by Patricia Cove

Color, pattern, texture, balance, proportion and scale. These are elements that play a major role within the design profession. And a good designer is able to combine these elements into a cohesive, comfortable and attractive space – one that a client is thrilled to claim as her own. Sounds easy, right?

If only the process were that simple.

If you are a true working designer or architect, you understand that these basic design tenets often play just a supporting role to the overall success of a project. Because design professionals know that developing blueprints and coordinating colors can actually be the easiest part of any job.

What becomes the real challenge is understanding the desires of the clients when they do not have the language or sometimes even the desire to explain what they want their surroundings to express, or even how they want them to look. So it falls to the professional to bring those surroundings to life, relying on conversation, personality, intuition and a lot of psychology.

I often hear stories about designers in places like New York, Florida or California who have clients that give them carte blanche to create spaces that originate somewhere in the soul of the designer, having no input from the person or persons who will actually inhabit the space.

That has not been my experience in Philadelphia. My clients are involved. And even if they are not familiar with design verbiage, they are quite vocal in expressing what they want and especially what they don’t. And although the idea of completing a project without confines sounds very appealing, I actually enjoy the interaction of working closely with clients on design ideas and concepts. And this is where a background in psychology really comes in handy.

It used to be that shelter magazines would often include design “personality” tests within their pages, meant to guide consumers in the right direction when it came to color and pattern choices. Are you an introvert? Choose green plaid. An extrovert? Choose red paisley. It’s almost the opposite of today’s guidance, where no matter what your personality is, you need to have gray walls. (OK, I promise not to mention the color gray again, at least for a little while.)

My point is that understanding what gives a person pleasure in day to day surroundings is much more complex than a 20 question quiz, or a trendy colorway. The most rewarding projects are those that allow for real conversation with a client. Where did they grow up? In what style of home?

What do they like about their current surroundings? Or dislike? Are they experiencing a midlife crisis, where you know they will hate that purple wallpaper in only six months? Or are they just starting out and need durable fabrics and furnishings for a growing family?

It is up to the professional to seek out and understand the spoken as well as unspoken signs that clients can share when it comes to the changes in their surroundings. You can even pick up clues in the style of clothes they wear or the car they drive. Does it matter to them that their living room resembles a layout in Architectural Digest? Or is the comfortable leather chair that has been with them for 20 years going to be the most important piece of furniture in the room?

A client’s lifestyle is critical to a successful outcome, and they can easily answer questions about how they like to entertain, relax or work on a hobby at home. The answers to these questions, and how the professional responds, can be the real factors deciding the success or failure of a project.

When it comes right down to it, the most successful projects stem from the professional’s ability to focus on and understand the unspoken signs, comfort levels, or the most subtle of preferences that can be expanded upon and become an impetus to create new levels of design that the client did not even realize were possible. It is easy to recreate a photo in a magazine, but the real success comes from creating spaces that someone will love, but had no idea were even possible.

Patricia Cove is principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and can be reached through her website.

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