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What to expect when working with an interior designer

Updated: May 9, 2022

I know you've seen them, these perfect, casual, cool spaces on social media or HGTV. You wonder, how do I do that? How do I get that in my home?

Let's face it, everyone is too busy with kids and work and life in general to create magazine-ready homes. Selecting and ordering furniture, coordinating kitchen cabinet details, and deciding which paint color goes with what rug only adds to the overwhelming process. If this is you, then keep reading.

This post is good read for someone trying to suss out the who, what, and whys of hiring a professional interior designer.

Or...check out a quick and fun video..enjoy!

mid century bedroom with bold colors and in Bethesda Maryland,
Clean and sunny bedroom by Margaret Carroll Interiors

What exactly does an interior designer do?

Interior designers turn their clients’ ideas into a reality by creating a home that reflects their personality and style, while preventing expensive mistakes the DIY’er or design novice might make. The 'gulp...I just don't love it' or 'It doesn't seem to be cohesive with the rest of my stuff' kind of mistakes. Or the worst one - 'It doesn’t fit up the stairs and I can't return it!' kinds of mistakes. Or you could have really big mistakes like the ones below...

image from Instagram @pleasehatethesethings
Is that handrail to code?

image from Instagram @pleasehatethesethings
why oh why

If you don't follow @pleasehatethesethings on are missing out. The best of the worst on the internet and oh so HYSTERICAL.


I adore all facets of design: from BIG innovative buildings from Bjarke Ingels to the kitschy, mid century glamour of Jonathan Adler. I love pottery, industrial, and sneaker design. For many people, interior design, and specifically the myriad of decisions that need to be made is something they dread. It's intimidating and quickly leads to decision fatigue.

Gucci sneaker industrial design
sneaker design from the 80s. Still amazing today

Bjarke Ingels ski-slope-topped power station in Copenhagen
BIG Group ski slope on top of a power station

If you're looking for a (almost) stress-free way to renovate, refresh, or update your home and furniture, all the while staying within a budget, then hiring a professional is key.

How do I choose an interior designer?

When hiring a designer, find one that understands your sense of style, and most importantly, understands how you and your family REALLY live. For example, many of my clients are pet enthusiasts. Many joke that their pets rule the house and are allowed to sit and snooze anywhere. Hiring the right designer for those clients, means finding someone who understands that the furniture and finishes need to be high performance and low maintenance.

cat on heater to stay warm
nah. we don't need heat from that vent

Find an interior designer you really gel and click with. When you work with a designer, you’re going to be spending a LOT of time with them. The relationship is usually a long one (depending on the size of the project) and should be enjoyable for everyone.

The most successful client-designer relationships lead to friendships long after the project is complete - these are the people I can chat for hours on end over coffee (or cocktails!) about family life, restaurant recommendations, and how well (and this year…how badly) Terp basketball is going!

How does the process work with an interior designer?

Preway fireplace corner by Margaret Carroll Interiors

The process varies depending on who you hire, but there are some similarities and communication is always key. Here is a sample process:

concept and planning phase

This phase starts with the client telling the designer the nitty gritty deets of the project. We ask them to answer questions like:

  • What do you love (or don't love) about your current space?

  • Are there any furnishings or sentimental pieces you absolutely want to keep?

  • How do you or your family normally function in this room? Is it for watching TV? Playing games? Quiet reading?

  • Do you need extra room for seating or storage?

  • What colors do you like and dislike?

  • Do you have any pets or small children where you will need special flooring or performance fabrics?

  • Do you need to work in phases or prefer the entire project to be done at once?

  • Have you worked with a designer before?

  • What is your budget? (If you know it, if not, we’ll help you figure this out next!)

Once we've gotten a good feel for the clients wants and needs, we send over a contract that has all of the boring stuff: ricing/fees, terms and conditions, FAQs, blah blah blah.

What should my interior design budget be?

Many designers will claim your budget as a percentage of your home's worth, or between $100 and $200 per square foot of the room. While this is a good jumping off point, it's more complex than that. We develop a budget by assessing the needs, room by room.

We create an Interior Design Budgeting Tool: Essentially it is a Google spreadsheet customized for the client which lists everything they would need for their new design. This includes all of the construction, renovation projects and furnishings (furniture, window treatments, artwork, etc.). We get into the nitty gritty: ‘How much do you really want to spend on a sofa? What about a full renovation for the kitchen? Wallpaper for the powder room?’

The template shown below was a fantastic internet find that I use to get an idea of how much my clients want to spend on everything for their project. This bad boy ensures that we can stay on budget without surprises when selecting items.

Design Presentation and Sign Off

Now for the fun part: the design presentation. This is where we do the best imitation of a Mad Men style pitch meeting - without all of the smoking and alcohol. We show the client inspiration boards, plans, renderings, and elevations to describe our design concept. We do a fun touch and feel presentation of all the fabrics, tiles, and wallpaper samples. We display drawings and physical samples together on a big table to give the client an idea of what their entire space will look like and feel like. This is when the client starts getting excited about their project. After, we give the client a couple of days to give us any feedback and adjust if necessary.

Inspiration board for bedroom in Potomac MD
Inspiration board by Margaret Carroll Interiors

We always encourage our clients not to sit on decisions too long. Even pre-pandemic, items can go quickly, be back ordered, or discontinued (a horrible word in the interior design industry) and leads to reselecting items within the design scheme. And now? Fuggedaboutit. Furniture that took 12 to 16 weeks pre-pandemic to deliver is now taking a minimum of 22 weeks up to 52 weeks. Yes - 52 weeks of waiting. One full year for a custom sofa. In any case, this part is finalized after the client is satisfied with the selections, pricing and signs off on the project that will be purchased.

Furniture layout and floor plan

Elevation - 2D representation to show design
Living room rendering in SketchUp
ordering and merchandise

This is where the not so glamorous part of the job comes in. After the client makes a final selection, the designer and their team heads back to the office to input all of the orders including any custom fabric and wallpaper, lighting, tile and plumbing fixtures. They also keep track of pricing, discounts, delivery dates and any delays for all the merchandise selected. In an ideal world, these details are communicated on spreadsheets and are shared with the client for full transparency.

how long is the process between ordering and receiving the product?

The short answer: There is a lot of variability. Some items from big box retailers, like [Insert a couple examples you’d actually use] are quick to deliver - anywhere from 1 to 2 days to 2 to 3 weeks. If anything is custom or back ordered, it could take months to arrive.

me waiting for furniture
Project Management and Installation

This part of the project is key and the designer you hire should have project management and construction knowledge as well as a keen eye for art and styling. It's not all about fluffing pillows and choosing the right lounge chair. Clients need help in getting the job executed and completed. The right designer oversees all aspects of the project, such as organizing schedules with contractors, coordinating details with cabinet makers, checking on orders and materials with suppliers, and inspecting items when deliveries are made.

A large part of the job of the designer is to create a scope of work (aka a ‘to do’ list) for the contractors. In some cases, there is one contractor on a job and in others, maybe 3 or 4 different entities. You may have a painter, a kitchen cabinet installer, an electrician and a wall paper hanger. It's a great deal of work and this is where a n experienced designer is equipped to deal with all of the moving parts, and parts.

Interior design is a balancing act - one where you are juggling style and artistry with contractors, suppliers and a client's happiness.

But the truth is, while reinventing your space can appear deceptively simple thanks to home makeover shows and Instagram transformations, even the smallest project (like a powder room) requires careful thought, meticulous planning, and a degree of know-how that extends beyond the ability to choose the right lighting or a pretty paint color. In fact, investing in outside expertise can actually save homeowners money on their renovations—not to mention stress, time, and a host of logistical headaches.

Not to mention the fact that most designers will make sure your space doesn’t get posted on Instagram on @pleasehatethesethings.

ugly couch, pig, horrible furniture
hmmm...I wonder if this comes in navy?

Lots of photos seen here are from my House Tour : Secrets Revealed blog post. Check it out to see my home as well as read about the trials and tribulations that we went through to create our dream home. See you there!

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