Unless you are fortunate enough to be a trust fund baby, or have the last name Rockefeller, Kennedy, Hilton or – shudder – Kardashian, I think most of us have, at one time or another, wondered what our time was worth. Maybe it was that blank on a job application – “Expected Starting Rate” – or maybe when a friend jokingly asked, “What would it cost me for you to blah, blah, blah…” Those answers are generally “minimum wage” and “Oh, nothing – you can buy me lunch sometime” but in my line of work, I question all the time what I am worth. For interior designers, time IS money.
See, interior designers typically sell a service – not so much tangible goods. Oh sure, we sell sofas and curtains and knick-knacks, all of it, but we rarely make much off those items. Thanks to the internet, anyone can buy anything, so smart designers charge for their skill and expertise – meaning, we charge for our time. But we cannot simply charge just the time we spend with clients…
Some of that “billable” time was spent years ago in school, learning the basics. Some of that time was spent in training, as a junior designer or firm associate. A lot of that time is spent researching products for specific jobs or applications, making sure buildings meet “codes” and fabrics are “flame-retardant enough.” Some of that time is spent chasing the non-existent (e.g., an acrylic night stand with a wood top that light ups and isn’t “too big”). And a BIG chunk of that time is spent with clients, trying to decode what they are saying and deciphering what they really want, after we listen to a list of all the things they don’t want.
Time. It just all takes time. And like most designers, I frequently ask myself just what is my time really worth? How much a day, an hour, a minute? What dollar amount equals my time investment? I remembering reading once that for every hour a designer actually spends with a client, no less than 4-6 hours of unseen work and research/preparation take place to make that hour “happen.”
What should I charge for my time? I am asking myself that question again as a project recently went into the toilet after more than ten months of effort. Yeah, ten months – like longer than it takes to “make a baby human.” The project was suspended due to a completely unpredictable and unanticipated event but, regardless, here I sit with my business partner, ten months later, with nothing to show for our efforts. (We have, however, made a few really great friends along the way!) How would we even bill the clients for our time? What does ten months of work – designing, presenting, waiting, revamping, re-presenting, waiting – revamping, scrambling, waiting – cost? I don’t think anyone could pay for it, even if we could set a value.
So, yeah, here we are again, at a place we have been many times before, lavished with praise and appreciation but sitting with empty wallets. It is discouraging to say the least. And no matter how much clients love us, and are sincere and apologetic and “…hope we can understand,” all that good will don’t pay the rent. If I miss a doctor’s appointment, I have to pay for it anyway. If I forget a dentist visit, I get billed for it. If I reserve a movie then forget to pick it up, I still get charged – and it gets rented to someone else that same night! So, again, I ask…
How much IS my time worth?