Interior motives

Many disciplines claim they do interior design. But what exactly is it? And what approach gets the best results? Jane Lewis finds out

The market

Demand for interior design is surprisingly healthy in the post-recession era. The problem is in defining what interior design actually is. Most consultancies now offer services ranging from retail strategy, brand development and consumer research to space planning and project management. They’re also competing with a variety of other suppliers claiming to offer similar skills. Architects provide interior design, contractors specialise in design- and-build packages, shopfitters offer design concepts and even some building surveyors have designers, not to mention clients’ own in-house design teams. All of whom create a highly competitive marketplace.

Although there are no accurate figures to indicate the value of the market, judging by the Halifax Building Society’s annual spend on design fees of 2-3m for development and refurbishment, there are some pretty significant budgets out there.

As Richard Watson of client advisor EDR points out, geographically, there is a “phenomenal” concentration of design groups in London, but that’s also where many clients are based. From an international perspective, he says there is much less interior design being carried out abroad compared to branding and corporate identity. Although some groups have successfully established international client lists, “there’s a big potential in Europe and it’s surprising there’s not more going on”. He says many European retailers don’t really know what interior design is, whereas the UK market is far more sophisticated.

Retail in the UK is a key area for interior design. As Paul Haftke, director at Davies Baron, points out, retailers are having to commit to fresh concepts after postponing decisions for so long during the recession: “It’s the cost of staying in the game. We’re experiencing a significant uplift in demand from British retailers.”

According to Paul Spaven, a director with building surveyor Tuffin Ferraby & Taylor, there’s a “big thrust towards retail” from fund trusts, and he claims retail always “kicks in at the start of a property cycle”. Leisure projects are also hotting up as brewers and other operators battle to attract more customers, while there is still a lot of pressure to upgrade existing space to attract or retain tenants within the quieter office market.

The growth of Tuffin Ferraby & Taylor’s Bristol office is proof of how active the market has become – Spaven claims the interior design division which specialises in offices and retail has increased six-fold since it was first set up six years ago.

What do clients want?

It depends who the client is and what the project is. Clients can range from the design-aware marketing and operations directors who want consultants to do exciting things with their brands to the design illiterate who want a fresh coat of paint. And as Watson comments, while the bigger retailers such as Sears like to use the big name consultancies like Fitch, “a hairdresser in Nottingham is likely to use a shop fitter”.

But clients are certainly wiser after the harsh lessons of the extravagant Eighties. They require more from their consultants than ever before. Clients want designers who understand their businesses. Yes, they’re paying them for their design expertise and ideas, but they have to be compatible rather than imposing.

“An understanding of the financial sector and how retail requirements could work in that sector is important these days,” points out the Halifax’s design manager Ray Sheller. “We’re fairly certain we will have to take a more radical approach to how we deal with customers.”

“What we look for are consultants who are intelligent and can think strategically, understand our problems and company policy and are flexible,” comments Jane Simmonds, marketing manager of new product development at Granada Hospitality who is currently working with 20/20 and Wolff Olins. She adds: “They must be patient and have a sense of humour. There are a lot of groups which have the pretensions but not the experience.”

Her sentiments are echoed by Stella Hartley, sales and marketing director at womenswear chain Richard Shops. Fitch is currently working with the chain and won the project by proving “it could understand the importance of developing the brand and had a degree of empathy with what we’re trying to do at Richards”. Hartley adds the aim was to “contemporise” stores to attract new customers without alienating existing ones. “Some retailers take the environment in isolation. We’re trying to imbue a bit of personality into Richards.”

With a major retailer like Richard Shops, it is also vital that consultancies work well with the project teams, which often include in-house departments. “Working with the Sears property team, the designer relationship must be absolutely seamless,” stresses Hartley. “The design group has to feel part of the internal team and not just an add-on. It should always be available and not make clients feel they are one of many or at the end of a list.”

When the Automobile Association was looking for a consultancy to rethink its high street outlets, it wanted “somebody who understands what the AA is all about. We needed someone to understand our needs and the art of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We didn’t want to change it from being a well recognised shop to something people don’t identify as being the AA”, explains AA PR manager Rebecca Hadley. The new retail identity has been created by the Lumsden Design Partnership to provide “a subtle shift that had a significant effect”.

Mary Portas, marketing manager at Harvey Nichols, says she is “always careful to choose people we know will meet our requirements. It’s important that the design team is designing for us and not for itself”.

Clients are also quick to stress the obvious – having a good brief which consultants can interpret. “I have a simple attitude to all providers of services – it doesn’t matter if they’re accountants or designers – the ones that give the best service are the ones that are given the best brief and not interfered with,” says Finlay Scott, chief executive of café chain Aroma. He admits it is quite unusual for a company of its size to bring in “prestigious architects” as designers (ORMS works with the chain), but he surmises: “It shows that investment in design does pay off as it has led to our development and growth.”

For Helen Roberts, retail development manager for Scottish & Newcastle’s international division, an understanding of “who we’re trying to attract” and the European market are essential. She adds: “Designers also need to be good project managers. Once we’ve found a good consultancy we tend to stick with it.”

With most interiors projects, time is of the essence. Designers have to work expertly to tight timescales, as often revenue is lost while properties are being worked on. According to Mike Smith, an associate director at

Prudential, which owns numerous retail and commercial properties, “timescales have become shorter and money drives the project”. Although he says he commissions “people from small offshoots of contractors to big design groups”, he tends to use those he has a rapport with – “architects or people linked with surveyors or contractors”. His priorities are finding consultants who “understand the delivery side”.

Stella Hartley says the Richards project is being carried out at a “helter skelter pace”, and emphasises timescales are quick because “you want financial benefits in the same financial year that you’ve commissioned the design”.

Room for improvement

Clients often see designers as striving for aesthetic qualities rather than commercial results, and it is getting the balance wrong that causes most concern. The Prudential’s Mike Smith perceives designers as being more interested in making something “look pretty” than specifying finishes which are readily available. “Pure designers may not worry about the fact that the job takes six months to deliver.”

According to Portas: “The design team may come in with things that are more design-led – the designers want their own signature. But sometimes you get a lot of add-ons that need to be pared down.”

Hartley concurs: “It’s all about practicalities and commercial aspects, whereas designers are all about aesthetics. There’s no point having a cash desk that looks beautiful but is totally impractical.”

More research on ground level is also requested by Simmonds, who believes consultancies should keep up to date by looking at the market “every six weeks” rather than at the start of a job. “It’s no good looking at sites every 18 months. Things change very quickly and they must keep abreast of that rather than the latest coffee bar in Oxford Street,” he says.

For the Halifax, Sheller says: “Our biggest problem is getting consultancies to understand our standing in the financial sector. They see us as a northern-based company and think our status isn’t that big. Yet we’re the largest building society and next year will be the third largest high street bank. We also have problems getting them to understand our operational needs and customer base.”

Working to budget and timescales could be improved by more forward planning, suggests Morwenna Angove, marketing controller at Victoria Wine Company. “Misinterpretation of the brief and bad timing could be bettered by people putting together planograms and timetables.”

Fees

Design in general has a reputation for inflated fees. Although clients acknowledge fees can be hefty, they generally believe you get what you pay for. As David Reiss, owner of menswear company Reiss, puts it: “You pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” But there is also a sense of value for money, a reluctance to discuss the M word and much negotiation before fees are agreed.

“Design often comes out as the most expensive of all aspects,” says Portas. “We always try to negotiate fees down and this should be done at an early stage to stop costs running away.”

“Fee-levels aren’t inflated, not if you know how to get your pound of flesh,” reveals Hartley. “We always say we won’t pay over the odds,” says Sheller. “If I say cost isn’t a problem, I’m going to get a big bill, though I don’t feel the price is too high for what you get,” suggests Scott. Roberts states: “We pay a lot but then we expect good quality work from them.”

Ian Sherman, head of environmental design at MPL, is concerned that many designers “cut their own throats” by undercutting. “Clients have got used to screwing down the fees and it does nobody any good when consultancies try to undercut us.”

Forward thinking

According to Haftke, technology has dramatically changed the client-designer relationship. “We’re connected. We’ve become technically intimate through the fax, e-mail and ISDN links. We’re in bed with them whether they like it or not and it’s good because we’re part of their organisations,” he ventures.

Watson believes the use of touch-screen technology is hyped – malls on the Internet are not about to replace shopping centres. “Saying the high street is disappearing because of the Internet is like saying tennis will disappear because you can play it on a video game. It’s totally ignoring the whole psychology of shopping.” But he does think a concentration of interiors groups is a good idea: “There’s a lot of smaller players and I think they should merge with each other. It would give them more clients. For retailers, size is everything and they are obsessed by how many people have worked in their sector before.”

Advances in technology will mean clients will know more about their customers. Designers also have to stay one step ahead of the game by finding out more about clients’ customers bases and target markets. Simmonds says she works closely with consultancies to determine new trends, but the “main prerogative is obviously to save money and speed things up”.

Designers see clients as…

Penny-pinching, always wanting to pay less and less for more and more. They are conservative, overly pragmatic, not particularly innovative and artistically challenged. They pretend designers don’t have that much input. They range from being manic control freaks who explode three quarters of the way through a project to suffering from “project manageritis” where they want three options for skirting boards in the toilets.

Clients see designers as…

Commercially naive prima donnas who are only interested in making things look nice. They have an elevated sense of their own value, always go over budget and are thoroughly impractical. They waltz around in lots of black, beautifully-cut suits with no ties and carry big briefcases. But thankfully the red Porsches have gone.

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