Who Pays For Design Mistakes?
When you hire an expert in any field you expect that things will be done the right way and that the mistakes that you would have made won’t happen. You are paying for the years of experience and knowledge that only a real expert can give you. So, what happens if they mess up? What happens if their mistake costs money? In the creative industry it’s a bit tricky because, by nature of what we do, we are creating something for the first time, every single time, and the amount of unknowns are huge. Unless you want something generic, then you run the risk of some fatalities due to experimentation. Houses are old and tricky, colors are subjective, and often no matter how much time went into the most perfect-to-scale renderings sometimes you get in the space and it feels off. As a designer, I’ve been on the mistake-r end of this but I was only inspired to write this post after being on the victim side – the client side of which I won’t elaborate on. I didn’t hire an interior designer of course, but it was a creative design of sorts. It gave me a really good perspective on who should be paying for these mistakes, and, furthermore, it gave me such a better perspective on how I can handle mistakes as a designer.
But not all mistakes are created equal. First off there are a few different kinds of mistakes:
1. The “You should have known better” mistake – otherwise known as a “functional” problem. These are the mistakes that any designer that bills more than $125 an hour should not be making without helping to cover the cost of rectifying, in my opinion. This could be mistakes on function, measurements, or ordering/timing issues. We have made some of these in the past but don’t so much anymore because we triple check all of these things. Examples: buying sconces that don’t fit once you open the door, a sofa too big to get into the house, a sink not centered under the kitchen window, cabinets that open the wrong way and can’t fully open, a bathtub too wide to put toilet in properly to code, or a rug that is way too small for the room, etc. Don’t get me wrong, these mistakes still can happen but in my professional opinion everyone (designer and client) should put on their “reasonable” hat and come together to figure out the best way to cover the cost with the designer admitting the mistake and being willing to fix it. Maybe they will forego billing the hours it takes to fix the problem, and if it’s a piece of furniture that was a functional problem (not just stylistically) and can’t be returned, then I think the designer should help sell that item and order a new one. Apologies need to be made and motions to fix the mistake should happen quickly. It’s just like life, people, when ya mess up, ya fix it.
I’m sure I’ll get some backlash from other designers, but I’m really trying to put myself in the clients shoes. As a client of a landscaping project, if that designer had recommended, ordered, and delivered some trees that would not be able to live in the allocated place due to sun or soil reasons, then I would expect not to have to pay for those costs to return them even if I had said “Sure, I like them.” If they had been planted and they died then I would have been extremely bummed and would have held them accountable. That is why I, a person who doesn’t know anything about plants, hires them, expert in their field and don’t do it myself. It’s fine to be wrong, sure, and mistakes will always be made but when you recommend and buy something that doesn’t “work” due to oversight, then I think it’s your job to help cover the costs to fix. But not always …. keep reading.
I don’t have any personal examples of this from my design company and we racked our brain to think of one, but we couldn’t. We typically catch and fix before they’ve been installed, so we don’t take photos and very little time is wasted.
2. The “who’s fault is it?” mistake – This is the most fun one (opposite) as everyone is scrambling to figure out how it went wrong and is secretly praying that it wasn’t their fault. Usually these happen when there are subcontractors involved and there is some sort of communication issue or a subcontractor was less skilled. A few examples –
My master bathroom tile:
When it was first installed the tile and grout looked like that (above right). As the client (and designer) in this case, I hadn’t specified for the grout/tile line to not look stupid and wobbly, but I thought it was generally implied. The tiler was the real deal and did a seriously beautiful job, but then I saw that line and was like hey now, that’s not good. It was really distracting. I showed my contractor and, while he didn’t think that it looked as bad as I did, he understood that it should look better. Ultimately we had more tile so it was fine, and I believe the tiler came back and broke open the tiles, added that tiny line of tile, and I didn’t get charged for the labor. Now if we had to buy more tile for it, I think that I would have asked that they split the cost with me because while it wasn’t specified that this line not look like that, it also seems like a no brainer that they would. If I were a real stickler I’m sure I could have gotten them to pay for the broken/replaced tile but I’m not, so I didn’t. It felt reasonable to me to just fix it.
My Master Bedroom Wallpaper:
When first installed, it looked great. I had a professional painter prep/skim coat the wall months before for wallpaper and a VERY professional wallpaperer install it. All was good.
Until one day it started doing this:
It looked like garbage. Again, this was for me and I was the client but had I been the designer, I have no idea what I would have done. So much money wasted:
Cost of custom wallpaper $1200
Glue-ing/trying to fix – $300 (he gave me a deal because he felt bad)
Stripping/repainting – $800 (it took days since it had been glued).
So. THAT’S fun. The wallpaper installer said it wasn’t his application. He said it was either that the paper was too thick or the walls weren’t cured (they had been skim-coated and painted months before). I called Astek (who made the paper) about the paper and they said that it wasn’t the papers fault, and I spoke to my painter and he said it definitely should have cured by then. The mystery factor is that at the time we didn’t have that good of AC (replaced now) and it was in a room that got hard afternoon light. So it could have been a heat issue. Regardless, if I had hired a designer, I would have been looking for someone to to help fix the problem. I’m not one that looks for fault, but yes, you’d also want to find out who did what wrong and how this could have been prevented. But, ultimately, since there was no way to find out why this happened, the cost would have fallen on the client.
Next up is the built-in bench mishap from Sara Sugarman’s Nursery Makeover.
When we first proposed a bench, we feared it would be expensive but I knew it was the right thing to do. Ginny did some drawings and we received a quote from a dude that we had recently hired to do a cheaper project and he did a fine job. Since Sara lives in a rental she didn’t want to spend $1500 on a built-in (my estimate from a good cabinet dude). We told her she had two options if she wanted a built-in: hire a risky dude for $600 or the real deal for $1500. She chose the risky, less-experienced dude.
What he did was fine but not awesome (right photo). He wasn’t finished yet, but I could tell up close that it wasn’t up to par and Sara was pretty unsatisfied as well. Furthermore I thought that the design of the bench was going to be flush with the closet – so that it would be deeper. This was a mis-communication between Ginny and I, as she didn’t know that was my expectation and I didn’t catch it when I approved the drawing. Before our dude could spend more time on the bench, we told him to stop and that I’d pay him for the labor/materials up until that point which was $300. I wasn’t billing my time on this project anyway (it was a “for press and portfolio” only) and I was billing Ginny at a friends and family rate anyway so we didn’t feel bad about that. I believe we ended up splitting the $300 with Sara. Had I billed my time I would have not taken it off because I told her it was a risk and she went with it anyway. If I has said, “this guy is awesome, trust me!!” then I would have felt terrible and probably would have helped cover more of the cost.
Meanwhile she ended up hiring our expensive guy who charged $1500 but it’s pretty impeccable and the drawers function beautifully.
3. Another kind of mistake is the “Trust me it will look good but it looks really bad” mistake.
I can’t believe I’m putting this on the internet. Remember the Captain America Sofa (below)? This was a sofa that we bought for The Fig House from the thrift store for $100. We (I) had the (not so) genius idea of upholstering it in outdoor fabric with outdoor foam to live mostly outdoors (we needed some pieces out there). I chose all the fabric for 14 pieces on one day and it was a shit show. I basically just tagged each piece with a swatch of fabric and a safety pin. This one was a huge piece and, without boring you with the details, I clearly messed up and upholstered it in a hideous fabric, or two. And then the skirt … dear god.
It was kinda perfect for our circus themed party, but it was hideous for any other occassion ever. When we had all the furniture delivered we unwrapped this and my face went white followed quickly by a whelp, that sucks. Steve, the client looked at me with a “Henderson? Is this a joke?” look on his face and we all started laughing. I ended up taking the cost of the sofa, fabric, and upholstery off of the invoice – losing around $1200. He never approved this design (hell, I don’t think I even did) and everything that was wrong with it was my fault, so I felt the most reasonable thing to do is cover the costs and try to sell it.
I think the key here is “reasonable.” Also I couldn’t sell that thing for the life of me (shocking) and ended up donating it to a thrift store for a write off. I lost $1200 at least (I probably didn’t take in the cost of delivery/pickup, etc).
This next one happened very recently. We have a new client who moved into a house with these curtains already up. They wanted them to be gray but the size and fabric was fine, so they asked us to look into dying.
While we have dyed some things before, we had never for a client and not this much. This felt rather risky to Ginny which she vocalized, but they wanted to proceed. We found a place in Orange County that does this and all but guaranteed us that there would be no issues, but we didn’t get that guarantee in writing.
We took them down there and two weeks later picked them up and had them reinstalled:
As you can see there was shrinkage – a lot. And the fabric, which we realized was actually really cheap, was permanently gauzy and wrinkly in a way that didn’t fit the style of the house and ruined the pleating. They were totally ruined. Now, thank god they hadn’t purchased them and that they came with the house, but they are still bummed. We are now working with them to replace the curtains, but since it was out of our control and we advised against, the risk was theirs to take. If we had to do it again, we would get in writing that there would absolutely be no shrinkage and have gotten a sample of one first – although if one got ruined then I’m not sure how we would have fixed that one as we wouldn’t have been able to match the fabric so well, etc. The client was bummed but is grateful that I’m wielding my blog power to help get them replaced at a deep discount (thank you, Decorview).
Next up? The tale of the “off” paint color.
When we were sampling colors for The Lorey’s living room, we fell in love with a particular paint color. They gave us a sample card with the paint on it and the client chose this one below. But after the room was painted, it looked like a different color – it looked super blue. At first, I cringed thinking that it was our fault. Colors are tricky and we knew that they didn’t want the room to go too blue, but the room looked blue. I thought that we hadn’t obsessed about it enough and that there were more undertones that were blue that we missed.
Then we put the sample against the wall and they are actually very different in tone – in other words, the sample was off. You can see it in the picture on the left – the sample is much warmer than the wall color its in front of. In a way it was the paint company’s fault, but obviously I couldn’t make them pay for the labor to fix it. Ultimately we took off a couple hours of design time (saving them around $350) and they paid the $350 to have it repainted (our painter gave them a good deal since he had JUST painted it). They are reasonable people, as our we, so we both chipped in to fix the mistake as neither of us were to blame.
One last one (as this just happened). We received a faucet for a kitchen install super damaged.
Obviously not our fault, but there were ramifications. The plumber was booked to install the day it arrived, which meant that he couldn’t do his job. He ended up not charging us (thank god) because he is a lovely, reasonable person, but he was bummed. Then it took Ginny 1.5 hours to track down and order a new, undamaged faucet (the company was super non-responsive and we had to follow up like 10 times). This stuff just happens and when mistakes are made, often it takes time to fix them and if the mistake isn’t ours then we bill that time regardless. It’s a bummer for the client, but unless they want to rectify it themselves then we have to bill that time.
As you can see, every single mistake is different and the outcome is never that clear. What is clear to me is a few things:
1. When you hire artists, you get something unique and beautiful just for you – something they’ve never done before. Therefore, no matter how much experience they have, there will be tweaks, returns, and style disagreements. This can take some time, and if you are being billed hourly, then time is money. But hiring a generic designer that shops for everyone online and takes no risks gets you a generic home.
2. Functional mistakes should be admitted to and rectified with as little cost to the client as possible. This is why if you are a budding designer you should absolutely try to work for a larger designer first so you can make and watch mistakes before you are the one paying for them. These mistakes happen and they aren’t the end of the world, but it’s your job to admit to them and fix them (and then you certainly won’t make that mistake again).
3. Work extremely closely with your contractor or architect at all times. Show them every single spec for every door, faucet, and pedestal sink before you order them and then both of you check them in when they arrive immediately to make sure you didn’t accidentally get the left facing tub instead of the right and then cause weeks in delay. This is where you catch the problems that could turn into mistakes. Congruently bring in the homeowner as much as possible to get them to sign off on everything.
4. Leave a paper trail and get everything you can in writing. Especially if you are doing something that you haven’t done before, admit that and then ask and receive every answer via email. Don’t let your ego get in the way and then make a mistake because you wanted them to know you could handle it.
5. Be transparent. This is a general life rule of mine, but the more honest and transparent you are the fewer bad positions you’ll be in in life.
6. Be reasonable and use common sense – for BOTH parties. I know that legally there might be times when you don’t have to cover a cost and legally times when you do, but like I said, designing a house is extremely nuanced be fluid and flexible throughout the whole process.
When you hire someone, you should expect a level of professionalism, but you should not expect perfection. Mistakes will be made. Sometimes your instincts are wrong, or your eye is off and you maybe got overly excited about that custom mural of Biff from Back To The Future in your client’s den and maybe it should come down.
I’ve never had bad clients that have ok’d something then changed their mind and expected me to cover the cost of it, but I have heard of this happening. Many designers have the clients pay for everything directly or they have them sign a contract per purchase – so if you are a designer and are worried about that, then that is a good option for you. Also get insurance, on the bad chance that something huge has to be torn out that is deemed to be your fault, it’s always good to have insurance to cover that.
Ok, fellow designers, now its your turn. Do you agree with me? Do you think I’m dead wrong? I know there are some horror stories from clients and even more advice and potentially differing opinions from designers, and I’d honestly love to hear them. I’m not saying this is THE LAW, nor am I saying that we as designers should just roll over, take it, and lose money. A lot of it also depends on how much you value your relationships with your clients and if word of mouth is important to your business.
And if you have been on the client side and worked with a designer who has made mistakes let me know. How did they deal with it and did you feel that it was fair?
Weigh in, folks….
*Liked this post? Well here are some design mistakes you can avoid: My Biggest Design Regrets – and What You Can Learn From Them, Design Mistake: Anything “Antiqued” or “Faux Old”, Design Mistake: Painting a Small or Dark Room White, Design Mistake: The Generic Sofa, Design Mistake: The “Too Small Rug”.