For years, D Home has tasked local showrooms with answering an important question: Who are the best designers in Dallas? This year, their expert input yielded a list of the 99 most highly regarded industry professionals in town.

But rather than simply telling you who was included on this year’s list (which we do on page 91), we thought it just as important to tell you how to use this list. These are the top designers, sure, but how do you go about hiring one? How do you know who is best for you? What do they secretly wish you would and wouldn’t do?

Who better to answer these commonly asked questions than our winners? With their help, we’ve attempted to take the guesswork out of collaborating with a designer so you can get right to the business of making your home more beautiful. 


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WHY SHOULD I HIRE A DESIGNER?

According to Russ Peters, the reason people need designers is pretty simple: “You don’t cut your own hair, do you?” 

Margaret Chambers puts it another way. “Designers have the knowledge, education, and experience necessary to beautifully and efficiently execute the job,” she says. “A homeowner might redecorate their home only a few times; designers do it every day.”

Using that expertise and experience, designers are able to cut out inefficiencies and errors that could cost you in the end. Being able to envision, down to the smallest detail, a space in its entirety from the outset will result in smarter shopping and fewer money-wasting change orders.

“Hiring a professional designer is a smart investment,” says Tiffany McKinzie. “A great designer will not only ensure that the overall vision is achieved, but he or she can also help avoid costly mistakes.” Echoes Alana Villanueva: “A designer saves you time, money, and heartache.”

Of course, professional designers also have access to resources that most amateurs don’t. While the web and popular design-related sites like Houzz and Pinterest have made it easier for DIYers to find products beyond their city limits, designers have beneficial industry relationships and access to to-the-trade showrooms that the general public does not.

Still unconvinced? Allow us to state the obvious: They can make your home look better than you can. “Who wants to live in a beautiful, functional space? Everyone,” says Bill Cates. “Who can pull off all the plans and nuances that can produce that space? Almost no one. That’s why you need a designer.”


HOW DO I CHOOSE A DESIGNER?

So you’ve made the decision to hire a designer. But where do you start? Begin by asking around. 

“Word of mouth is key,” says Bill Cates. “Most of our clients come from recommendations from former or current clients. Ask your friends and family for leads.” 

'Don’t assume because most of a designer’s projects are traditional that they don’t design contemporary. Good interior designers can design any project.'

- Cheryl Van Duyne
If you can’t come up with any possibilities that way, turn to design resources. Check professional organizations such as the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), or, if you’re remodeling, see if the candidates you screen are Registered Interior Designers in the state of Texas, which means that they’ve met statewide education, experience, and examination requirements. Browse design publications like D Home to see examples of spaces that you like, and take note of who was behind them. Pay attention to any honors designers have received for their work.

Once you’ve narrowed your list down to a few contenders, set up meetings with all of them. You’ll need to first make sure that this is someone with whom you get along and can stand to work with for months—or years. “Choosing a designer is like dating,” says Rick Rozas. “It has to feel right for everyone involved.” Agrees Leigh Taylor Bornitz, “You want someone qualified as well as someone that you like and have fun with. You want to ‘click’ with your designer.”

In your meeting, discuss your desires and your budgetary restrictions. Ask for referrals and the chance to see previous projects. Request to see a contract or letter of agreement and study it closely. And if they don’t have one? “That’s a red flag,” says Jan Showers.

Other questions to ask: How do they structure their fees? What’s their current project load? What’s a realistic timeline for your project? How and how often do they prefer to communicate? What are their design philosophies and aesthetic? Do they do whole houses only, or can you hire them for just one room? (You might be surprised: Many of our designers answered that they can be hired for single rooms and even single pieces. As Marilyn Rolnick Tonkon put it, “I’ll quote Mario Buatta: ‘I’ll do a pillow.’”)

In the end, it will be up to you to decide who is the best person for you, your home, and your family. Most importantly, stresses Ty Burks, “You should be as comfortable with your designer as you want to be in your newly designed home.”


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WHAT CAN I EXPECT?

In a perfect world, a designer would deliver the best brands and pieces on time and on budget. In the real world, it’s not always that simple. 

So what can you realistically expect from your designer? First, a designer should stay on budget—and only overspend with your approval. “I show clients a high, low, and mid-priced option for the pieces that we are selecting,” says Abbe Fenimore. “It gives them the option to splurge on the pieces they really love while keeping the budget in check with more affordable pieces, too.” Adds Joshua Rice, “I generally present what I believe to be an ideal design solution, and if that has the potential to go over-budget, I will make sure I have a secondary plan available that will meet budget requirements.” 

If you don’t have a budget, your designer will likely be happy to help you set one. Our survey respondents recommended setting aside a buffer for the “hidden costs” that you either don’t think about—commissions; receiving, delivery, and storage fees; taxes; installation services; etc.—or don’t see coming. Marilyn Rolnick Tonkon suggests allocating 10 to 20 percent of your budget for such surprises. “There are always unexpected issues and change orders,” she explains.

Another key part of budgeting is understanding how and how much your designer charges, something he or she should be upfront about at your very first meeting. Many of our surveyed designers said they work on an hourly fee and charge mark-ups on purchased pieces. Others work on a flat fee. Some require a retainer upfront; others don’t. Each designer works differently, and sometimes based on the project, so make sure it’s explained and agreed upon in a contract or letter of agreement before committing to work together. 

'It is always our job to translate clients’ tastes to an elevated level. Even if we think the best option is from Ikea. We mix high and low. Good design all works together.'


- Lisa Martensen
Your designer should also work with you to set a realistic and achievable timeline—and do their absolute best to meet it. As with costs, sometimes circumstances prevent a project from finishing on time, be it simple indecisiveness, time-intensive custom pieces, or acts of God, like weather or production issues. But an experienced designer can often take most of the guesswork out of setting a schedule. “We develop a timeline working backwards from the completion date,” says Emily Summers. “We start by selecting long-lead-time items, like custom rugs. We keep clients updated on what decisions they need to make and the associated deadlines for the project to stay on schedule. Our office has developed tracking tools and reports that integrate ordering, accounting, and tracking.”

The key, our winners agree, is regular communication and frequent meetings. If your project is new construction, this is all the more crucial. “When building, it is important to have standing meetings with the builder, architect, designer, and client, in order to have constant view of the project,” says Leslie Jenkins. These meetings may not always take the same shape—sometimes you may be visiting a showroom together—but the frequent interaction helps keep everyone on the same page. You should also be consulted any time problems arise that would result in a change to not only the budget or timeline but agreed-upon design choices as well.

As for the design itself, your designer should think long-term. Is this space capable of evolving with your growing family and changing needs? Will it still look relevant 10 years from now? To that end, our winners almost unanimously agreed that trends should take a backseat to timelessness when it comes to design. Whether your style is traditional or contemporary, a home can be current without being trendy. “Since decorating and designing a house is an expensive project, we do not want clients to come back in three years and say that their house looks dated,” says Jan Showers. “Classicism and timelessness are very important.” Mary Anne Smiley agrees: “What is trending is never a consideration on my projects. What is appropriate, in good taste, and is good design is what is important.”

Most of all, you should expect your designer to keep your needs and desires—not theirs—in the forefront. A good designer should push you aesthetically and introduce you to brands, concepts, and schemes that you might not have otherwise been aware of, but he or she should never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, you are the one who will live here. As Barbara Vessels puts it: “I try to help my clients develop their own taste to a higher level.”


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WHAT DO THEY EXPECT FROM ME?

There are things you can do in order to ensure the process remains smooth and enjoyable for both parties. First, come in with ideas. That includes tear sheets, pictures of that hotel you stayed in that one time that you loved, Houzz idea books, and Pinterest boards. Be forthcoming with your desires, but remain open and trusting of your designer. After all, that’s why you hired them. “An ideal client is one that knows what they like and don’t like and can communicate it but allows the designer to bring their expertise and ideas to the table,” says Tiffany McKinzie. “If a client feels the need to micromanage or direct the designer throughout the process, then hiring a professional, no matter how established they are, won’t net the best results.”

Next, be realistic about money. Know how far your dollars can go, and be upfront about your budget. “Clients can be way too mysterious about their budget, afraid we will spend all of the amount they mention,” says Sherry Hayslip. “If we aren’t told what the budget is, we’ll never be able to do it.” Oh, and when those invoices come in? Pay them on time.

Also, be realistic about the timeline, and don’t blame your designer if something is taking longer than expected. This process requires patience. “It takes time to measure, design, and draw projects,” says Cheryl Van Duyne. “It takes time to have custom work and furnishings made.” 

There’s another reason your designer wants you to slow down, too: They want you to end up with the right pieces, not the pieces you can have right now. “The biggest challenge is slowing a client down to make sure they are making good, methodical decisions for every item in their home,” says Rick Rozas. “Instant gratification is what everyone thinks they want—until they see what they can get if they wait.”

Then, when you love the way a project turns out, say so—not just to your designer, but to your friends. Referrals are the lifeblood of the design business.

And throughout this and any future projects you and your designer work on together, be enthusiastic, and as Kathy Adcock-Smith advises, “Have a sense of adventure.” 

WHAT DO THEY NOT WANT FROM ME?

When asked for their pet peeves (and promised anonymity for this particular question), an overwhelming amount of our designers had the same response: Indecisiveness. “A project can be a nightmare when a client cannot make a final decision,” says one. “I tell people all the time to not rush on a decision, but to think about it, feel good about it, and then forget about it.” 

Another commonly voiced complaint is impatience, and the inability to withstand hiccups. Spoiler alert: There will be problems. The more prepared you are for them to occur and the more flexible you are in handling them, the better the experience will be. “Every project large or small is going to have surprises, some good, some bad,” says one designer. “Clients sometimes become too focused on the birth pains and forget that a beautiful baby is in the offing.” 

Also, don’t expect a designer to read your mind when it comes to what you want. “My pet peeve is clients who are timid about fully sharing their desires and goals,” says another designer. “We cannot translate what isn’t communicated.” But once the process gets underway, have faith in your designer to make your vision a reality. Individual pieces might not make sense to you as a room is coming together, but wait to see the finished product before expressing doubt.

Clients who don’t respond to messages in a timely manner is another no-no—but being in touch too much can be irritating, too. Follow your designer’s lead when it comes to preferred communication style (texting, emailing, calling) and frequency, and respect your designer’s personal time.

In fact, many of the issues designers cited come down to respect. Micromanaging your designer every step of the way stifles their creativity and limits their control over the final outcome. Consulting a “committee” on your designer’s selections shows you question their taste or don’t value their expertise. (“It’s insulting,” said one.) Asking them to copy a room piece for piece suggests that you don’t trust their vision or abilities. Going behind your designer’s back to find better prices or cheap imitations of pieces they select undermines the work that they do. 

And it bears repeating: Pay your bills on time.


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HOW HAS THE INDUSTRY CHANGED?

Clients are now more educated than ever, thanks to resources like Houzz and Pinterest. While designers universally say this is a good thing, it also presents some challenges. “We have to cater our business to compete with the Internet,” says Joanie Wyll. “Sometimes the web gives clients an unrealistic view of cost, quality, and wants.” 

It can also give clients a false sense of confidence. “You can practically take out your own appendix now with the information available, so [people think], ‘How hard can it be to design a house?’” says Dan Nelson.

Despite having a world’s worth of design resources at your disposal, online access is not the same as personal connections. In this regard, John Phifer Marrs says, designers still have the upper hand. “My resources are no longer very exclusive,” he admits, “but my relationships with these resources are.”

In addition to the web, smartphones have made it possible to be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s not always a good thing. When asked what her biggest challenge as a designer was, Susan Bednar Long answered: “Balancing managing my successful firm with my personal/family life.” 

As for client requests, one of the most common changes designers are seeing is a downsizing in square footage, with a focus on space efficiency. Rather than holding firm to traditional floor plans, homeowners today are unafraid to eliminate infrequently used rooms or to transform them into multi-functional spaces that serve several purposes, like a dining-room-cum-library. 

Other requests designers are getting more frequently include open kitchen-living areas that serve as the hub of the home; media rooms; outdoor living spaces; and integrated technology. Many also cited a focus on more casual, livable spaces, which leads to perhaps the best modern discovery of all, summed up by Lisa Martensen: “Good design and practicality are not mutually exclusive.”