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Interior Designers: It’s OK to Say No

When interior designers are offered a new project, they tend to say, “Yes”.

Whether they’re working for themselves or are in charge of a team, designers have bills to pay. They also want to make potential clients happy, especially if they were referred by friends, family, or other valued clients. Plus, with each project offer comes the hope of new opportunities and the potential to become a crowning jewel in your portfolio.

But new projects also come with risks. If you say “yes” to one job that’s a bad fit, it will waste your time, your money, and the energy you need for other things.

Learning which new projects are distractions from your ultimate goals and which are actually big opportunities isn’t easy. None of us can get it right every time, and hindsight is 20/20.

However, it’s possible to become a better judge of which projects to pursue. You can pay closer attention to what you’re feeling when you’re offered a project. You can get specific about which jobs you’ll take on and why. And you can start to consider the act of rejecting projects — even lucrative projects — as potential investments in your business’ future.

See the “No” as an Investment

Once you’re being offered work regularly as an interior designer (and aren’t worried about making rent or payroll), saying “yes” to every project you’re offered can be costly.

Having your own distinctive style as a designer helps you stand out from the crowd, command better rates, and enjoy your work more (Related post: How to Make Your Design Business Stand Out from the Crowd.) However, if you always say “yes”, you’re likely to experience interruptions in your quest for developing an original brand and strong reputation.

You probably know on some level that it’s a good idea to turn down projects every now and then. However, too many designers reserve their veto power for projects that are far outside the scope of what they’re willing to do, able to do, or get paid accurately to engage in. They fail to internalize the fact that each “yes” means a “no” to another project that might be a better use of their energy and talent.

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One of the best parts of being your own boss is having full control over which types of work you get to do. Take full advantage of it!

Trusting Your Gut

Before you say “yes” to any new project, take a beat to reflect. How does the possibility of starting this work make you feel? Try to ignore the potential for revenue at first. Think of the actual potential to make an impact and the design work. Is there a small tug in the pit of your stomach telling you that you don’t want to do it?

I’m always encouraging interior designers to step into the CEO role, regardless of whether they’re solopreneurs or leading a big team. In CEO mode, we can get good at pushing past feelings of insecurity or hesitation to lead our businesses. But other times, we need to heed those instinctive warning feelings. By acknowledging any hesitation and figuring out where it’s coming from, we can decide whether to proceed or not.

There are certain causes of hesitation that don’t warrant turning down a project. Here are a few:

The project will take you out of your comfort zone.

For our businesses to thrive, we need to stay uncomfortable and willing to try new things, as I wrote in my post Get Comfortable with Uncomfortable.

Sometimes we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re turning down projects because it’s not good for business when in reality, we just want to stick with what we know. If you’re uncomfortable simply because the project is new or takes you into unfamiliar territory, it’s worth reconsidering.

You’re afraid you’re not qualified for the project.

It’s important to occasionally expand our businesses and our skills into new areas. That way, we can make sure we’re adapting to an ever-changing marketplace and keeping our minds sharp. It’s not always the right time to take on a project that has components that you’re not familiar with. But turning down projects out-of-hand because you haven’t done it before can lead to lost opportunities.

If your hesitation doesn’t have anything to do with either of those two things, it’s time to focus on other possible causes.

The Criteria for a “Yes” – Are We A Good Fit?

Sometimes it’s easier to evaluate a new project when you have specific criteria to use for taking it on. Understanding who your business is the right “fit” for and who’s the right “fit” for you is essential. Outlining this early and frequently helps avoid wasting everyone’s time.

Making a shortlist of questions can be a great way to assess a project systematically. Here are a few questions you might decide to require a “yes” from if you’re struggling.

Does it align with my company’s vision & goals?

First things first: You can’t pretend to know whether taking on any particular project is a good idea in light of your long-term business vision & goals if you haven’t taken the time to establish those vision & goals. By the way, “make a great living as an interior designer” is not clear or specific enough.

I recommend setting a vision for the year, then setting goals and scheduling your plans to reach them in 90-day increments. (For more on 90-day goal setting and planning, read my full post on the topic: Starting the New Year Right: Planning for the First Three Months.)

If a project isn’t getting you closer to your yearly goal or other long-term vision in some way — or worse, cause you to somehow take a step in the opposite direction, you may have found your answer.

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Does it align with my values?

Maybe you’ve been at this for a while and you know for sure what you’re not willing to tolerate. Maybe you can’t articulate your values right now, but you know when you see them.

Either way, if a project makes you hesitate because it somehow goes against what you feel is right ethically or professionally, that’s usually a good enough reason to try to move along to the next one.

Does it have hidden benefits?

Maybe at face value, the project isn’t too exciting. Perhaps it’s not a huge step forward on its own. But projects often have hidden benefits, usually, in the form of new skills or connections, that can help your business indirectly.

For example, maybe the project is high visibility and could lead to a lot more exposure. Maybe it could improve an existing relationship or lead to other valuable connections. Maybe it’s a chance for you to learn something new that you can use later on.

Sometimes it’s hard to know about these benefits beforehand. That’s what makes any new project risky. But in other cases, you may be able to ask good questions or make sure to get the benefits you hoped for.

Do I have the resources to do it well?

Design firms live by their calendars. They understand how long project engagements typically take and make sure that they give each project the effort and time it deserves. (I mention more about stabilizing your income with calendar scheduling in my post on getting multiple revenue streams.)

Your team only has so much time in the day, week, and month. If you ignore that fact, you will either let work overrun your life and health (and face burnout) or start to do sub-par work — or more likely, both. If you don’t have the available resources and can’t find a way to make the project a success for you and the client, that may just be the simplest reason to turn down a project opprotunity.

[bctt tweet=”When you say no, you’re opening yourself up to the right yes.” username=”idmasterclass”]

Regardless of why you decide to turn a potential opportunity down, saying no can be uncomfortable. Embrace that discomfort with the knowledge that you’re growing as the CEO of your design business. When you say “no,” you’re opening yourself up to the right “yes.” And when you get to that “yes,” you’ll be saying it with confidence and enthusiasm.


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The Comments

  • Jane Campbell
    January 29, 2018

    I just read your article “It’s OK to say No”. Great points! All too often we take on projects for the wrong reason and then realize our gut instinct said…”don’t do it” ! When we remove the personal connection to these type of projects, it really is much easier to say “No”. This is the stuff they don’t teach in design programs at college or university.
    Enjoy the IDMC articles…thanks.