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One bad decision pays for the designerTrue Colour Expert

Don’t Hire a Designer The Same Way You Buy Oranges

By 01/19/2016February 21st, 201731 Comments


The other day, my design assistant, Tricia, received an email from one of my readers:

“We found a designer who charges $100 per hour. If Maria can match that rate, we will go with her.”

My rates are a lot higher than that, with different price points for consulting work and decorating work. I don’t post them online because they’re subject to change, but if you want to know what they are, email Tricia here. Suffice to say, they don’t compete with $100/hour. And, please know, this is not a solicitation for those, I am very busy (and grateful to be), this post is about something else, read on . .

Hiring a designer is not the same as going to the store for oranges: you can’t just hold up two and pick one based on the best price. Oranges, on the other hand, are a commodity. Here’s the definition:

Commodity: A product that is generic and has the same basic value as all similar items.

I don’t know a single designer who’d define themselves on those terms, so I hope none of us are marketing our services (or looking to hire a designer) based on price. Professionals who sell a service vary widely in price depending on their experience and the value they provide.

The value that I provide in just 1 or 2 hours (depending on the client’s dilemma) is insane. I have saved my clients literally hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars in bad colour decisions.

Within minutes, I can tell someone exactly what colour their house should be, inside or out. All the possible colours instantly go through my head as I consider them and eliminate them in a flash.

Why? Because I have 20,000 hours of consulting in my head.

When I was new, it certainly wasn’t that way.

Hourly consulting is just one very small piece of my business model. I do it because I love talking to my readers AND it keeps me on the pulse of what’s happening with colour. For example, in 2012 when a client asked me to show her a colour that was more mint green than the yellow greens I was showing her, I came home and wrote a post about it.

More mint green???

Not since the 80s, right? But it had started appearing in fashion, and since we’ve been decorating with avocado green since about 2002, there’s no surprise that the consumer would start to crave a different green.


Source: Staircase | Bedroom

Recently, a client hired me because she had been working with another designer whose advice didn’t seem quite right. She had started painting, but wasn’t feeling like she was on the right track, so she called me to help.

When I arrived in her home, she showed me a clipping from a magazine she had kept for 10 years—the colours in it where similar to these (above). She loved yellows and apricot shades.

On the advice of the last designer, she’d already painted her bedroom yellow with a charcoal accent wall (below). She had also purchased a pair of charcoal curtains to coordinate with the accent wall.




My client’s existing bedding was blue and orange, so I think you know where I’m going with this. She’d just wasted about $130 on paint and curtain panels that didn’t coordinate with the bedding. I’m not even including the labor cost to paint the walls.

Also existing in the space: a chair that was almost identical to the one in her inspiration picture, a cognac sofa, an espresso bookshelf and small cabinet, apricot-coloured chairs, and a fireplace surround from the Tuscan Brown trend.


Upon seeing my client’s fir floors, the previous designer told her to replace them with espresso hardwood. Then she told her to buy espresso curtains to repeat the colour of her two pieces of espresso furniture. And the fireplace surround? The designer told her to paint it charcoal.


Do you see any charcoal in my client’s existing colour scheme, or in the inspiration images?


And I’ve never even heard of anyone choosing curtains to relate to wood finishes. Your drapery should relate to your soft furnishings and fabrics. The place to look for inspiration is most definitely not your case goods.

During my consultation with her, I did not even mention the fir flooring until she brought it up because I immediately saw that it was already perfect for the colours she wanted. The other designer’s suggestion of espresso hardwood would’ve immediately dated the space and taken my client away from the look she wanted.

I chose two area rugs she could order to see which one worked better. Both related to the colours in her furniture. Then I suggested different curtains that related to the colour in the area rug, and showed her a tutorial online where she could chalk paint her fireplace in the same white that related to her existing woodwork.

So, let’s add it all up:

Consultation with the first designer: $150 (much cheaper than me)

Cost of implementing the first designer’s suggestions, including new flooring and bad colour choices that instantly dated the space and would’ve made resale difficult: $9130

Furniture and accessories that she would’ve needed to buy to make all those bad colour decisions make sense: $6000

That’s a grand total of over $15,000! For a room she wouldn’t have loved. And we haven’t even talked about the kitchen renovation and what that advice looked like!!

For contrast: the one consultation with me, plus the new purchases to pull together her living room and chalk paint to update her fireplace tile, came to less than $5500.

For less than half the price, my client now has exactly the look she’s been envisioning and dreaming about since she tore a page from a magazine 10 years and said to herself, One day.

Happiness really can be less expensive than you think.

Now just to be clear, is every designer who charges a lot less going to be wrong and make bad suggestions? Of course not. If you know a designer who’s fabulous and also a bargain, snap him/her up ASAP.


But to ask your designer if she’ll put her rates on sale like oranges, well, you deserve to know exactly what you’re going to get for the money you spend. Because I might have a sale on my e-books occasionally, but my rates don’t go on sale (unless you’re my neighbour).

Years ago, I wrote about a renovation that a friend wanted to plan with a well-known interior designer in Vancouver. This designer’s first consultation fee was $750 and her husband balked at the price, so they ended up going a different way. In the end, she said their renovation cost almost twice as much as it should have (over $1 million), and she still didn’t have the look she knew she could’ve had if she’d hired the original designer.

In my Specify Colour with Confidence™ course in San Francisco last fall, Terreeia took a few short clips of me talking about this very same thing. My course is about so much more than just “How to Distinguish the 9 Neutral Undertones in the World” or “How to Combine Clean and Dirty Colours.” I am constantly talking about how to pull a room together. Because you cannot be a colour consultant without knowing how to do that.

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For mobile users go here to watch the video.

If you watch this video, first, to be clear, when I’m talking about dramatic colours, what I mean is varying shades of charcoal. And the designer whose trying to make money by simply charging for colours she posted on her blog. I’m guessing that strategy is not a big money maker, but the beauty of the online world today is you can try anything you want. If it doesn’t work, you pull it and try something else.

On Day 3 of my Specify Colour with Confidence™ course, I walk you through my entire business model, as well as show you how to choose colours for your clients online. Whether you ever conduct consultations with your clients the way I do is beside the point, because you’re certainly sourcing most of the items you need online today more than ever!

Now that we can have a store inside our laptop, instead of all the traditional overhead of a real bricks-and-mortar location, there are so many different ways designers can make money. But you need to be in a course, networking with other like-minded individuals and listening to a conversation about the very thing you’d like to do.

There isn’t another course out there that will teach you more about specifying colour (for everything including paint for walls) and decorating than this three-day course!

Dallas, we will be at the Hackberry Creek Country Club. We are also at a Country Club in Charlotte (right before High Point Market), that’s where the natural light seems to be and to teach this course, we follow the light!

Register here for my courses if you want to transform the way you see colour!

2 pins


  • tara dillard says:

    Water finds its own level, you get what you pay for……

    Most surprising fact of my 30 year garden design career, having many clients for 30 years as they move local/out-of-state, buy a lake house, hire me for their grown children, give me as a gift to a friend, divorce and I get both new homes, & etc.

    I know you are the same Maria. It is the value we add.

    Ironically, did it last year for myself, selling my home, and Beloved’s 2 homes, each within 24 hrs of listing, 2 at full value, 1 above full value, each staged inside/outside.

    More than helping myself, each sale helped their surrounding neighborhood, raising values within radius.

    In addition to the above, my work reduces maintenance expense outside, and monthly HVAC bills.

    Of course there is no price for the value of living in a realm of beauty, joy, grace.

    Garden & Be Well, XOT

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    Some great examples of why you’re worth your weight in gold.

  • Darlene says:

    Great post, Maria! My business is not yet as big as yours but I feel I have value in my years of experience and confidence in my workmanship.

  • Keti Abazi says:

    I really like your analology Maria and may even use it when people call price shopping, if it’s okay with you. 🙂
    What I don’t get is the client’s really bad negotiation skills…If you are set on $100 for a design consultation (it means your choice is price driven) then why do you want me to price match? Just go with the $100 designer.

    People are funny sometimes…

    • Stacy says:

      I do it all the time on CL ads; the reason is because she wants Maria, and she also wants a deal 🙂 I’m a negotiator, I learned it from my dad whether it be tactful is besides the point. If someone wants something, he/she will buy it. If someone wants to make a deal, he/she will. She may have also done this prior to going to her husband! Plus, when you’re behind a computer it’s much easier to say things you wouldn’t face to face. Just my 2 cents.

  • Norma says:

    I love your post Maria. People are very interesting… and sometimes hard to believe! I never negotiate my rate anymore either. I agree that you get what you pay for! And you are always worth every penny!

  • Nancy says:

    You explained that beautifully.
    Let’s be truthful most of us have budgets.
    So of course we we would think that comparing the cost per hour would be the way to get bids.
    Not understanding that we might not be saving money by doing it that way .
    But thank you for helping us understand how to make the wisest choice for our money 🙂
    Hopefully they will read your blog before they hire.

  • Ann says:

    It’s sad to hear she would have spent thousands on a look that was trendy with a designer that didn’t listen to her client. I’m thinking this designer gives the same advice over and over to each client and her houses are all clones of each other with subtle variations. It’s fabulous you were able to step in and give her the look she will love that will outlast any trend! Good for you, Maria! : ) I wish I was your neighbor LoL!

  • diane says:

    I recently has a designer to my home that charged $200 an hour for services. After two hours and loving the suggestions that were made I was ready to get on board. However, after receiving the bill, there was also a contract attached. I was a bit skeptical about that as I had never had to sign a contract before with other consultations. Also, I was not given any of the advice such as paint, etc. on paper. Is that a usual procedure for designers to use?

    • Maria Killam says:

      Not that I’m aware of, but she should have communicated how she worked so that you weren’t surprised. Asking for money can be hard for people and everyone does it a little differently.
      Whenever a designer complains that their client was upset about a bill they received, communication is usually missing.

      • Diane says:

        Thanks so much for your response Maria! The bill didn’t surprise me as I knew up front what the hourly fee would be. I was just surprised I had to sign a contract before I could get the design plan . Oh well…live and learn! Again, thank you Maria!

        • If I’m reading this correctly, you’re saying that a designer came and did a two hour paid consultation with you, offering a few suggestions while she was there and then offered you a contract with which to proceed in working with them? That’s exactly how working with a designer works typically. I’ve been designing for twenty-three years, both on the East and West Coasts of the United States and yes, most designers require an LOA (letter of agreement) or design contract in order to enter into a working relationship beyond your first few hours of consultation. This protects you by ensuring the work you desire gets done and protects the designer by you signing that you agree to pay for her services. It’s a legally binding contract.

          If her services were to produce plans during your consultation, then this agreement would not be needed, but most designers do not produce plans during an initial consultation. These typically take far more time than that consult allows.

          As designers, that initial consult is like our audition and, should you like us and be happy with our work, the loa is like your offer to hire us. It shouldn’t be scary, unless she vowed to offer you the services during that two hours. If you were happy with her, I’d call her back because, chances are you’ll be happy with the outcome.

          • Maria Killam says:

            Hi Michelle, I misunderstood the question, after a single consult it would be odd to receive a contract but if someone was taking on a project like you’re describing then yes a contract makes sense.
            Thanks for clarifying!

          • Diane says:

            Thanks so much for the clarification, I truly appreciate it! I wish the designer would have explained it to me before we met rather than in a letter after the bill was sent to me.
            Again, thanks Michelle!

          • Diane says:

            Also….I thought I would have had more of a plan on paper, something more concrete for the amount of money I paid.

          • mrsben says:

            @ Michelle or Maria: Re payment for a Designer’s services. Understandably there would be a contract involved, however once a plan is initiated and agreed upon is there a schedule of payment? i.e.: Deposit, milestone payments, final balance owing. Similar to that which many renovation contractors use. Thank you. -Brenda-

  • Jessie says:

    I read all your articles and I love how assertive you are in your knowledge and advice.

  • StagerLinda says:

    Maria, I know you are a vegetarian but this post is ‘meaty’. You have included so much good stuff! Of course, those of us with education, experience and honed skills wholeheartedly agree with your words on charging what you are worth. I stopped answering the “tell us what you think” calls years ago. I was the first stager in Raleigh and now I bet there are a thousand. I can’t compete with the newbies pricing. (But I do get a lot of work from houses that don’t sell after another stager has been there.) I digress…Thanks for this delicious post! XX

  • Barb says:

    I had a recent experience with a local interior designer which left me scratching my head a little. I knew her hourly rate & I was fine with that. After a two hour consultation all I had was how to place the furniture differently, a colour for an accent wall (I provided all the necessary fan decks of paint colours) & no direction where to shop for replacement items. She went slightly over her 2hours so billed me accordingly, fair enough – but she showed up 15 minutes late for the appointment. I own my own business & I have no problem paying for expert advice but in my opinion this extra billing was petty & unprofessional.

  • Ginger says:


    Thanks for this blog! I’m a wedding photographer in Kansas City and would like to reference this blog and link to it as it applies to my industry. Is that ok?

    Thanks for all of your consistent blogging!


  • Carol says:

    Do you still have plans of offering a two day colour course for
    home owners that aren’t professionals??

  • mrsben says:

    Excellent article Maria! -Brenda-

  • Betsy OShea says:

    Excellent points here. Yes a color consultant must have the ability to pull a room together not just master undertones or what is the best wall color. One other thing I would add: by charging just $200 for a consultation makes a designer look too cheap. It’s like they’re afraid to ask for a higher fee or worse, they aren’t very experienced and that’s reflected in the meager fee!!

    • Carmen says:

      I don’t think so. I don’t pay $200/hour for any service; I think it’s way too much because you don’t know whether it’s good value until you’ve done it. For any other service – solicitor, landscape gardener, architect etc, you get a free initial consultation. From that, you get a gut feel about whether to proceed or not. Same with a designer, regardless of their reputation.

  • Stacy says:

    I am an online client and Maria has SAVED me, even though I’ve had to do some things backwards like choose paint first for reasons beyond explanation now. She has helped me choose colors and put together a decor “plan,” which has taken over 6 years to implement project by project but it’s slowly coming together and visitors always pay compliments. She did ask me what my favorite color was and I was stumped after being single for a decade (it was pink), but I’ve since picked blue since our initial raspberry/yellow scheme and kept my love of vintage finds in the mix. She also gave me some long=term suggestions, which we have implemented. Cost $250, worth every penny as she laid it out over an hour, with a concrete answer for everything. It made painting a breeze.

    I also just hired her for my kitchen cabinets color and countertop, and she confirmed what I knew I should do. It actually saved me about $1000 in countertop material because I really wanted the London Gray, which was more expensive. Cost $100.

    In addition, I hired another designer who gave us some layout options should we do major construction and helped push me in the direction Maria had us going. She also picked carpet color and kept me motivated and encouraged during this drawn out process. The layouts were costly, BUT her fee was covered when she directed me to a carpet dealer that saved us $1500.

    I RE=READ all of Maria’s posts before making choices on hard finishes because I so want to LOVE every finish and it seems redundant to replace what I had with something similar but updated (like white counters for example). But, too much time is dangerous for a homeowner and we go shopping and we get distracted by all the pretty tiles, cabinets, backslashes, flooring, etc. That suddenly the contractors are waiting on me even though I had an inspiration photo the whole time and suddenly become wishy washy when it comes time to decide. So, thank you Maria, I should have some photos in about a year or two haha
    Kindly, Stacy
    For the record, I questioned her one final time about her countertop selection before going with her choice and my hubby’s. Because the pull of want vs. “should get” is so strong 🙂

  • Bravo, wonderful post. I too charge a high fee, but my clients understand that.

    Because I’ve been in the business full time for over 8 years, I’m also more confident, and much quicker, so clients really do get their monies worth. I know you are too – congrats for having the confidence to say this!

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