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Advice for DesignersTrue Colour Expert

Are you a Victim of your Clients Design Ideas? (For Designers Only)

via House Beautiful (love the perfect boxwood and painted brick)

When you’re a new designer, it’s hard to have the answer for every single question.

You simply have not seen or experienced every problem yet and EVERY house is different.

As a brand new decorator, schlepping my large paint samples from house to house doing colour consultations for Benjamin Moore, my clients asked me ALL KINDS of questions about renovating and decorating that I had no idea how to answer.

Luckily, they had hired me to choose paint colours for their house, so if I didn’t have the answer, my clients were not fussed.

source (love this kitchen with no uppers, and the art that relates to the countertops)

But as I gained experience, I had more answers. Thousands of consultations later, and 8 years of writing a design and colour blog makes my list of answers to questions I receive much longer than it was 20 years ago.

Let’s be clear, I don’t move walls, nor can I re-design your kitchen footprint, but I do have the answer if you have a question about whether shutters on your house are a good idea or not. Which staircase is right (Hint, don’t put a modern staircase in your house if you have a traditional kitchen).  Or whether you should add french doors. The style of your island? Which tile will be classic and timeless? the list goes on and on.

There are ONLY SO MANY architectural styles and over time, I’ve seen the same mistakes over and over and over again.

source (lovely entry tile and staircase)

Your eye gets trained, so that when you walk into a house, you can instantly see what’s wrong, what sticks out like a sore thumb, and of course, bad tile that someone else chose, that the new homeowner most often wants to replace ASAP.

In the meantime, when you’re a new  decorator or interior designer and a client sends you an inspiration picture of something they like that won’t work at all in their house. . . what do you do?

If all your instincts are screaming NO, NO NO,  but you don’t know what a BETTER SUGGESTION is. You suddenly become a victim of your clients design ideas.

When a client makes a suggestion or shows me a photo, that is just WRONG, I’ll often find the RIGHT and CORRECT inspiration photo within 30 seconds (usually on Pinterest), and say instead “This doesn’t work because your house is not–fill in the blank here–here’s what you should do instead.”

How do they reply 99% of the time?



I see that.

Makes sense.

If you give your client exactly what they think would work, they will begin to worry that you don’t KNOW what the right answer is.

They don’t KNOW how to pull it all together, that’s why they hired you.

source (love the asymmetrical sheers)

So if you don’t instantly know (that takes years of experience), instead of pretending to have the answer, or worse, trying to fit their bad idea into your design plan, ask a mentor or post a photo on the interior design Facebook page that you belong to. . . just like my True Colour Expert private Facebook page. As soon as you’ve completed one of my Specify Colour with Confidence workshops, you’ll be eligible to join this page.

So then, instead of posting your problem on an interior design site, with the photo and the caption “This is what my client wants, how do I make this work?” Where everyone chimes in and says things like”Poor, poor, baby”, try this, try that, I had the same problem and I did this?” “I know, find something removable”. While these are all lovely and encouraging suggestions. . .WAH?! NO THAT IS NOT THE WAY TO HANDLE THIS PROBLEM.

This is what you’ll post instead:

“Hi everyone, this is what my client says he/she wants, and I’m pretty sure it’s wrong, what do I suggest INSTEAD?”

This is a much more powerful and proactive question, this is how you’ll learn.

And in the meantime, if you are standing in your clients house, and you know it doesn’t feel right, but they are looking at you expectantly for the answer, you say “I don’t think this is right for your house, but I will find the answer and get back to you”.

I was talking to my interior designer friend Jan Romanuk (who designed my kitchen layout) the other day and she said “I’ve been doing this 40 years and I still sometimes don’t have the answer”. That’s when she’ll say “Hmmm. . . I don’t know. But give me a day and I’ll get back to you.”

Way better than pretending you know what you’re doing. Your client will appreciate that you obviously care about getting their house exactly RIGHT.

End of rant.



And with experience, you’ll have even more answers and be able to charge EVEN MORE MONEY to dispense your advice and who knows, with the world of on-line marketing, what else you’ll create?

Because you’ll be a Force of Personality.

PS. If you find yourself in this post, don’t be cranky. First we have all been here, and as long as we don’t design the same house over and over, it still happens. So use it as a learning opportunity. I love you. That’s why I’m writing this post.

Who can relate? Raise your hand along with me!

Related posts:

Do you Give Your Clients Exactly What They Want?

Look, You Need to Know How to Have this Conversation

The 3 Most Important Words in a Colour Consultation

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  • Marguerite says:

    What words of inspiration, Maria…. thank you. “Don’t be a VICTIM, be a STUDENT”. Instead of being stymied in your tracks, let dealing with a challenging situation educate you and help you evolve. I am going to keep that advice in the front of my brain because it applies to all of life, not just design. But taking a step back, what drives those inspiration photos? Some ideas aren’t necessarily good ones, but they proliferate like tribbles in design blogs and magazines until there is an onslaught. The kitchen in the House Beautiful photo IS lovely, but I wish the fad for those “spider fixtures” would pass already. Glass ones like these, or the black metal ones that seem to be everywhere…. I just don’t think they are attractive. They are jagged, sharp and some look really threatening. There are so many other really beautiful and interesting light fixtures out there. And i bet half the inspiration pictures being showed to designers right now are these fixtures. Just because something appears over and over in design magazines until the public sees it in various places in multiple price points and starts to buy them, doesn’t make it a good design choice. Sometimes something gets popular and its your design sense that should council “Just say no”. Just Sayin.

    • Kay says:

      I agree about the spider fixtures. The current craze for bare bulbs also mystifies me. Unless they are Edison bulbs, they are too bright, and Edison bulbs are primarily atmospheric. I have four over my kitchen sink. They are great when added to general and task lighting, but on their own are more like candlelight. I can’t imagine working in a kitchen where my eyes could be temporarily blinded by a bright unprotected bulb.

      • Linda says:

        While I do like some of these fixtures/pendants, I’m also wondering where they land in the world of Feng Shui? The ‘pointy” arms translate into ‘daggers’ which need to be counterbalanced by something, to deflect the ‘danger.’ Is there a Feng Shui expert out there who can tell us the answer, just in case a client presents this into question. Of course we can alsway say: “Let me get back to you on that.” Right? Love this posting Maria..

        • Amanda says:

          Such a great question, however most of these lights do not pose a danger at all. And if the client loves it, and you can make it work than that supersedes everything. It would only come into question if it were being used as an adjustment, and in most cases they are only used aesthetically.
          Amanda Gates
          Interior Designer and Feng Shui Practitioner

      • Maria Killam says:

        I’m with you Kay, although as a designer when you see the same thing so often, I’ve been digging the spider fixtures over kitchen islands lately but I agree that while they might look cool, the bare bulbs give off a BAD LIGHT. It’s why I rarely specify bare bulb, Eison bulb fixtures for my clients.
        Thanks for your always thoughtful comment! x Maria

  • Maria, I agree with you! There is nothing wrong with admitting when we don’t have an immediate answer or solution to a design quandary! Excellent solutions to difficult challenges often require thought and research. That is why we designers invoice for our time spent on “research”. It’s money well spent! And you are right that it is nice to have a network of professionals to share opinions and get feedback, such as the True Colour Experts Facebook page. ?

  • Kimberly says:

    I find myself in this post (hmm, sounds real familiar!) but I am far from cranky. I’m always incredibly appreciative that you’re so willing to give us good advice! I just read this to my husband and told him taking your course was the best money I ever spent. You’re an encouragement and inspiration, Maria, more than you probably know. XO

  • Gina says:

    Your EXCELLENT post has landed in my email box at just the right time for me! I’m experiencing the “Wha, wha, why is this so hard, how can I twist myself into a pretzel and give them what they want? Wha, wha”….. Guilty as charged, but it’s a new day, my friend! Thank you for being the voice of reason through the onslaught of challenges we face. XOXO

  • Rebekah says:

    I can totally relate to this post, Maria!! In fact, right after I was out of college and just starting out in the field, I had a client who must’ve lived on HGTV (Pinterest had not been born yet) or the internet always looking for design ideas. And most of them didn’t work with her space. And I did not have the voice yet (aka experience!) to stand up and explain why they didn’t work and to drive home the great suggestion I’d made and WHY it worked best. I love this post b/c it reminds me of that time and reminds me of how I’ve grown in “my voice” and also, like you said, over the years we gain confidence and our eye is fine-tuned to where to we can boldly and kindly state that something will work better. Thanks Maria! I enjoy your posts very much and would love to take your color course one day. 😀 You ought to come to Nashville! We have an awesome design community and are growing leaps and bounds!!

  • Linda says:

    I love everything about that kitchen, (counter lamp, black window frames, no upper cabinets) so clean AND that entry – the concrete balls, and open, airy unobstructed site lines.

    How do you find time to do this blog, teach courses and consult as well as answer our questions? Never-mind Maria, I already know the answer to that… YOU’RE A WOMAN!

  • Thanks for the reminder! I agree, it’s so much better to say “I’m not sure on that, let me look into it and get back to you!”

  • Lucy Haines says:

    Maria,. You are so right on all accounts. So many times a client just wants you to agree with their ideas. It is hard to tell them that their ideas stink. You have to be diplomatic and sometimes I say “your ideas are good” but let’s see if I can come up with something that works better for your situation. That way I don’t offend them and they are then more open to suggestions. No matter how long you have been a designer you are always challenged​ with new problems. That is what makes this business interesting. We are always learning!


  • aprilneverends says:

    I’m not a designer, but that’s true always when you’re working with people. Say that you don’t know..not right away, at least. That you’ll think. You’ll try to find out. You’ll ask. You’ll take time to figure it out. With them. And do exactly that. And sometimes your work is such there’s no definite answer. But you give your word, and you give your time, and you give your heart. And you stand behind everything you say. That alone can change things for the better. People feel you don’t fail them; rather, you’re with them. You’re together. Not only you learn; they learn too it’s ok to learn, ok to not know exactly, ok to ask someone’s advice, ok to take time to consider things, ok to ask for help, ok to stop, ok to go on since stopping is part of going on too.

  • Patti Lukon Wudi says:

    So are you a gradual of an interior design program? A bonanza Gide interior designer or are you an interior decorator? Here in Washington to call yourself a designer means a degree in design Just curious. Yes, I think experience is worth its weight on gold

  • Cheryl Bloom says:

    Maria! SO well said — thank you for putting this out there and helping designers raise the bar. This topic is so important. If we were a dentist and the patient told him his tooth needed to be pulled, would they do that because the patient thinks it’s what they want done? Hopefully not!!

  • Angela N says:

    As someone who has been following your blog forever (7 or 8 years, maybe), I am finally at a point where I am starting my own business in design! This blog post was a great reminder that I can’t and won’t know it all and I love the way you handle those situations. Your blog has given me such great knowledge over the years and for that I am grateful.

  • Becky says:

    What struck me in that kitchen was that the creamy cabinets and the stark white walls and the gray counters don’t look good together. Really dislike that combination. It seems to go against what you say about whites, undertones, etc.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi Becky.
      The cabinets are a wood stain, I wouldn’t put them in the ‘cream’ category. Thanks for your comment! Maria

      • Becky says:

        I hope I don’t sound argumentative, but regardless if they are painted or stained they look creamy to me and I feel like they don’t look good with the other surfaces. Trying to apply what I learned from your book White is Complicated. Aren’t the undertones different? Sometimes I think I really don’t get it. ?

        • Maria Killam says:

          Hi Becky,
          I agree that upon first glance they look cream but I think once you see that it’s a stained cabinet, you have to get over it and treat it like a pair of jeans. . . we’re splitting hairs here, which we do when we’re learning I get it, but in this case, there isn’t that much to critique about this kitchen after that! Thanks for being persistent, that’s how we learn! Maria

    • Merlyn says:

      That photo struck me the same way, Becky. Whether it’s a wood stain or a paint, it’s still a color and those two different whites just don’t play well together.

      The common sense of the article works for any profession. It never hurts to admit you don’t have the answer initially.

  • Just this morning I worked with a couple updating the exterior colors of their Tudor cottage. The front yard is enclosed with a traditional iron fence around their garden. Very charming. But, when we made the appointment, the client told me she wanted to paint the house in a Moroccan color scheme (!). I explained why this didn’t fit the style of the house, and said to wait until we were in person.

    Then, today, she showed me photos of houses they liked that were all dark gray. Again, I explained why I didn’t think this was the best choice. I pulled large color samples for us to work with, but they blew off what I’d said, and picked dark blue and gray colors anyway. I thought, “Oh well”. But after they spent time walking around the house looking at their choices, the husband sheepishly told me they wanted to start over!

    They realized they weren’t listening to me, and that was the point of hiring me. We ended up with a lovely four-color scheme with light and dark accent colors that made the wife happy. (The house had previously been done by another color consultant and had eight colors!)

  • Colleen Coleman says:

    You hit the nail on the head! I think we have all had this experience. I have taken your class and KNOW that I have this great network of designers to lean on when a question arises. Thank you for calling us out on this and encouraging all of us to work together as design professionals!

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