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“What do you think?” is not Advice that Helps

By 03/07/2010February 21st, 201727 Comments

This post is for designers and the people that hire them.

As a designer, have you ever had the peanut gallery [your husband, wife, friends who are not designers] try to give you advice on the business of design? How many of you roll your eyes [inside] when you hear it? Why? Because the design world is a different animal than almost any other kind of business.


 It’s why my coach/consultant is a designer. There are so many questions that a non-designer would not have the slightest idea how to answer. Which means if you are a designer and you don’t have a design mentor/coach that you work with, you better get one, and here’s why I think you should.


 I was in a consultation on Friday and one of the first things the client said to me when I arrived was “I don’t want you to ask me what I think, I want you to tell me what is going to work”. She had her dining table spread out with hardwood flooring and countertop samples, brochures, colours, etc. (below) and was about to renovate her apartment.

I was there to make sure all her choices were going to work together!

Remember in this post when I told you about what it was like to be a new colourist and how I used to hold up colours (like Vanna) and say “What do you think?”. Well if you are a client and your designer says “What do you think? a few too many times—be concerned.

House Beautiful

As a new designer, when you’re not sure what the right answer is, you give your opinion and then add ‘what do you think’? Before you get all depressed cause you are reading this and you are new, here’s what you do.

If you are not sure, it’s better to call up your mentor right on the spot and ask (or say you’ll get back to them). I have done that many times in consultations when I was starting out. The client is happy because they get that you really care that you are giving the correct advice and then you are happy because now you have the answer for the next time.

Of course there is a fine line between bulldozing the client with your design opinion and giving them a look that works for them based on their likes and dislikes and the current style/architecture of the space.

I definitely ask ‘What do you think?’ if it’s a situation where the answer could be one or the other, or when fine tuning colour and style preferences. I cannot read my clients mind so I ask a lot of questions. It’s a collaboration. So remember, context is everything, I’m not saying take “What do you think?” out of your vocabulary!

In this consultation, my client wanted to introduce blue to her living room. She had ordered the sofa and 2 identical slipper chairs from a local furniture store 5 years before and had always thought there was something wrong with the combination of fabrics (above).

When my client mentioned this to the designer helping her at the time, her response was “We don’t want to be matchy matchy.” Personally I believe there should be a relationship (especially when working with pattern) between the major pieces of furniture in the room, but I don’t like coffee tables to match (for example) so I think context of ‘matchy matchy’ was missing in this conversation.

Since the sofa already has essentially 3 colours in this fabric without a spec of blue in sight, I would not introduce a blue wall colour into this space. If we painted the walls blue we would need to repeat it in the toss cushions, chair fabric, accessories, etc, to make it work. As you can see by the above photo, the colour on the left is working the best with this fabric.

The darker shade on the right (above) is a perfect match to the leaves on the sofa (but the photo didn’t come out well, there was too much glare from the window I see now, I should have adjusted the blinds further). I’m showing a gray on the left because she (like everyone right now) wanted me to consider that shade as well.

We ended up doing the darker gold on an accent wall to the left of the sofa. My recommendation was that she replace the current greeny/yellow chair fabric (that in no way worked with the sofa) with another pattern (maybe a stripe) that picked up the yellow beige we chose for the walls as well as the colours from the sofa.

The yellow/gold beige is still in the same family as the sofa fabric which is why it works even though it cannot be found in the fabric.

I specifically chose this image (below to show) because it’s the same dark gold colour which I personally think is too muddy to work with the clean bright blue of the chairs, but at least they are both solid (instead of one having a pattern with colours that do not in any way go with the chair), and I’m guessing there are more of both these colours in this space to make it work.

This blog is my opinion after all so take what works for you and leave the rest here 🙂

House Beautiful

As a client on the receiving end of design advice, if you are hearing too much “What do you think?” from your designer, and most importantly the advice you are getting isn’t resonating with you, find someone else. My favourite quote I recently found is “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur”.

And if you are a designer and you find yourself saying those words a little too often, find a mentor or hire one. ‘You can do what you already know how to do. The reason you get a coach/mentor is to do the things that you cannot do.’ T. Rauffman.
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Related posts:

3 Steps to Finding a Mentor in the Design Industry

Have you made these Decorating Mistakes?

Why you can’t Afford NOT to hire a Colour Expert

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  • Ken Coach says:

    Interesting post. As a communications consultant I often give advice to clients that differs from what they are thinking. My first job is to convince them to follow my path and, if I can't do that, then I have to help them make their path work.

    BTW, the best money I spent when I built my house three years ago was on a consultant to help me pick the wall colours.

  • j u s t i m a g i n e says:

    Love it !!! Fab post.

  • AB HOME Interiors says:

    Great Post Maria! Just love it. I very much agree, and I love the quote "…than hire an amateur"

  • Kathy @ Creative Home Expressions says:

    Love that quote! Had a chuckle as I read it! How true it is. I don't think I've ever said to a client "what do you think?". I'm getting their input all along so I know what they think; it's just a matter of narrowing it down to the choices and then I tell them what I think {which usually includes the pros and cons to each choice}. Ultimately, they have to live with it, not me.

  • Mary-Frances Cimo says:

    Good communication is so important. I have had clients call me after working with another designer because they hated, and I mean hated, the designer's choices.

    Some people feel that they are not experts, so the designer must know what is best. They don't speak up and are repainting or tearing down the rice paper moments after the designer leaves. True story.

    The designer is right until you can't live with it. There are always options.

    Sometimes the wall color that best suits the expensive furniture is not what resonates with a client. Unfortunately, it's time to start over then.

    I'm glad you told her to toss the chair. Good call.

    It's an interesting dance that goes on. Just like your poker game analogy.

    Thanks Maria!

  • Acanthus and Acorn says:

    The peanut gallery is one of the most annoying issues to contend with in design.

    I have made the "mistake" in my own home with friends present and verbalized a thought such as "I'm still contemplating what to do about…" and it's always this one friend who jumps in to give me her advice!
    Makes me crazy….did I mention she has hired me for 2 projects?!

    But I completely agree with the "what do you think"…use it sparingly and mostly with mentors and colleages!

  • [email protected] View On Design says:

    you're right, I am so much like that person who says "don't ask me – what do you think" *biting nails*

  • Erika @ BluLabel Bungalow says:

    I totally agree that mentors/coaches are essential in any business so are blogs (like yours) that offer great advice!

  • Karena says:

    Great thoughts Maria, you are right on it!

    Art by Karena

  • Twenty Two Flamboyant Street says:

    Great advice.

  • "Yeah, that works..!" says:

    Interesting info. Very much so. Where in NY will you be heading to?

  • Melissa Rakowski says:


    I would love to get a chance to meet you while you are in New York. Perhaps we could meet up for coffee or cocktail.

    Thank you for the post. I am going to contact you coach!


  • Velvet and Linen says:

    What do I think? I think this is wonderful advice!

    I had a client recently who would ask every person who worked on her home (plumber, marble installer, cabinet maker, etc…) what they thought of my design. It drove me crazy!

    I don't think that I ask clients this question much, but I will certainly be aware of it now if I do!


  • The Zhush says:

    Hiring a mentor seems like a brilliant idea! Many professions could benefit from this concept. You will be coming to New York the same time that we leave for Florida…oh well, looks like you will enjoy some great early springlike weather…enjoy!

  • Marie Brady says:

    Great words for thought Maria! Always a fine line on communicating with clients and figuring out their preferences. I'm currently working with a client who hired an expensive designer for his home who specified furniture and then basically handed them what she thought would work for wall colors without working with the client. I was hired to come in and correct all the muddy colors she suggested and that the clients hated. Here in the Bay Area, there are a few of us IACC members who try to get together occasionally to share notes and kind of mentor each other. It is such an important part of being in this field! Have fun in New York!

  • Naomi says:

    uhhhohh, I think I'm guilty of uttering this phrase too often. I guess I'm still learning the balance between pushing my ideas too hard, and being too accommodating with my clients. Thanks for the post, it made me think!

  • Michele Beatty says:

    I love how you address the topics of client/designer relationships. I do use the phrase occassionally but usually after I've had a few meetings and presented my solutions. This gives me the feedback to know if I'm on the right track and lets them make the ultimate decision. I also agree about the design mentor part…very important!

  • Brillante Home Decor says:

    Great advice as always, we need to lead the client toward the best options. Have fun in NYC Maria and report back.

  • Dale says:

    Great post. I agree…hearing "what do you think" too much is a red flag for insecurity and unconfidence. I usually say…"this is what I think…or in my my professional opionion, I think", and then at the very end I might ask them what they think of all my suggestions.

  • DesignTies says:

    My communication faux pax is the phase "Do you know what I mean?" I hate it when I hear myself say it!! I mean, I just explained myself… why do I have to ask the person if they know what I meant?! Geesh! I'm glad you mentioned the "what do you think" phrase… I'm going to listen and see if I do that too! 🙂
    Great post, Maria!
    Victoria @ DesignTies

  • Developing Designs says:

    It seems everyone has an opinion…..whether or not they know the correct answer or not.

    Designers are paid to advise the best look for the space AND for the client. It boils down to trust and having a good read for their tastes. If it is not a good fit, it's not a good fit. They should not be asking the electrician as the expensive chandelier is being installed if they think it works with the decor, they should not ask the plumber what they think of the style of the fixtures w/ the overall feel of the room. You get my drift 🙂

    Personally I tend to ask how they feel about the decisions, for they are the ones that will be looking at it every day and I want them to like them and be comfortable with it all. Not to mention, it gets expensive, you want to be happy with everything and not feel the need to cringe when looking at it when it's done, only to want to replace it all. Professionals are only as good as the trust their clients have for them. Does that make sense? Did I wander off too much? 🙂

    Another brilliant post…xo

  • Debra Phillips says:


    have you ever considered what a mentor you are to so many? your thoughtful and informative posts in color, design, blogging and business matters are a gift you constantly share.
    thank you!

  • Gwen says:

    LOL, I have to say that I have learned the art of the mute button when it comes to the peanut gallery.

    You are right, if I hire a pro I don't want to hear "What do you think?" I am paying them to think! I think that you probably have to learn to read body language really well to do your job, Maria.

    That being said, I wouldn't mind hearing, "How does this look make you feel?" To me, that sounds much less amateur and is still gets you your answers.

  • traci zeller designs says:

    Even though we've never met (not yet anyway!), I totally consider you a mentor! You mentor so many people through your blog, Maria, and I hope you know how inspiring you are and how helpful your advice is. Thank you!!

  • Color and Style says:

    Great advice Maria
    Thanks – Firoozeh

  • mydivabydesign says:

    Great post! If the client wanted their own opinion they wouldn't have hired you! Have confidence in yourself and your skills.

  • Anonymous says:

    Wow, very thought provoking article. Hmmm… makes me wonder how often i ask 'what do you think?'.
    I suppose it is a fine line. We don't want to bull doze them over, but we need to know the clients likes and dislikes.

    I need to remember to find out what the clients general likes are – warm or cool, muddy or clean, etc. Then work from there.

    Thanks for giving me a wake up call about being more confident in my decisions for my clients.
    …and for giving me the authority to say NO.

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