The Business of Design Interview Series: Reflections on a Decade Gone By—Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

May 13, 2021In SD BlogBy Lauren Espineli

As one of the premier authorities on running successful design businesses, Studio Designer CEO Keith Granet has forged a singular and vital career in the trade with his extensive and time-tested knowledge of what makes a design firm succeed, maintain prosperity, and grow. His book The Business of Design has become an essential compendium for ambitious designers and design firms seeking to get to the next level.

The ten years since The Business of Design’s first publication have brought such dramatic changes to the industry, that Keith felt compelled to update his iconic book with a new edition to align his teachings with the current speed of technology and the transformation of the marketing landscape. In her introduction for the new edition, glamorous design doyenne Holly Hunt proclaimed this book to be the “graduate school edition” and shared, “the teachings from his book have significantly raised the bar of knowledge and practice in the business of interior design.”

To correspond with the new edition, Studio Designer is pleased to present The Business of Design Interview Series! Keith will engage in fascinating discussions with top designers who all have successfully put in the work and creative energy to reach the top of their profession.

We are pleased to welcome the sparkling and talented Renaissance woman Suzanne Kasler as our first guest in our webinar series on Thursday, June 10th. Register here to secure your spot for this live session. To whet your appetite for this exciting interview series, we turned the spotlight on this interview with Keith. He shares useful nuggets of design advice, his aspirations for the industry, plus a sneak peek into some of new things you can expect in the new edition, scheduled for release on June 15th.

The Business of Design has been a bestseller ever since it was first published 10 years ago. Why do you think it continues to have an impact?

First, this book features a number of important lessons that are simply not taught in design schools enough. There is a long history of designers who have never been taught the business side, so they were hungry for material that spoke their language. They needed something beyond a conventional textbook that provided real-life information about how they should operate a design business. Secondly, several interior design schools have incorporated The Business of Design into their Professional Practice courses as their textbook-of-choice. The first design program that adopted The Business of Design as a textbook was the University of Cincinnati. Today, it is used in programs across the country including New York School of Interior Design (NYSID), and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Can you describe some of the updates you are making to this new edition and why?

 10 years ago designers did not have an easy way to showcase their work to the public other than shelter magazines. Social media barely existed! Now, Instagram has become the leading social media platform for designers to show off their work.

In Chapter 3: Marketing and Public Relations, I discuss the significant changes in the media landscape, the tried and true lessons that remain relevant, and the refreshing trend of authenticity. I think that HGTV and the rise of the DIY in home decorating continues to help keep the overall industry healthy and thriving. One fun fact is that home decoration goods revenue exceeded the clothing and fashion industry for the first time two years ago.

Another major part of my rewrite was the need the need to discuss new venues and other platforms for designers to market and promote their work. I started the rewrite at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, and it allowed me time to really reflect and consider the state of the trade and how we can work collectively for positive change and improvement.

I also wanted to update content about teams and people management. It’s now become apparent how different generations that exist within companies—from Baby Boomers, to Gen X, to Millennials to now Gen Z—and how they all operate differently in the working world. I had to think about all these different groups of people cohabitating in one company with this question: How do you navigate each of their motivations and goals to have one single, productive company?

What is one change in the industry you’d like to see over the next decade?

It’s not necessarily a change but a continuation—I want the leaders of this industry to keep educating and championing the value of good design. I truly want people to understand why they should hire an architect and interior designer even if there is a robust DIY marketplace. Many interior designers have an exceptional talent that cannot be easily replicated by amateurs. I often say that I can walk into a store and purchase exactly all the same products a designer can buy but I will never put together a room the same way. It is important to respect a designer’s gift for how they are able to design and decorate—the way they place objects, understand the proper proportions of shape and color, and ultimately how it all comes together. I always want to promote their talent and expertise.

Given the heavy economic impact of the pandemic, why do you think the design industry has weathered the downturn and emerged not only healthy but thriving?

Personally, I think it’s because we’ve been stuck in our homes and we’re looking around and noticing what needs to be updated; everything from needing a new pillow, a refreshed sofa, or even an entirely new home. There is a high demand for home improvement and renovations because people are spending more time than ever in their apartments and houses.

Because of the robust need for designers, I’m not overly concerned about how the industry will fare once the world opens up once again. I do think we need to consider that once the floodgates open to travel, more and more disposable income will be set aside for that. I might advise designers to prepare for an eventual dip in our market as people will be less likely to put money in their homes, so they can get out and see the world.

When designers are worried about the state of the economy, I urge them not to make major business decisions based on fear. Sometimes designers panic, take on everything, offer discounts beyond a reasonable rate, etc. When things slow down, clients at a discount are always the toughest clients.

Business is certainly booming for interior designers, and as an advisor to many firms, I have a front row seat to their growth. I have many clients who are so busy that they cannot handle the increased work. Top firms are finding it tough to find talented people. It’s a very tight market for experienced design talent— it took me six months to place a good candidate for one of my clients.

What is the one thing a designer or design firm can do it remain profitable and resilient in a volatile economy?

 I urge designers to be very selective about clients and make sure prospective clients have the appropriate budget for their projects. I also tell designers to not discount their fees because that can a slippery slope. Designers often ask me, “What do I do about a client that asks me for a discount?” My favorite reply to this question is, “If every client in my office pays the same rates, why do you want to be the one client who gets a discount?” We don’t want to treat you like a second-class citizen but you will be because when we work on your project, we’re going to think about you’re the one who’s paying us less and why would you put us in that position?”

A good client has a good budget and vision for what they want to and understand the type of work they want from a designer. Look out for clients who are overly demanding and beware of someone who quits their job to build a house because they will be in your face all day. Look for a client who is respectful, courteous, understands your expertise, and lets you do your job. This person should understand that a beautiful home takes hard work and knows the right team can deliver a dream home—a good architect and contractor, the right landscape designer, and you!

One of the most compelling takeaways from The Business of Design, is the Skills vs. Culture chart. Can you share how you conceived it and why you think it is so effective for hiring practices?

This Skills vs. Culture Chart predates the book and I came up with it after many years of working with different firms and coming to understand what the culture of the firms were and why they all functioned so differently. I observed that there were some firms that were highly skilled but the employees didn’t really care about each other with low productivity and were good places to work. Then I noticed the firms that had employees that were really well cultured, highly productive, and fun to work at. They were indeed much more profitable and more successful than the firms that just focused on high skills.

From this comparison, I started really analyzing what were the major differences within those types of firms. When I started visually mapping out what that structure looked like, this chart came about to quickly understand where an employee fits into your organization. I‘ve used it a lot to determine if somebody is right. If someone is in the bottom left quadrant, low culture and low skills, they shouldn’t be in your organization at all. I’ve used this chart to literally go through an entire staff of people one by one to identify low culture / low skills employees and let them go immediately.

The Skills vs. Culture Chart is a tool to review staff to say—here is where you are, here where we want you to be, and here are the things you need to do to get you where we want you to be. With this chart, it’s very enlightening for employees to know how they are perceived by employers and colleagues versus how they perceive themselves. It gives them important insight on where they stand in their companies.

Your business consulting work serves to empower creativity and improve designers’ business acumen, what are other goals you have for elevating the trade?

 My mission for entire career is to elevate the way designers think of their profession as a business. Since our industry is a luxury as well as a privilege, it’s a little more difficult to authentically express and promote its value. For instance, people need lawyers and doctors to avoid crime or stay healthy but you don’t really need a decorator or an architect to live.

I know how lucky it is to be able to hire an interior designer. My goal is always championing the talent, skills, and worth of a designer to the public. It’s not easy because it’s a profession that designers regard as a craft. Designers often love what they do for a living so it’s quite difficult for to communicate that value and get paid for it appropriately. They are often willing to do it for a lot less than it’s worth because of deep love for the work.

It’s the greatest challenge of this industry. When you have something that is that much of a passion, how do you establish your value in a way that you’re getting optimum dollars for it and what you deserve?

I compare it with the real estate industry where a broker can get a six percent commission on selling a house each time it is sold but an architect has to fight to get a ten percent fee for building the house in the first place. Nobody questions the real estate agent as they have a strong association and public understanding of their pricing.

At a Leaders of Design Council conference in with numerous industry leaders, I asked participants who were in groups to discuss, “What would you like this industry to be better at?” All of the groups came up with the same idea: “How do we communicate our value?” It showed to me that all designers have difficulties communicating their value because of the well-known tendency to discount just to get a job.

Architects tried to establish a fee structure years ago and it was considered price-fixing by the government because of the perception that architecture and design is merely a service industry. One of my goals is being able to get the trade to support itself so designers don’t undercut each other. It’s why I started the Leaders of Design Council and it’s why every business I have is about improving the overall business of design.

The Cofounders of The Leaders of Design Council: Meg Touborg and Keith Granet

In addition to being CEO of Granet & Associates—your consulting firm—you are also CEO of Studio Designer and founder of the Leaders of Design Council. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from these leadership roles?

 Everything is about relationships and the most important lessons I teach are about the importance of relationships. Many colleagues, clients, and friends have called me “the great connector” because of the profound relationships that I’ve formed throughout the years. These relationships led me to Studio Designer because of the connections I’ve established with designers and vendors who have used the platform for decades.

The Leaders of Design Council was founded directly as a result of my relationships with clients who largely formed the majority of attendees at the very first LDC conference. I simply love putting people together and that’s really how my licensing work came about.

Barbara Barry’s Caprice Bed design for Baker Furniture

The Barbara Barry Baker License I helped establish is now 30 years old, the longest-standing license in my career. My work with her launched my licensing career as I wrote her business plan and she had the gumption to pursue a product design with Baker, a fruitful partnership that endures to this day.

What do you hope for the next generation of designers?

I believe that interior design is a profession you should absolutely be passionate about. If you lack this passion, find something else to do. You have to love doing this work and quite frankly there’s a lot to love. How often does a job or career involve creating beauty? You get to enhance and improve people’s homes with beauty and your skills as a designer. Great design comes from those who have the skills and the passion for design in order to execute the vision of the home you want.

For the next generation, I want to share the design profession to young talent and individuals who would never have exposure to or the opportunities of the world of interior design. I believe that we have to start getting into at-risk communities and inner-city schools to find students who can find passion in this profession. I believe the key to promoting diversity in this industry is to present opportunities and more education to students. I think it’s important to take a deeper dive into the next generation in order to improve this profession. That is one of my goals for the next step to champion by working with schools and communities to allow them to get to know the business of design.

Keith will use his seasoned expertise in the design trade for the upcoming The Business of Design Interview Series. Our first interview is with the fabulous designer Suzanne Kasler and you can sign up here.

Want to learn more about Studio Designer? 

Email info@studiodesigner.com, register for our weekly demo, or give us a call: 800-300-8715. We can’t wait to connect.

Studio Designer is the leading digital project management, product sourcing and accounting platform for the interior design industry.