the job as presenting difficulties, while a mere 3% saw challenges relating to the availability of desired products/materials.

As for their least favorite part of the job, nearly a quarter (24%) said it was running the business and dealing with the financial and management responsibilities therein (see Graph 2). The next least favorite part of the job was being forced to design with very tight budget constraints, cited by 21% of survey respondents. Some 8% each mentioned dealing with subcontractors and keeping up with technology as less than desirable job responsibilities, while 7% each cited keeping up with new products and ordering products/materials, 6% each pointed to dealing with clients and dealing with employees/coworkers, and 5% viewed installations as the least favorite part of the job.

While anyone in the customer service arena has likely had to deal with difficult clients at times, for kitchen designers, the stakes are higher: Unlike most one-time purchasing situations, a kitchen project can take months to complete and cost tens of thousands of dollars. A relationship that sours during such a project can be both emotionally exhausting and financially damaging. So it should come as no surprise that more than half of those polled have “fired” a client at least once in the past. Indeed, some 49% admitted to firing a client once or twice, while another 6% said they’ve done this several times (see Graph 3).

The most commonly cited reason for this was unrealistic expectations, or a sense that it would be impossible to please the client, noted by 33% of those surveyed. Some 30% said they’d fired a client for being difficult to work with or unwilling to listen to advice, while 16% dismissed a client due to personality conflicts. Another 12% said they’d walked away from a client due to inadequate budget and 9% did so when the client was unwilling to pay for design services.

Other reasons cited included indecisiveness, controlling behaviors, “couples issues” that were bleeding into the design process, demeaning or rude behavior, price shopping, or demanding things that simply couldn’t be done.


The Process

To better understand how dealers and designers do their jobs, RICKI also asked respondents about some of their business practices, from how they gather information from clients to what they think about designing collaboratively to whether they charge design fees.

When it comes to finding out about clients’ likes and dislikes, the vast majority of designers believe that it’s all about two-way communication: 91% said they begin the process by having an extensive discussion with the clients covering their needs, desires, preferences, likes and dislikes.

Nearly three quarters (73%) also refer their clients to magazines or Web sites to provide additional design ideas and inspiration, while 62% take them on a tour of a kitchen showroom. From the survey, it’s clear that two-way communication is favored; only 23% have prospects fill out a questionnaire, and a mere 7% send them on a solo showroom visit.

As far as collaboration, the majority of those polled – a whopping 76% – prefer to do their designs solo. Only 22% prefer to design in collaboration with others, while 2% said someone else generally does their designs. Not surprisingly, independent designers were far more likely to do their designs solo, while those associated with a showroom were more likely to design in collaboration with another party.

How to handle design fees has long been a struggle for many design professionals, and the poll showed opinions are still split on this (see Graph 4). A little more than a third (35%) of those surveyed said they do not charge a design fee at all, while 33% charge a design fee but waive it if the prospect opts to do the project with them, 18% charge a design fee regardless, and the remainder said, “it depends.” Of the latter group, the decision to charge or not charge a design fee might depend on the size of the project, how serious the client seemed, the amount of time required or the number of revisions needed.

Those who do not charge design fees may still opt to protect their designs by refusing to release them, only making them available at a showroom visit. Others said they will charge a fee only if the client asks for a copy of the design or otherwise indicates an interest in shopping the design around. Some will do a preliminary sketch, but will charge a fee for more involved designs or revisions.



Technology continues to gain a foothold in the design world, with 62% of those polled saying they always use some form of technology (software, apps, tablets or smart phones) in the design process (see Graph 5). Another 25% say they occasionally use technology during the design process, 10% say they never do, but are likely to in the future, and only 3% never do and say they don’t plan to.

As far as what tools survey respondents favor during the design process, 89% rely on manufacturer Web sites, 84% use design software, 62% do hand drawings, 48% utilize tear sheets from magazines, 46% like to visit design Web sites, 24% use help line or support systems and 20% rely on design apps (see Graph 6).

Of those who use design software, 69% say they use 20-20, 16% use SketchUp, 12% favor AutoCad, 10% choose Chief Architect, 8% rely on Pro Kitchen Design Software, 1% use KCD Software and 13% use something else.



Tracking consumer trends is important for today’s design professionals. This was evident in the survey results, which showed that over the past year, 80% of those polled had attended at least one educational or training session relating to consumer trends in order to help them remain up to date on consumer hot buttons. And, more than half of those who responded to the survey said they’d attended at least three educational sessions addressing consumer trends over the past year.

Even those who had not attended any such educational training recognized the importance of it, with two thirds of those who hadn’t attended such training saying they planned to in the future.

Designers and dealers also have a fair amount of influence in defining these trends by the products and materials they specify. For instance, 93% of design professionals polled said they are the primary influencer when it comes to cabinet purchases, while 73% said they have the greater influence in choosing countertops and 57% said they generally control the ventilation decision (see Graph 7). By contrast, only 30% said they are the primary influencer when it comes to the selection of major appliances.

Likewise, dealers and designers often influence how “green” a project will be, simply by specifying more environmentally friendly products. For instance, while the green trend has gotten less media attention in the consumer world of late, kitchen and bath design professionals still seem to be supporting eco-friendly products and materials. In fact, more than half (54%) said they have specified cabinetry with low-VOC content and 53% said they’ve specified countertops with recycled materials over the past year (see Graph 8). This is particularly notable because these product categories are ones in which they tend to have great influence with clients.

Similarly, nearly half of those polled said they’d specified high-efficiency toilets (45%) or touchless faucets (43%) over the past year.

Interestingly, far fewer seemed inclined to specify high-tech products such as programmable shower systems (11%) or technology that integrates different parts of the home (13%).