Back on Sunday, May 31st 2009, I wrote a post about a client I had just finished working with on the design for a custom coffee table with dragonflies and reeds inlayed in the top of it. Here is a link to that blog post.
Let's just say it didn't go well for Dan. In case you don't want to read my whining, here's a brief excerpt from what I wrote after that experience, summarizing my then and current thoughts on design fees:
"Here’s what I’ll do for free :
Have a meeting or two of
reasonable length, say an hour or so, at my shop or at their house close
by …. No Charge …. More than ½ hour travel time from my shop, meetings
MAY involve travel time reimbursement. The client will be informed in
advance and the charge will be assessed at my discretion, probably
depending on how the meeting seems to go.
Provide concept sketches and one CAD scale drawing … No Charge
design is ‘close’ but not finalized, I’ll provide a non binding
ESTIMATE of the project’s cost including shipping and installation. No
If we move on from there without, at that time, a formal
agreement, I will request a non-refundable design fee that seems appropriate to the project at hand. (Our current design rate on 2/14/15 is $75.00/ hour) If that fee is used up, we probably
have a problem, and we’ll have to take it from there with a new, written and accepted, design
fee agreement ….
I hope this is clear and that it will help both
me and my customers to understand that design is not something that
just 'happens' but is a sometimes complicated and time consuming process. And,
time is really all we’ve REALLY got.. "
I don't think I would change much about that summary today. And, until this past December, I have not had to request any design fees since 2009. I will say though, that every time in the future that I do request a design fee, which is really, really only when I think it necessary, I will make sure that if someone gives me a design fee, that they understand my stated position on this.
The prompt for this current posting was from a potential client who asked me to consider
building for them a 'Greene and Greene' style kitchen with all the bells and whistles. Their budget, at first, seemed sort of reasonable, but since we had no drawings to bid from, and the drawings their kitchen designer provided were 'not what they wanted', if I wanted to consider doing the job, I would have to make drawings to bid from. They offered a $1000. design deposit, which I thought was reasonable, and which the husband, obviously, took to mean I was totally committed to their project, would love their site and their contractor, and could do whatever design they wanted, whenever they wanted it, within their budget. Well, after quite a bit of drawing time and back and forth by email, and a site visit to Boston to meet their contractor and actually see the space they were going to remodel, for a variety of reasons I will not go into here, (I'll invoke Will Rogers who once said "Never miss a good chance to shut up"), I decided to withdraw. Since I had spent quite a lot of time just understanding the space, which was very tight, and producing drawings and a quick model for the design meeting, and to estimate a total cost, I offered to settle for just the deposit, which was about 1/2 of the time I had spent on the project, not counting the overnight trip to Boston. We had already discussed at our initial meeting that I do kitchen work only on a 'cost plus basis'.
The wife was fine with that, but the husband, not so much .. I spoke with the wife, and followed up with some post meeting suggestions to smooth the project execution, and didn't hear anything until almost a month later, last Wednesday night, when i received the email below:
Sorry to take a couple of weeks to get back on this --
busy digging out. We're not as good at dealing with so much snow as
Let's focus on where we agree, i.e., that
this won't be settled over email. Glad for any thoughts you have on a
resolution mechanism. Is there a local trade group or business
association up there that offers mediation or arbitration? The default
is filing a claim in Bennington County small claims court, which itself
may be a good option all around -- inexpensive, informal, local for you.
' inexpensive, informal, local for you ' ... Love it! So breezy and informal !! and the snow!
After fuming for a bit and talking to 'my closest advisors', I decided to return the client's entire $1000. deposit and get on with it. Anything else seemed like a lose/lose from a business standpoint. Taking a design deposit in the future? I will list all the contingencies I can think of, have a reading of my policy above, and feel better about my chances of getting paid for at least some of my efforts, regardless of whether the project proceeds or not.
What I had to bid from, plus some 'not what we want' sketch up pictures.
The cad drawings I prepared for the meeting in Boston .. The model is at the start of this post.
Live and Learn ...