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Dos and Don’ts for Getting Free Advice from Your Designer Friend

By 01/30/2018March 29th, 201847 Comments

Dos and Don’ts for Getting Free Advice from Your Designer Friend

Designers often get upset that the outcome of giving free advice to friends and family does not go well. They end up feeling used, and after spending all that time sharing their expertise, their advice sometimes isn’t even taken anyway. Do you or Don’t you want free advice from your designer friend?

The problem with free advice from your designer friend is that people rarely listen to it. When people are paying me, they take notes. When they’re not paying me, they often treat my advice like they are adding it to a poll they are doing with everyone, including their dog, their aunt or their best friend.

My sisters pretty much listen to my advice. They know better. They know that if they don’t follow my advice, their house will not be as awesome as it otherwise could have been.

When my sister Lea proudly showed me the Tiffany lamp she had ordered on-line at first I thought ‘Wait, you didn’t ask me. . . ‘ and then I realized, my sister has this Bohemian style and she doesn’t need my advice for every little thing, especially because I would have said no to the lamp. But it suits her. This is a glimpse of her kitchen we worked on 3 years ago, and thanks to me, the finishes coordinate.

My sisters know how important a fun blog post is for me so when it came time to take these photos, Lea was  the perfect assistant as we ran around moving everything around to get the perfect shot. I was grateful.

Related post: My Sisters New Kitchen, Surprise it’s not White or Subway Tile!

I’ve helped my sister Elizabeth with her house many times, here, here and here. Many of her decorating projects we work on together just because it’s fun and we’re hanging out anyway. And she goes out of her way to reciprocate.

Best way to handle it

Whenever people ask me the best way to handle it when friends and family ask for free advice from your designer friend I respond with “Working with friends and family is hard, I don’t think there is a magical, standard way to handle it.”

There are some designers who have so many friends they would go broke if they helped everyone for free or with a big discounted rate. So they simply have a policy called “I don’t do design work for friends”. If that works for you, great! But it doesn’t work for everyone.

Doctors and Lawyers go through this as well, it’s no different. Anytime you can help someone by just talking (and not actually physically having to DO SOMETHING) you’ll get asked. That’s just the way it is.

If your brother was a painter and you were building a house, you probably wouldn’t expect him to paint your entire house for free. You might expect a discount, but you wouldn’t expect him to do it for nothing. This is because people understand labour.

Advice is trickier. Notice this advice is also free, but for the sake of your relationships, you might want to listen.

So here’s my best advice for getting free help from your designer friend:

DO the research yourself. HELP me help you!

If  someone sends me a note that goes like this “Maria, can you recommend a chair for my living room?”

Serena & Lily

For me to help you, I now need to ask for measurements, a photo, and I need to go online and find one. This takes me away from my paying clients.

My advice is, make it as painless as possible.

Find five chairs that fit your requirements, make sure they are the right size, etc. Basically, do the best you can.  Then it’s easy for me to just respond with “Go with chair number four”, or if none of them will work, now I know the size, the style you are considering, and I might just have a recommendation I can make from the top of my head.

And it makes me feel better that you’ve done some legwork at your end too instead of just looking for me to do everything.

When you ask me for colour advice that you’re sure will take no time at all, this is often true. But it’s taken me 20 years and 20,000 hours to be able to take one look at your house and tell you what colour it should be.

My favourite line was from my good friend Liz years ago when a client balked at her design fee and asked how long it would take, she responded “17 years and as long as it takes me”. 

When asking your designer friends for their advice, be mindful that this is their intellectual property. This is how we make a living. It’s worth money when we respond with advice that saves you thousands of dollars or simply saves you from having to live with a mistake you’ve just installed for as long as you live in that house.

Related post: How to Sell Interior Design

DON’T take design advice without offering something in return

If you have a designer friend whose advice you need, treat it like a bartering system. Find out what you can do for them to reciprocate. Then you’ll still end up friends.


I have one neighbour who I have helped twice. Not only does she follow my advice, she immediately makes herself available when it’s convenient for me AND I have been able to turn her project into a blog post which in turn helps my business. In addition to that, she always shows up with flowers or chocolates and lots of appreciation. This is someone whom I am delighted to help, I feel appreciated and I get something out of it too. It’s a win-win for both of us.

Many years ago, I offered a neighbour a ‘friends and family bargain rate’ to come to her house and help her with layout and sourcing some new pieces.  Since I had cut my rates by 1/3,  I asked to be paid in cash. She pretended she hadn’t read that request and proceeded to write me a check. Then she sent me emails for weeks afterward, like the one hour she paid for covered all that extra time (It did not). So I just ended up feeling used and as I didn’t want to feel like that, the next time she sent me a note asking when I could drop by again, well, it just so happened that I was booked solid.

DON’T say: Next time you’re shopping and you see a lamp that might work for that corner in my living room, let me know.

Serena & Lily

When I’m sourcing for a client, I’m single focused on their project. If I’m online looking for a blue ottoman,  I’m trying to find that ottoman as fast as I can so I can source the next item on my list. I don’t have five projects (or your lamp) in my head as I’m looking for that blue ottoman. That would considerably slow me down.

Again. The fact that I can spot which lamp works in your living room even if I am out shopping and bump right into it, still took me years of practicing my craft to be able to notice.


That’s still worth money. Or wine, or flowers. Or dinner. Something.

DO make a habit of emailing over texting

Texting outside of  business hours can be intrusive. I have clients who occassionally text me but it’s rare and when they do it’s appropriate. I don’t mind then.

However, texting is instant. It immediately makes you feel like you have to respond right away no matter what time of day you receive it.

Now that texting is so common, designers are constantly asking for advice on how to handle the texts they get from their clients. Especially if you have a lot of projects on the go, it is difficult to keep track.

But as designers, we also need to set boundaries and be responsible for how we handle client communication.

Your clients aren’t actually TRYING to take advantage of you. They are simply filling the space that YOU have given them.

Did you get that previous sentence? Read it again to let it really sink in.

And then, simply ask your clients to send you emails with their questions so it’s easier to keep track of billing and let them know you will respond during business hours.

Managing relationships is a big part of a designers job whether it’s with our paying clients or our friends and family.

There’s no such thing as free advice from your designer friend.

There’s no such thing as free advice from your designer friend. Nothing is free about it, it costs somebody something. When you’re asking a professional for their advice, be considerate and thoughtful and offer some kind of reciprocity even if it’s small. A card or a cupcake goes a long way to maintaining your friendship and good relations because it shows that you respect the givers time.

If you are a new designer and you are doing a lot of free work because you are building your experience, it’s harder to know when to say no. In the beginning of my design career, faux finishing was really big, a friend of mine loved what I had done with my apartment so much, she asked if I’d faux finish her friends living room.

On a Saturday, I arrived at the apartment (she wasn’t home) faux finished her walls and left. For free. In the beginning this worked for me, but if you are a designer who is doing so much free work that it starts taking you away from your paying clients, it’s better to set boundaries while you can still be graceful instead of waiting until you are pushed to the limit.

Over to you my lovelies! If you’re a designer, how do you like to be treated if you’re giving free advice, or If you’ve been on the receiving end of free advice from your designer friend and how have you reciprocated?  We are all on both sides at some point!


We have found our New York space for April 24 – 26th! It’s the Allegria Hotel on Long Island!

New York and Nashville will be the first to sell out so register now if you want to attend in those locations this Spring! The early bird rate will end February 13, 2018! Register here.


Related post:

Danger: Free Advice will Sabotage your Expensive Renovation




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  • irene fraser says:

    great post Maria, I can totally relate to it. I don’t do work for friends at all and I don’t discount. Boundaries are clearly set

  • Nancy says:

    Wow that blog resonated with me
    Thank you great advice .
    I am not sure people realize the thought and the time that goes in to design .
    Even if it’s a small bathroom .
    Making sure the products the colors all go together .
    How much time just finding that right floor : the right everything .
    It can take hours .
    Unless you do it I wonder if they get it .
    Thank you appreciate all your wisdom !!
    i Always learn and enjoy your Blogs Nancy

  • Lisa H Mende says:

    Haha! I had to laugh when I saw this post! Well written and so precise! Kuddos!!!

  • All I can say is GOD BLESS YOU!!!!

  • Korina Trew says:

    I am remodeling my kitchen. Found a designer who I like and her style suits what I am trying to do. She is coming in one week for a 2 hour consult and we will go from there. I am excited and I don’t want to step on her toes so this was a great blog post. I am hoping I can afford to have to do the layout, I’ve never hired an interior decorator or designer or remodeled. I have had a few contractors come and I don’t know if this is common but they are HORRIBLE with returning messages. I was thinking maybe she would have contractors that she works with, terrified I will end up super frustrated. Guess I kind of want her to help coordinate the whole thing, is that common?

  • Liz says:

    I’m not a designer and I wouldn’t think of asking for free advice, so the only comment I have about this very good article is….I LOVE your sister Lea’s Moroccan tile backsplash! She’s a Bohemian after my own heart, doing a curvy version of subway tile. 🙂

  • Another excellent post Maria! I think therapists go through this, too. One of my close friends, a therapist, and I have had this conversation a few times. Our conclusion is that it is more difficult for people to value intangible products (our decades worth of research, application and knowledge), compared to tangible products.

    Giving free advice, in my experience, has been treated much the way you mentioned above, it falls in line with polling the dog?. The other quandary with giving free advice is that people don’t give credit when credit is due. On the flip side, they will give credit when they only partially take your advice, which is almost always a recipe for design disaster!

  • Gery S. says:

    I just did a free photo shoot for my personal trainer so that he can get his business off the ground. He has helped me in immeasurable ways, so it is a gift of love and gratitude. I agree with the importance of good boundaries. It is best not to do anything that would build resentment and harm a relationship. Thank you for illustrating that so well.

  • Debra says:

    I love your blog and this post really resonated with me. I am not a design professional, just a design enthusiast! I am, however, a dentist and this is an issue that comes up a lot for me, ie *friends, family, other dentists* needing treatment and how to fairly *discount*. In addition we do a fair bit of pro bono treatment. You are so right that just a small token of appreciation such as a thank you card goes a long way! Especially when I write off thousands of dollars but still have to pay the bills and my staff! Even when its pro bono I’d like to think that person could afford a dollar card and say thanks but you’d be surprised at how that doesn’t generally happen! In that case I just have to tell myself, oh well, it was the right thing to do. I think it makes me much more aware of using someone else’s time in that way! Thanks for a great post!

  • anne says:

    i’m a writer. it’s the same, same. “can you help my friend with her speech?” “can you help me with this powerpoint?” “why are you charging for a phone consultation?” i (try not to) do work for free or for friends or family. it’s never appreciated the way paid work is appreciated. i don’t even get credit. they think you just spin a yarn and it’s easy. well it’s taken years and years and hours and hours to make it look easy. plus, there’s a little thing called…talent, which has value. i totally agree with this post. “free” is never “free” when it takes something out of me! or to quote my very wise handy man: “trabajo is trabajo.”

  • Maria,
    What a great post – this is a common dilemma for those of us in the design business. It’s hard when you want to be helpful where you can, but it’s easy to be taken advantage of (without the other person even realizing she is doing that)! I’m better at handling this than I used to be, but sometimes get caught by surprise. It’s better now that I have other people in my area that I’ve trained, so I can simply refer to one of them and know the person will get good advice but I won’t be in the middle of it. I like your suggestion about the free advice – having them send 3 options so you can answer quickly without having to do the research is a great idea.

    So great spending time with you at KBIS earlier this month! I’m actually back in Florida right now on working on a beach house design. Take care!


  • Alisa says:

    Great subject Maria. My dad, who is an accountant, gave me some great advice when I started my business. He suggested that you either charge your full rate or you do it for free. If the friend or family member is close enough and you want to do it for free, then they have to understand that paying clients come first and their project might take a little bit longer. If they’re not a close friend then you charge them the full rate.

    As with anything in any business it has to start with a direct clear conversation upfront about expectations. I usually begin these conversations by saying something like “I always start projects, even very small ones, by having my clients sign a letter of agreement so there are no surprises for either of us.”

    • Kendal Hauck says:

      Yes, that was great advice! “Begin as you intend to go on” is a great motto for business transactions and for life.

  • In lieu of a cup of coffee or lunch, I prefer that the recipient of my advice takes ten minutes of time to endorse my business on LInkedIn, write a thoughtful testimonial using their first and last name for my website, buy my book on Amazon, and/or engage with me online. My heart says yes but my calendar says no. [ I’m a professional organizer; solopreneur ]
    ・ ・ ・

    • Maria Killam says:

      Love that!! What a great idea and I’m so happy that you included it in a comment in this post, it makes this post so much more valuable! Thanks again! x Maria

    • Great idea Geralin. I just might go back to some family members and ask them to do one of your ideas.

  • I loved this blog Maria! The phrase, “Can I just pick your brain for a minute…” is one I often hear. I am a huge advocate for keeping a good work/life balance. As such, I decided to change things with my business when it comes to calls/texts. I recently got an app from Shaw Business where it allows me to have 1 cell phone with 2 numbers. My office number is listed on my website. If someone calls when I’m out of the office, I can choose to answer it on my cell phone. Here’s the best thing: this phone number does not accept text messages. It acts as a landline! I do have a personal phone number and I only give that out to my full design renovation clients. If I have a client for a Design Work Session, I don’t give out my personal cell phone number. It has really helped with the, “Do you think this would look great in my space…” texts I used to get.

  • Oh my goodness friend….how timely is your post? It comes at a time when I am going through this…yet, AGAIN… The few times I have found myself in this situation, I swear to myself I will not let it happen again. But then somehow, down the road, I seem to forget and let a friend ask me a question- next thing you know I’m in the middle of their project, and then they take my advice for exactly as much as they paid for it. Zero. Like you said…they group it in a poll with their dog, neighbor, etc. And then I feel like a fool. THANK YOU for you post.

  • Judith Graffeo says:

    My husband is a contractor who also owns a plumbing company. It’s amazing just how many people work “one question” into a conversation. Bartering is great and working for friends can be tricky bc then you might hear how expensive he is. No one considers insurance on the worker, on the truck, payroll, etc. just to get there. It’s usualy a no win. But if you are in some type of service industry it’s all the same!

    Thank you!

    Judith Graffeo

  • Great post, Maria! Now….if more “friends” would read this! Thank you!

  • Rocky Kirkeby says:

    This blog was priceless Maria! Talk about free advice! Every single solitary item you touched on has been a question of mine for years! It was so good I feel like I should pay you! I’m thankful for you and your advice, always! Next time I see you I’m bringing a cupcake and flowers!

  • Donna Thibodeau says:

    As an artist I often have buyers ask how long it took to do a painting. I answer similar to you – two weeks plus 20 years. Without me it would not exist! My inspiration, my design, my color choice, my choice of materials and my technical skill. Hundreds of dollars for a painting is often not understood as a one of a kind in our mass production world.

    I really enjoyed your article because I paid a designer to help me with my paint colors and called her afterwards with a question and got a cold response. Now I know I committed a fopoux.

  • Lucy Haines says:

    Maria you write the most timely posts! I think every designer goes through this! There is such a fine line between giving free advice and charging for it. Early in my career a dear friend said to me ” do you have a business or a hobby”? That certainly resonated with me as far as free advice. I started working in an upscale furniture store right out of college and they advertised “free design service” which was a big mistake! I was paid on the furniture that I spec’d out so it didn’t seem so important at that time. After being used and reused by the clients who came to the store I finally wised up. They would say things like ” if you happen to be in my area could you stop by my house and take a look at…….! Of course their area would be in San Diego which is over 50 miles away. Anyway I learned the hard way about charging! I am in full agreement with Melissa Bolingers’ comment. Even with all of these problems Interior Design is my life! I love all of it because it is so creative and exciting!

  • Kay says:

    Our church bought a building with a huge hidden structural problem that was quickly uncovered once we had started renovating and that negatively affected the worship space. We hired an architect and a structural engineer, and neither of them came up with a good solution. After some months I was asked to find people to evaluate the job, and I brought in three. The first was my contractor, who looked at the roof for ten minutes and came up with a simple, elegant solution that was subsequently approved enthusiastically by the structural engineer. The other two people could offer nothing. Then I had to fight with the church committee members, who wanted to pay my contractor as though he were just doing a carpentry job, with no acknowledgment of the 20 years of experience and the creative ability that enabled him to solve a seemingly intractable problem in minutes. It made me want to scream. He got his money, but some people still complain about how much he was paid.

  • Scarlett B says:

    I find this rings try in many aspects of life, like friendships or social media. I think we have all had the friend that we have done something for, that then turns around and takes it and yet never reciprocates. And on social media, the follow-then-unfollow-mentality is essentially similar. Take and take more! Recognizing it and setting clear boundaries is crucial. Communication is tough sometimes, but you have to take control and say exactly what you want in order to move forward.

  • Barb says:

    Besides positive reviews, what gesture would be appropriate for a decorator/who has given excellent service? I don’t know her personal tastes/likes, but I would like to show my appreciation for her services.

    • Take some of the person’s business cards and refer your family and friends to be PAYING clients. I first did a guest bathroom for a surprise birthday party in 2006 that had a hiccup where the vanity wasn’t on the delivery truck in time for the custom counter to be installed in time. I got a substitute top installed for her party w 200 people at the party. Then later did his sons kitchen, the master bath and kitchen in the original house, was referred about 18 months ago to her friend for a kitchen, laundry living and dining room project and am now doing the downstairs bath, PLUS the entire house of the nephew of the birthday guy from 2006. They remember the fix for that bathroom before the party in 2006 and have repaid me many times over with the referrals.

  • Patience says:

    As an adult I have come to realize that I *want* to pay for what is valuable to me because I discovered that if I wasn’t willing to pay for it, it probably wasn’t valuable to me and I much prefer to be surrounded by things I value than not. It makes perfect sense that designers want to be valued. As you are, Maria!

  • Annette says:

    Well said and point taken!

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    I remember when I first found you how much free advice you gave me. Thank you so much for that.
    Next time you’re in Chicago I’m paying for dinner!! And no argument from you or Terreeia.

  • rebecca says:

    Maria: I work on Marketing for a living as a private consultant… and that takes on all shapes and sizes of different types of stuff. Your advice totally applied to me and a situation I had this month, which resulted in me actually turning down business. The logic was, they would pay so little, and wanted so much work, that it would prevent me from building my business with good money. It was a gamble to turn them away, but I could tell I was going to resent this situation as they made a really low ball offer, thinking I would take it. Saying no scared me to death (still does) but it was the right thing to do. This column helps me to get over it. And I am motivated to stay true and get paid what makes sense in the marketplace and for experience. I know, it sounds sort of egotistical and cocky, but I really just had to do it.

  • Candice Hill says:

    Love the space for your course, on Long Island, (I assume, above). What a beautiful space! Love your great advice, as always.:)

  • Angela N says:

    This is all great advice as someone who is new to this business. I can appreciate all of it!! Thanks for a great post.

  • Helene Belloni says:

    Maria, I consider your articles on this blog free advice. And I thank you for them and I love everyone of them! My house is beautiful because of you and your paint boards. And I never settle for anything less than pretty thanks to you.

  • Teresa McKinnon says:

    I needed to hear your advise and be encouraged to set boundaries. I am still trying to figure out some of those side rates. I have noticed that clients don’t consider ur time should cost them through text and email because it is conceived as every day communication. It really resonated with me when you talked about the example with the painter. So very true. Thanks for sharing.

  • Robin says:

    This is life, is it not? And now we are all educated on how to behave on both sides of the fence. Great and insightful post as well as all the meaty commentators that have weighed in. I have had these issues as well and it’s always a head scratcher as we try to “solve” their problems and they keep moving on to the next person until they’ve polled everyone on the subject and exhausted their resources. Not everyone will be courteous nor will they “get it”. So this post is basically “Advice Etiquette 101–Crash Course” lol. Love it. Thank you again Maria.

  • Diane says:

    Really good post, Maria. I have the experience of people taking advantage of a discount and friends not listening to my advice!! It is frustrating, but we learn from our mistakes.

  • Johnna says:

    Maria this is such a fabulous post! Everything you said is so RIGHT ON. As I designer it can be disheartening that friends may not realize, as you mention, how much knowledge and experience it takes for us to just give “quick advice”. We make it look too easy! But this post is also a good reminder that their are a number of trades and professional services out their that we may all take advantage of, without realizing it. Great advice all around!

  • Katherine says:

    I’m in the process of remodeling my master bathroom. I chose a tile company that has in house designers who measure and calculate the materials needed and guide the buyer in choosingtheir tile. The young lady I ended up working with ended up standing me up for the appt where I needed to choose my tile. The first time we met she showed me only a few things and acted like those were my only choices. Upon further reflection (and more reading of your blog) I realized that she had no idea what my vision was. So I made the 2nd appt for when my daughter was home from college and could go with me. This was when she stood me up. There were other designers there who answered a few questions (where specific types of tile were located mainly) but my daughter and I chose everything ourselves down to the grout. This designer was then fired shortly after but reached out to me and offered her services for the future. She also asked if she could come by when my bathroom was completed to take pictures for her website because she’s going into business for herself. She talked about how beautiful it’s going to be with “her design”. Granted, she ordered the right amount of tile but she didn’t choose a single piece of tile for my bathroom. I worked with a separate company for new plumbing fixtures and chose the new paint colors for the cabinets and the walls myself. The layout in the bathroom wasn’t changed at all and I’m using the existing lighting. Am I missing something? As a professional designer yourself, I’m very curious to see if you think this girl deserves to call my bathroom her design.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Certainly not!

      • Katherine says:

        Thank you! Good to know! Also, thank you for all your blog posts. I have learned more from you in the last year than any other source online! I would never have felt so confident doing this remodel if it hadn’t been for you.

  • Maria,
    I so enjoyed this post. Designer coffee talk.
    oh, the invite you over and pick your brain to consult. This is a common designer hurdle and one that nonclients will try so they can get you to their home to have you answer questions and make suggestions that they plan to do themselves.
    You want to say: “I can’t give you the tips and suggestions you want in just an hour for free, and why should i? If you want to hire me for your project, you need to hire me, and we can discuss this.”
    But instead you say: Let’s plan to meet.
    It is difficult to sniff out this non client, or the one who wants to be your friend client, when invited over to the house for a consult, as they initially seem kind, but once your inbox starts erupting with dozens of update requests, you’ll realize they indulge you too often, and do not understanding all that you do as a designer, and they will continue to send those… “Just one more thing…” like a deceptive. So true

    ps..Looking forward to your NY event this spring.

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