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  • Writer's pictureRenate Ruby

Design vs Decorating vs Personal Shopping

What does it mean to practice interior design? How do we qualify potential designers? What skills are required to legitimately call what you do DESIGN rather than DECORATING or PERSONAL SHOPPING? Most importantly, why does any of this matter?

There are some who want to elevate the title of Interior designer by limiting those who use it by requiring a specific kind of education, testing and apprenticeship. They want the meaning of being an interior designer to be elevated and they want designers to be able to do things like stamp drawings that the AIA has currently reserved only for architects.

There are others who believe that there is more than one way to learn the skills required to do really excellent design work, and that the richness of our profession is increased by people who bring varying backgrounds and perspectives into our field.

I fall within the second group more than the first - although I do understand the frustration knowing that what many of us have dedicated years and years of study to, others simply "become" when they get a job at West Elm. I'd like to discuss the difference that seems more important to me; Design vs Personal Shopping.

I differentiate between the two based on who holds the power to make the final call in the design - the designer or the client. This is not going to go over well with some, but I believe that if one asks their client to control the approval of every single item, then THE CLIENTS are actually the designer and the designers are acting as a personal shopper. People who do design at retail stores (yes, even mine) who are helping people find things they like are not doing design in my book. Even if one is a trained interior designer, everything one does isn't necessarily design.

To me, Interior Design requires enough control of the final edit to put every choice into a context and composition. Even if there is one piece that isn't integrated into the design at the client's insistence, then the client has not received the full value of the design they have paid for. I'm not saying that the client can't bring constraints to a project; some natural and common constraints include using heirlooms or favorite pieces the client already has, or working something in the client really loves - but the designer has to hold enough control to work those constraints into the design in a way that works.

The reason it matters to me, is that I think we can elevate the perceived value of interior design if we separate out the lower value tasks we sometime do from the value of the intellectual property we create as a part of developing a design. Making a distinction between the two elevates design as something different than taking someone shopping and sharing a discount for the client to select something. There is no shame in that game! If that is something you love to do and you can charge for it - then go for it, but I don't think we should call that interior design. If the client is making the final call on individual pieces rather than setting a direction and style goal for the designer to execute - then they are the designer.

How is this helpful to our businesses? First of all, it justifies higher fees for design. It sets the stage for designers to charge not just for their hours - but for the intellectual property of their ideas. We all know that the value of our ideas is not in any way connected to the time it takes us to develop those ideas - so why would we only charge for our time? (I write more about this concept in other posts so I'll just make a short reference to it here).

This differentiation also allows us to explain why those "interior designers" online or at the retail stores may not be offering the same thing I am selling for beaucoup bucks!

If a designer chooses to engage with a client who does not want complete design services without degrading what they ACTUALLY do offering a "design lite" or personal shopping service allows us to take on clients who are not ideal from time to time to keep the lights on. I think we should do what we have to do, but if someone really doesn't want you to do design for them or can't give up enough control for you to successfully do your work, then don't call it design, eliminate it from your design portfolio and charge MORE for actual design. Sure, take them shopping, help them find what they want. Make them happy and make some money running the purchases through your book - but reserve your Interior Design work for projects where the client trusts you and allows you to control the outcome enough to really give them something greater than they can do on their own.

In my experience, when I talk about the difference between personal shopping and interior design services with my clients, they will often start out thinking they want personal shopping, but once they spend time with me and see that not only do I come up with better options than they do, but I teach them enough about style and taste that pretty soon the realize on their own that I'm in a whole different level then they are when it comes to creating an environment. When they finally see their own limitations and appreciate that they actually cannot do what I do, THAT's when they finally see my value and are willing to pay me what I'm worth.

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