Why Creating Your Signature Style Can Help and (Sometimes) Hinder Your Business Growth

November 18, 2021

Being in the design biz for over (yikes) 20 years now, I’ve noticed how things have REALLY changed!  Like, a lot!  In school we are taught about form and function.  Balance, scale, colour theory, and ergonomics. But one thing that isn’t really taught is some of the nuance of managing and delivering a project to someone else…. Like, if the actual design style should be led by the designer or by the client.  If the style path they wanted to go down was just so darn ugly, but didn’t prove to hinder any of the above lessons, what do we do?  When you are just starting out the last thing you want to do is turn down a potentially PAYING client…. Right?

I know this dilemma all too well. But let me set the scene. I was in my first few years at a design firm. And while the business model, on the surface, was about making beautiful spaces, there was no confusion that it had a bottom line – and that bottom line was money. Being part of a firm that was stacked full of eager designers hungrily awaiting their first commission check, there was no WAY I was going to turn someone away because their style did not match mine. Even if that hideously sentimental chandelier the room was to be inspired by made me want to vomit.  So what? “ I am sure I can make it work”.  “It will be fine” I would say to myself ….  Or so I thought.

Then it came time to start putting my portfolio together…..

I started to realise that I wasn’t proud of the work I was doing.  Don’t get me wrong, some of those places I look back on today and still love! But, there were a lot of compromises in there that I wasn’t proud of.  I also found myself thinking “I don’t want these clients to tell others I did this space”.

I wasn’t in the position to pick and choose who I worked with at this particular firm, so off on my own I went. (What an ego on this guy!) But getting a flow of clients right away was a LOT harder than I thought. Before I knew it, the same thing started happening. I lived in fear of when the next client would come. So….I took them all…the good, bad, and ALL of the ugly.

It took awhile but eventually I was able to build up enough clients that I could be a little choosier.  If I am to be totally honest, I had to be forced into a situation where I had to say no to my first client. What pushed me off the ledge?  The client insisting on using dining room chairs as living room furniture so her massive cat playground could fit.  I mean, I love cats but our design vision was just not meshing. I could tell the relationship was going to be stressful, and I would have spent my time on a project where I couldn’t justify taking any photos to build out my portfolio.

So I looked back at what I did have in (my albeit) light  portfolio. What was the connection between these spaces that I felt so proud of? Lightbulb! I noticed that the rooms that really came together, belonged to clients that had a fundamental trust and respect in me.  They were willing to listen to my ideas and I was happy to explain in great detail, why I am making these suggestions and why this is going to be good for them in the long run.  It doesn’t mean I didn’t get push-back, I did. Flashback to a ceiling detail and they were only 8’ high-bold I know, and the customer walking in when they were half constructed with wires hanging out. Yikes! They went ballistic!!!  “It was going to make the ceilings way too low!” (Was their concern, to put it lightly). Nevertheless, I stuck to my guns, and promising I would re-do it at my cost if it didn’t  work out. Well, it did work out!  (spoiler: I would have never have offered to take it out on my dime if there was any concern it wouldn’t!)

The "freak out" stage.
The final result

But that was it! It was the architectural details!  That is what made those photos stick out from the rest.  Oversized crown moldings and baseboards, details on built in units, and painting otherwise plain interior doors with dark bold colours is what really worked for me – and my clients loved it!

Creating a consistent style can also help to express a clearer vision to new or prospective clients. There is no B level stuff here so if that is what you are looking for, find someone else. Having a proven design style can also cater to the clients’ need for consistency, and can be especially useful when you are dealing with sizable contracts. Another thing I realised is that clients need to feel comfortable about what they are going to get once they hand over those keys to you.  If you have a really mixed portfolio, it could make the client a little nervous about what they can expect and could ultimately force you to work harder to sell your ideas to them. After all, the best projects are the ones where you and the client have a shared vision, and your approach resonates with them.

If being published is on your list of things to accomplish, having a trademark style can help with this. Having a beautiful and consistent social media page is something that editors are going to notice when you submit your work.

Working within your signature style doesn’t always mean replicating the same thing over and over again, or not being able to work with a potentially great client because they fall outside of your style box. You can still stay true to your style while tailoring each project to each client’s own unique tastes.  

Now, that being said, if you have worked in a certain style for a prolonged amount of time, inevitably, boredom will start to set in. Designers are trained to take inspiration from everything, even mundane everyday objects. When inspiration hits, it is wonderful to be able to express your style and let that creativity out. After all, even art students are often discouraged from going down a narrow path too early on. Having a career that’s static can lead you into the design doldrums. So it’s healthy to try new things and develop as an artist and create a dynamic portfolio.  After completing the 90th 2-tone kitchen with meticulously restrained design elements that make up your portfolio, sometimes you just need to paint a bathroom an emerald green with swaths of pretty bold prints to recharge your creativity!

Also, design trends change and thank goodness for that! Being more design flexible will allow you to stay fresh and on trend.  It will also allow you to have a greater global reach as styles tend to be regionally specific.

Just as an artist would want to play with different mediums, techniques and aesthetics; a designer can feel the need to experiment with different materials, colours and scale.  Maybe your style is typically precise and austere, it may be fun to step out of that mold and do some quick, bright and fun. Even the most staunch minimalist can appreciate the appeal of an exquisite tufted velvet sofa! So, maybe breaking out of your tried and true signature style and trying something new isn’t a bad thing after all? 

It is difficult to appeal to the masses, but you can broaden your scope while still staying true to yourself whether you have an established style or you are style fluid. The take away from all this?  Good bones and experience with a sprinkle of a  little “outside the box” ideas seems to work!  For this designer anyway.

Photographing your fabulous kitchen design is the icing on the cake. Designing kitchens is tough stuff and can be highly stressful. The photoshoot should be fun so treat it as such. Play music, bring yummy snacks, and enjoy the ride. These photos will help market your expertise as an industry leader, and will help position you for editorial opportunities, and win contests and awards. I’m sure these helpful tips will ensure effortless looking photos that will energize your website and social media platforms, leading to your next big kitchen renovation project.

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Written by LISA HAMPEL

Over the past 20 years, Lisa has been providing design solutions to people struggling with difficult spaces.  Specializing in renovations and commercial spaces, she has assisted people throughout the Ottawa area ditch the design doldrums, and make the most of their interior spaces.

As of September 2019 Lisa has been working as the Account manager for Mydoma.  She is excited to be a part of a team that is passionate about helping other design professionals thrive in their business.

If you’d like to talk to Lisa about how Mydoma might fit into your own design process, feel free to book her here.