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Mon 28 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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Nigel Witham

Rash or Rational? Your designer should be someone you trust, not someone you argue with. Here’s how to find such a partner

Nigel Witham
Nigel Witham

Getting the order right

The best designers are booked well in advance. Many clients
contact me first after they have acquired a location, sometimes expecting that
one of my stellar team is going to rock up for free and produce a design within
days or even hours and that it can be built in a few weeks. It doesn’t work
this way. Once you have paid a rent deposit, the clock is ticking. You should
select your designer before you finalise your site selection. This is the most
misunderstood aspect of the F&B design process. Acquiring your site first
does not help your designer to help you meet your business objectives. Ideally,
you should have modeled and priced your concept with your designer in advance
so that your designer can assist you in choosing the best space within which to
bring your vision to life, and you can also ensure that the format is
financially viable.

Free design

There’s no such thing. We designers aren’t all stupid so if you
ask for - or are being pitched - a free design up front, you’d better believe that
the cost of this is going to get made up from you somewhere else. This always results
in conflicts of interest, which is why the most professional design firms will always
charge, even for first site meetings. Charging for their time releases the designer
from conflict and compels them to give you their honest professional opinion. This
builds trust and saves arguments later in the day.

This is an unpopular message but consider these two tracks:

The Rash Track

A designer makes a free visit and produces a free concept design.
If there’s bad news, most commonly that the project can’t be done on time or for
your budget, the designer may conceal this from you. Why? The designer needs the
job, otherwise they wouldn’t have worked for free. Their only way to make up for
the lost time of the free visit and work is to sugar-coat the news and tell you
what you want to hear, otherwise you may back out. Later, perhaps after you
signed the lease, you’ll discover that the project will cost more and take longer
than you expected.

The Rational Track

You appoint a design team and pay them a fair fee so they can
produce a full concept design model. Now you have instantly created mutual trust and respect so the
designer wants you to become a long-term partner. This designer is willing to give
you their useful knowledge about your project immediately. If there’s bad news about
costs or a specific location they’ll tell you or suggest ways to check the viability
of your project.

If there is a major problem that should make you rethink or delay
your project, this designer does not mind telling you, because you have already
paid for their time.  They will give you honest
advice and when you have solved the problem or delay and are ready to proceed again,
they know you will come back to that same designer. You can trust this designer,
and they can trust you.

Getting reassurance

You should get to know your designer before committing, so go
and see them at their place. It’ll tell you way more than them coming to you and
shouldn’t cost you. Decide in advance how much creative freedom you want to give
away and how much you want to control. Tell the designer this and see how they respond.
If you want to micro-control the design concept and they are happy to go along,
run as far as you can!  They’re just sales
people who only want your money and who don’t have the guts to tell you they know
better about design than you. If they don’t know better why are you there?

What you should do

Find three to five designers that you like via recommendations,
industry magazines and the internet. Make a shortlist of two to three designers that you think could
do the job well, get rough pricing information and details on their process and
procedures for projects - what is included and how much project management is involved.

Look for integrity, and uncompromising quality. Anyone willing
to take short cuts to win work will take short cuts when working. Take care because believe me, when you’re in the middle of a
complex and expensive build, the last thing you’ll want is an argument with your

Nigel Witham is a chartered designer who has been running his
own international design practice for 20 years. For more information, email nigel@nigelw.com

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