How to Hire an Interior Designer

Published September 19, 2017

There are lots of reasons to think about hiring an interior designer: Maybe you can’t seem to whittle down 300 shades of blue into the one that’s right for your space. Or you’ve got a looming kitchen renovation and no idea where to start. Or maybe your decor just feels like something is off. 

Whatever your motivation, there’s a good chance you’ve got more than a few questions about the interior design process, especially if you’ve never worked with a pro before. 

To shed some light on everything from finding the right designer, to communicating what you want, and how to make the whole thing work with your budget, we went straight to the experts: Dixie Willard and Rachel Moriarty. Individually, each operates their own interior design business, and together, they’re the team behind the popular Design + Style podcast. 

Read on as they break down the steps to style.

Let’s start with the basics. For people who have never hired a designer, what is the range of services a designer can provide?

Rachel: You can hire someone to do anything and everything. I came up through the fashion industry and now I mostly do interior styling and decorating and finishing touches. Basically, my process starts when the walls are up. A lot of my clients are empty nesters and they have quality furnishings, and some of them had things they didn’t want to replace til the kids left, so I’m taking existing things and upping it a level. Dixie is a formally trained designer with alphabet soup behind her name.

Dixie: I start with the dream. I like to do the plans, I love working on the drawings, going from an idea to a more concrete idea to the actual thing. Once we have the basic furniture in, that’s about where I like to stop. I can tell you where to hang the art, but for me it’s all about the design and construction. It’s kind of like solving a big puzzle.

Rachel: Dixie and I are each very specialized in what we do, but you can also hire somebody to help you with the entire project, from the point where your home is just a dream all the way through putting the finishing touches on your home when it’s done. 

A styling project Moriarty did for a client’s son’s room.

What’s a good place to start researching potential interior designers?

Rachel: We think the first place to start is your own circle, by asking for referrals and then contacting those designers to see if they do what you need. If you need your bookshelves styled, you’re going to call Dixie and she will be like, “I’m not your girl.” We also love The Design Network website because there are so many design professionals in one place. And each designer has project photos and product boards with curated items, so someone can actually see if the pieces a designer picked on a board resonate with them.

Dixie: If you do see someone that catches your eye, then check out their website, their Instagram, their Facebook because it should give you a feel for their personality. And then the next step is to meet with them to make sure you like them.

Rachel: Especially if you’re doing the kind of work that Dixie does. She just finished an 8,000 square foot house, which takes a long time. Even personally, I’ve been working with a client on a project for a year now, so personality and chemistry plays a huge part in who you hire. I mean, we have keys to our clients’ homes. You’ve got to have a certain comfort level with each other. 

Designers can do everything from choosing tile (like Willard did for a client’s bathroom renovation) to picking throw pillows and creating space plans.

How would you help someone who has no idea where to start or what their style is?

Dixie: It’s actually harder for us when people start using words to describe things, because no two people have the same opinion about what that word means. You could say “red” and one person might think that’s orange and one person thinks it’s brown. It’s kind of the same thing when it comes to the names of styles. It’s more about the feeling, and pictures. Show me pictures of what you love, and we’ll find the pattern.

Rachel: A lot of my clients get really judgy about what they’ve picked. They’ll say “I don’t know! I have this modern glam thing, and I also like farmhouse!” So I’m like “Ok, you want it all, right?” It’s not a big deal, you want what you want and that’s totally OK. Plus, I’m a super-eclectic person anyway, so I’m like, I get that!

We speak a lot in feelings. At the end of a project it helps because then we can say “I chose this color because you wanted a soothing space,” or “I chose that color because you said you wanted more energy here.” It’s easier to make selections by feeling.

So after the client sends you pictures and you discuss the feeling, what’s a client’s role in the design after that point? Do you take it from there?

Dixie: We start with SO many questions. I tell my clients during the onboarding process, you’re going to get sick of me asking questions. You’re going to wonder if there’s any question in the world I haven’t asked. But getting all of that input in the beginning means that we can take what our clients love, narrow it down and distill it into this compact package that they can look at and go, I’m not really crazy about this element, can we do something about this, or I love it, that’s perfect. They always have the final say. We’re not just going to go in and install it all without their OK.

Rachel: It’s a very front loaded process in terms of questions and getting feedback. But after the first presentation we’re all usually on the same page. We do understand that you sometimes start second guessing once the process is underway, but we promise not to leave you in what we call “the messy middle.” That’s why a lot of people who try to DIY never get it done, because they start the process and they never finish it because they start second guessing when everything doesn’t come together right away. 

Dixie: Yes, people get to that middle part and, I think it’s Young House Love, who says the middle makes no sense. It’s true. The middle of the project often does not look right, and we’re here to say it’s OK. Push through. And let us get just a little bit further, it will make sense, I promise.

A breakfast nook by Moriarty.

In terms of timeline, what’s normal for a design project?

Dixie: For me, because I like to work with construction, you have to have time for the drawings, you have to have time for the building, the time to buy all of the furniture … so it can take a year or two years depending on how big the house is and how involved it is. From the first time you go, “You know, I think I’d like a new house,” it can take that long. But then there are other projects that are smaller and faster. I still do consultations where someone will say “Hey, I have this one wonky thing here in my house. Can you just come take a look at it and let me know what to do?” And that of course is pretty quick. I go out there and I spend a couple of hours and I can be like OK, here’s what you need to do.

Rachel: For me it’s all over the map, because I can even go into your home and re-style what you already own. So I can be in your home for a day. And you can have a huge transformation, but obviously if I’m going in and I’m doing custom, we’re talking about months. I also offer virtual design, so online design and decorating, and those are typically six-to-eight-week windows until they get the final deliverable. 

What about the B-word, Budget? Is interior design something that only wealthy people can afford?

Rachel: For a lot of my clients who are focused on affordability I do a hybrid e-design. I’ll go in and actually measure and take photos and talk to them in their home, and then the rest is done via electronic deliverables. But it’s shopping lists with links and mood boards and floor plans so that hybrid model is really great, you can do it for a couple thousand dollars. Or you can have us come in for 90 minutes for a consultation and get you kick-started and then I tell people to call me back when they get stuck again. It’s sort of like a decorator on dial. You know “Hey, I have to make a countertop decision or a flooring decision,” or those big investments when it’s worth it to bring your designer in to make sure everything is cohesive.

Dixie: Interior designers can also save you money because you’re also making a bunch of mistakes! There are all those things where you’re like “Oh, I really shouldn’t have bought that, I should have done some more research or gotten a different color,” and that’s what we’re here to do, is to help guide the process. Even with finishes during construction, you’ll have some finishes that look just fine, but they’re not super expensive and then you want one small thing that just blows people out of the water. We know the combinations that keep things under budget, and where to splurge.

A kitchen remodel Moriarty designed for a California client.

What would you say are the biggest benefits of working with a designer?

Rachel: Definitely avoiding costly mistakes. We have clients that call us in sort of design emergencies. We joke that there are no true design emergencies but sometimes there are! I have had clients with flooding or air conditioning leaks, and all of the sudden within a weekend, because their contractor is ready to do repair the next week, they have to go out and choose new flooring, choose a paint color, and all of the sudden they’re upgrading stuff they hadn’t planned to. So we can come in and help with that. Can you imagine making a flooring mistake? That would be horrible.

Dixie: Yea, that’s not inexpensive.

Rachel: You would have to basically move out and move back in again. We also minimize their decisions. We’ve both worked in showrooms where you tell someone, “Hey we’ve got 3,000 fabrics to choose from!” and the clients, you just see them kind of die inside. 

Dixie: That deer in the headlights look of “Oh, crap!”

Rachel: We also sort of touched on that idea of being master mixologists. We can tell you how to mix your metals, because yes you can mix metals, but you have to be good at it. When to mix the high and low, when to mix the old and new. I love to work with vintage, so I’m kind of a master at mixing old and new.

Dixie: One other one I would add is, since we do this all the time, we know solutions that you probably wouldn’t think of. We have seen solutions, and we can come up with solutions. So if there’s something in your house where you’re like, “I don’t even know what to do with this,” we can help you make it better.

Rachel: For a lot of our clients design is also just not their thing. A lot of my clients are CFOs, or lawyers, or politicians, and they might just not be good at decorating or they just don’t have time.

If you could give a homeowner or potential client advice for a successful process, what would it be?

Rachel: Transparency!

Dixie: Yes, we agree on this.

Rachel: Like, if you like it or don’t like it, tell us. Some people don’t want to tell you if they don’t like a moodboard. But you’re living there! We always like to say it’s about your house, not our portfolio.

Dixie: Exactly. I don’t have to live with it, you do. And if you hate it, it’s just not going to work.