Noticing the little things: how to please a client whilst exercising your own creativity

As designers, one of our most important tasks is decoding the environment of the home being constructed, as well as the people within it. Architect Jeffrey Dungan once described to me his process of doing so. He stands on the site and just allows himself to be in the moment. The building then spawns out of the ground in front of his eyes.

The site is the first thing that informs what is going to be there. When you walk across a site you’re smelling it, you’re looking at where the light will fall. Often, it’s best to see the site for the first time alone – away from the client. The first look at the environment is more powerful without any external interference. You need to feel the energy of the place.

Then you have to decode the people who will be living in that environment. Noticing the little things about our clients is the key to making design choices that will please them and also allow us to exhibit our creativity. Questions like, are these people structured or are they free flowing? Do they like to be outdoors or spend more time inside? What type of physical environment did they grow up in?

We are then looking to find the balances in their conversation – what feels good for them? What brings up positive emotions for them? Being intuitive and picking up on the body language within these conversations indicates the client’s comfortability with various ideas. Did their nose wrinkle up, did their eyes light up? These are the signs that inform our decisions.

It’s also important to stop asking questions and just listen. The client gives us clues about the things they like. They may say, “I’ve always imagined living in something like this”, or “I really liked this particular part of my old house”. We don’t have to replicate these things; however, they can be used as inspiration for our own designs.

The next step often varies from designer to designer. Some start with the form and then they do the floorplan. I often find it more effective to draw the layout first. While creating the floorplan I’m thinking about the mass of the building, the flow, the feelings it will invoke, the environment and how it will sit in the landscape, because I want to draw as much light and air in as possible, this leads to how the shape of the roof will support this. I find that most clients are brought joy by natural light.

Each room within a structure has a different purpose. Shifting the volumes of the rooms to allow the space for those purposes to thrive. This then shifts emotion. Client input in this part of the process can be really powerful because they will often have different outputs they envision for each room, establishing the “feel” of a space is powerful.

As soon as you pick up the pencil, you are formalise the journey. Fishing with the client to see how they feel about things. My aim is to know their expectations and exceed them wildly. I see it as a desire to demonstrate our value as experts, turn their thinking upside down, while still providing the outcome.

When going into the finishes of the space, defining the details according to the body language and little ques received from the client earlier on. We draw on these to make decisions on the nitty gritty things.

Before we send out drawings for tender, we always introduce it to a couple of our preferred builders to precost, we do this through the design process. This informs any changes and helps them use it for quoting. In over 20 years of design, we have found it really doesn’t matter how wealthy the person is, their dreams will always exceed the budget. As long as we can find their vision in the detailed elements of the house, we have a happy client, and a finished product to feel proud of.

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