Go your own way?
In an industry where the retail showroom model dominates, the recent rise of the freelance designer was bound to divide opinion. Rebecca Winward investigates whether these mavericks are just loose cannons or actually good for the consumer and the industry
There are definitely mixed feelings within the KBB industry about freelance designers. In fact, it’s such a tricky subject that some people are understandably reluctant to be drawn into the debate.
It’s perhaps not surprising that an initial negative reaction is fairly commonplace, since it’s not always clear where freelancers fit in. There is also the concern that they may introduce additional complexity into an already fairly complicated process.
But where some retailers see freelancers as a threat – perhaps worrying that lower overheads may allow sole traders to undercut them – some see them fulfilling a need that doesn’t threaten their core target market. For example, helping customers who want to design a new kitchen before their home has been built, where some showrooms are reluctant to design off-plan. Or where customers with a low-end budget want to benefit from the expertise of an experienced specialist designer.
There’s even an argument to say that the freelance design option can help retailers avoid time-wasters. “A customer paying up front for design-only services can actually benefit retailers,” explains Karen Wallace of freelance concept planners OnePlan. “It’s more ethical for a customer to be able to shop around without taking one showroom’s ideas to another for comparison’s sake.
“Avoiding having to run through the design process multiple times not only saves the customer time, but the showroom too. It means that they can reduce the amount of time spent working up designs for customers that don’t end up engaging their services.”
A positive view of the freelance offering is recognised in other parts of the industry, too, though there is a caveat – there’s freelance and there’s freelance.
There’s a variety in how they work, with some offering a design-only service, and others offering a sole-trader version of the design, supply and project management model – often working with the same trusted installation firm.
But there’s also a variety in quality. Some are extremely highly skilled, having been in the industry a long time, and therefore they are familiar with both the market and installation best practice.
“These are the freelance designers that can add value, bring innovative new ideas, and react more quickly to market changes and consumer demands,” says Keith Wardrope, managing director at kitchen component supplier HPP. “This type of freelancer can also help to drive competitive prices for consumers, and help to fill skills gaps for smaller installation and manufacturing companies.”
But, as Wardrope adds, this type of freelancer appears to be in the minority, partly because the appeal of working in a team – with the pay and benefits of being an employee of a larger company – draws many good designers to work for showrooms. “At the other end of the scale are the inexperienced freelancers, who might be just starting out in their careers,” he explains. “They can cause a lot of frustration for manufacturers and installers, who are asked to produce something that just isn’t commercially viable, and it can cause stress and confusion for consumers who are relying on the designer to deliver them a finished, well-thought-out plan, but are then being told that revisions will take place.”
There is a feeling among retailers, too, that where there’s scope for contrasting professional advice to be offered, client trust can be too easily compromised.
Paul Nash, managing director of turnkey service specialists Nash Homeworks, says: “We’ve had customers come into our showroom with kitchen or bathroom plans they’ve had drawn up already, and sometimes we’ve found that these designs haven’t been drawn with full awareness of site or budgetary limitations. For example, a soil pipe may have been routed across a room, or the plan might indicate the removal of a wall without the budget actually allowing for the installation of an RSJ.”
He adds: “In such situations, you have the unenviable job of telling the customer that their design isn’t feasible. This can cause doubt in their mind about who to trust. And, of course, if the client then chooses to override your advice, there’s always the danger that they’ll be dissatisfied with the final outcome, but not recall the fact that you advised against it in the first place. I always think the highest levels of customer satisfaction can be best ensured where design and installation are undertaken by in-house specialists.”
Communication is also an issue raised by Damian Walters, chief executive of the British Institute of Kitchen, Bedroom & Bathroom Installation (BiKBBI). But he is careful to point out that this is an issue to be carefully considered by all designers, freelance or otherwise, when communicating with installation teams.
“KBB installation is a complex beast, with multiple moving parts, and therefore it is often problematic. The adage ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing’ is particularly relevant in this industry, if there’s a lack of collaboration between designer and installer,” explains Walters.
“With ever-changing technology, legislation and workforce, retailers must be incredibly mindful of the impact of consistency, both in terms of installer and designer resource.
“As long as consistency is met, and the training and development of people prioritised, I see no reason why a freelance designer role cannot be successful.”
David Gillett, principal lecturer and course leader of the Foundation Degree in Kitchen Design at Buckinghamshire New University, agrees. He says: “Education is the key to gaining an advantage, professionally and commercially, whether you are employed or freelance. The need for formally qualified people becomes ever greater as technology advances, and informed consumers have enhanced expectations through online searches. To have the capacity – and confidence – to address those demands comfortably, to assume responsibility, to inform, guide, offer imaginative ideas and solutions, and to manage a project to a successful conclusion, is part of developing true professional competence.”
Without the weight of an organisation and brand behind them, a freelance designer’s knowledge, experience and credibility must stand by themselves – and formal qualifications can go towards fulfilling this requirement. But qualifications are not a panacea.
HPP’s Wardrope says: “Because they are a one-person operation, freelancers may be less knowledgeable than larger design companies, as they don’t have the breadth of specialties to call on. There’s also the consideration that keeping up with technical and trend-related innovation must be harder without the hive-mind resource of a group of colleagues at their disposal. It’s a tall order to assimilate such a raft of knowledge, and manage the day-to-day running of a business, while undertaking the core business of the design work itself.”
That’s not to say that it’s impossible, of course – especially if a designer has significant experience in the industry already, and a natural flair for marketing their services.
But it’s not the sort of career move that is without its risks and challenges. It certainly shouldn’t be seen as a way to make a fast buck, and while the idea of being one’s own boss may appeal, it’s certainly not the easy option.
So, is there a place in the industry for freelancers? Undoubtedly. But it’s not likely that we’ll see any significant shift away from the showroom-led business model, as freelance opportunities only really exist for those at the top of their game. Those who’ve carved out their own niche, and have the broad skill set to market their services, design exemplary spaces, and keep the other business elements in hand.