It's easy to get caught up in the photos in glossy mags; and to think that a designer is "expensive" based on how well he or she designs. The design world puts a lot of emphasis on, well, Design. It takes much more than design to accomplish a project.
I have to admit, I used to resent having to explain to a potential client what it was that I really did. Then I realized that it was less about having to explain what I did, than what value I brought to the project.
I recently sent a proposal to a client, which outlined approximately 70 hours of time for the project. Their response, appropriately, was "I do not want to spend 70 hours to design this project." There was a disconnect, and I have to admit responsibility for the problem. The potential client saw the time as quite a bit for their relatively small project. I saw it as more than reasonable, and even was concerned that I might even be losing money on it.
This future client - not wrongly I might add - assumed that what I did was design. And why wouldn't they? I do! But not exclusively. While an argument can be made that design is never really complete, you can't run a business, let alone a successful project, on design alone and I had to realize that it was up to me to explain that only about 25% of those proposed hours were going to be actually designing - the other time was for something much, much more important:
Protecting their Investment!
In essence, after the initial design, the pencil goes down (ideally) and the rest of the project is about protecting what was preciously concluded in those first moments of "design". It's a lot like any relationship: there's the "honeymoon phase" and then a LOT of time spent maintaining, growing and developing the relationship. If you fail to do that, the relationship suffers.
This is where the rubber meets the road.
Communication is key to success!
I work primarily in a builder-driven market, where drafts-persons with no design training whatsoever abound. They offer to "design" a room for a few hundred dollars, or "draw up" a whole house for the cheap. Builders often offer their services as a way to "save the homeowner money", but it's also a rather subconscious manipulation tactic rooted in gaining the client's trust as a means to their pocketbook. They know that if the drawings are "skinny" - meaning without a lot of fussy details - then there is more room for them to make it up on the fly. BUYER BEWARE. This can also mean lots so messy and expensive "change orders". Before you know it, the original estimate has now doubled because "that wasn't in the plans".
To make matters worse, our local building departments really don't require much by way of drawings to issue permits. This means that a basic set of drawings can get you a construction permit, which is the holy grail of a contractor doing a job. Just because building departments have a minimum requirement for drawings does not mean that the drawings should be minimum. It simply means that the building departments' priorities are different. They care about how the building performs, not what it looks like.
Therefore a lot of building stock is constructed, but little of it is anything more than average and standard construction. Even the REALLY big and expensive houses have the same character as the vinyl-clad spec homes down the street. This is where "marketability" comes in, but even that is skewed thanks to our post-modern aesthetics, which I will leave for another time.
Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of "unlicensed" professional designers out there that I greatly admire. Thomas Jefferson was one of them! And he did not even have building departments to which to answer. What he did have was education though, and the mind to seek out and study. Clearly his works were "designed", with a lot of thought and attention to detail. It was not so much the design, however, that made them successful, but rather the oversight to ensure that what was in his mind's eye, and subsequently worked out on paper, was properly and precisely built.
As I explained to my potential client, "My job is one part “come up with the creative ideas” and a larger part “orchestra conductor” to make sure the big ideas happen according to plans. There is room for lots of adventure on the design side, but not for surprises when it comes to spending the money. My loyalty is to the client first and foremost. As such, I have to make certain that the drawings communicate to the contractor so clearly that there is no room for error – and also, if there is an error on the part of someone else, to have a leg to stand on to require the change without cost to you."
In the industry, a designers' unwillingness to compromise "in the field" is often seen as ego. In reality, it is chiefly about protecting the clients’ investment - and this trait is what sets the great designers apart from all the rest. These are the folks who get repeat clients. Whether we care to admit it or not, the creative part gets shelved pretty early in the project. Thus, the desire to control the project is not for the sake of design, but rather to ensure that the client is getting exactly what he or she has paid for at the design stage, and subsequently are getting the value they've been promised from the contractor, cabinet companies, etc.
One example of this is when I showed up on a recent project to inspect the cabinet installation. The cabinet company installed their own cabinets and there was one cabinet door face that had a scratch from bottom left diagonally to the upper right. The Contractor and the owner never saw it, but the owner would have after a few weeks of living with their new cabinets. (Incidentally, homeowners often overlook the details in a new remodel, especially a large one, partly because of the emotional ties to their home, and partly because they are simply overwhelmed by all the newness.) The cabinet company was refusing to come out to replace it. After a bit of persuasion, they came the next day, uninstalled the cab door and returned a few days later with no scratch, and the client's investment had been protected.
Remember: Communication is the key to successful projects!