Fast, Quality, Cheap: The Imprisonment of E-Design

I went shopping for some protein powder this past week at our local health-food store. I had been out for while and the brand I like has shot up in price quite a bit. The store has it's own brand of product, so I read the label, I asked a lot of questions, and I knew it was cheaper per gram than the brand I usually buy. I can't say it'll taste the same, but it could be close enough. I can't help but wonder if this will be a waste of money or if I'll be pleased with the texture, flavour, and quality.

This got me thinking about something that has been weighing on my mind lately. More and more tech-like companies are popping up and offering online services competing with high-end design firms. DON'T GET ME WRONG, WE OFFER ONLINE SERVICES TOO, but the interior design profession has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. It is a highly-skilled profession that is equitable to just under an Architect (usually working with Architects.) Kitchen & bath designers continues to be a coveted for a select few certified professionals. Accredited Decorators are even more rare, so I GET THAT THIS BUSINESS IS CONFUSING BECAUSE I'M CONFUSED TOO. I can not imagine how a client tries to wade through the waters and understand what they need.


I'm going to be honest. I have never purchased the e-styling services of HomepolishHavenly, Laurel & Wolf, Decorist, or whomever pops up next. I can't say I had the need [blushing], but let's call this type of service what it is: virtual styling. It doesn't even qualify as Decorating and most of the services begin at $79 for a 'mini' and I have nothing to equate miniaturized design services to because it's nothing like what we offer. 

Homepolish - starts at $130USD/hr, comprehensive services (that's $170/hr in Canadian Dollars)
Havenly - starts at $79USD, styling only
Laurel & Wolf - starts at $149USD/room
Decorist- starts at $299USD/room

Everything works better when you compare design to cars so this is like an umbrella instead of a car, so you're a bit protected from things that'll crash down on you. Sure, it gets you somewhere and it is a journey, but you're doing all the work on foot. Homepolish, however, has the most comprehensive service offering for a broad base of clients and if this is all you need for services, please contact them for help.

BATH DESIGN FOR $399USD by kohler

And then, when I'm discussing these industry matters in large online forums and seeing the outrage from other professional designers, I receive an official email from Kohler on this fine Sunday morning and I learn that they have begin to offer bath design services for $399USD. Wait, for how much? That is pretty cheap, too cheap in my opinion, but is it really work being done by qualified design professionals?

KOHLER designers are trained in the latest bathroom design trends, bathroom budget planning and remodeling, National Kitchen & Bath Association bathroom standards, and of course the latest KOHLER products. From full master bath remodels to powder room refreshes, our designers have experience in a full range of design projects. (Source)

Or so they say... but I can't say that we will be using any Kohler brands (Kohler, Kallista, or Ann Sacks) again on any of our projects any time soon. So, comparing this cheapest design service to a car, it is like a bike. A bit of an upgrade, but there are some parts that could break down and you'll be on the side of the road with grease on your hands.


It isn't the first time this has happened, to be honest. Other big box brands have tried to make a go of cheap decorating fees in the past and they have failed because they missed the fact that design is a process and not always a product. IKEA use to have Home Furnishings Consultants you could book and design spaces with, as did Ethan Allan (when it was in Canada.) In the kitchen & bath industry, more often than not we see associates selling $500 retainers for design and quotations (some of them don't even charge) and they willingly hand-over design plans. It's gauche, but the fact is that it's done.

This proposes a tricky situation for the average consumer because the skills and value for this type of service end up pretty devalued. When services are sold at the lowest price point we will inherently loose trust in the claims they make and begin to create more work/questions/feedback for the service provider. It's a slippery slope. The lower the price, the more we doubt the quality of a product or service? This would be a car rental service somewhat like a lease-to-own, but I don't know any dealership that permits you to drive off the lot without full financing and what I'm not clear on is why design plans continue to be given away.


I mentioned it already and we do offer an online design service called "Design Express", but it's very different than what these providers are describing and offering. We use a complete design portal solution where you interact, inspire, and collaborate with my Design Team to customize your home, kitchen, bathroom, or workspace. Yes, you have to do some work but I have price-positioned our Design Express packages to use our skills virtually and maintain quality by streamlining the design process and eliminating costly meetings. For some clients, this is an advantage because of reduced flat-fee and because we are not tied to a single product or brand when we seek the design solution. Comparing this to a car, I'd say it is like an entry-level new car with pre-determined components you can upgrade when you can afford them and make them your own definition of a supercar.


So look, the least we can do is offer up advice to anyone looking for a virtual professional design service:

  1. Determine if your need is interior design, kitchen & bath design, or just styling.
  2. Find out if the provider is a real, qualified, educated design professional.  For example, do they have insurance if their design has a mistake?
  3. Understand the Design Variables triangle. You can only have 2 out of 3, but never all three.
  4. Be aware of online services that only use specific brands and retailers because there is always a hook.
  5. If you're looking for more customization, consider a qualified professional interior designer. Ask them if they'll work virtually and most of them will in some format or another.
  6. Remember, you always get what you pay for.
Image courtesy  Tinker Creative

Image courtesy Tinker Creative