Customer-driven design

An approach to design that’s good for business

The word design has 14 definitions in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. It can certainly be a challenging concept to grasp. The difficulty in truly understanding design can also exist in wood shops across Canada, where what constitutes “design” is often in the eyes of the beholder. Yet design doesn’t have to be confusing or without guidance. When done right, design is not only a way of creating a great product, it’s a way of doing good business, too.

One of the challenges with design is that it can be confused with style. Wood Industry columnist Paul Epp explains, “In some people’s minds, design is styling, or merely the superficial arrangement of visual elements to appeal to a particular element. However, that certainly isn’t the whole story.” Epp continues, “I would say design is a general or comprehensive activity, and style is a particular way to do it.”

Epp also adds, “Style is the set of rules that will guide your designing, if you chose to follow a particular style — even your own, or Art Deco, for instance. You can design without any reference to a particular style.”

Raf Szeremeta is like a kid in a candy store when discussing the design process. With today’s software, meeting the client’s needs can be as quick as a few clicks on a mouse.

Don Kondra, an award-winning designer and maker of furniture in Saskatoon, Sask., has a similar understanding of design and style. However, Kondra likes to emphasize the style component of designing. He says, “I like to come up with a style that others emulate, and I often emulate the style of others. This might be somewhat problematic in commercial work, but it’s an approach I take with the commission work I mostly do now.”

According to Kondra, “When I started out, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had few places to turn. I wish I had more styles to emulate at the time. So, now, I’m not afraid of developing a style of furniture design, and having others use it as a model. I think our industry should share information, knowledge and guidance when it comes to design.”

Emulating a style, however, should not be confused with stealing a design. Regardless of how someone comes up with a design, it should be one’s own. For example, a writer can try to emulate Shakespeare without cutting and pasting his exact words. Similarly, a wood-industry professional can design in a certain style without reproducing someone else’s work.

Whether one designs with or without a “style,” there is no question that the very concept of design has become more prominent in all aspects of occupied space, including flooring, walls, lighting, furniture and kitchen and baths. Regarding the latter, wood-industry manufacturer Binns Kitchen and Bath Design, based in Toronto, Ont., incorporates design into the very fabric of its business.

According to the company’s president, Raymond Binns, since Binns Kitchen and Bath Design’s inception 50 years ago, the company has had design as a major focus of its business. “We started out doing renovation work for Eatons,” he says. “They had an entire team of interior designers on staff. We’ve been working with interior designers ever since. From those early years we learned of the importance of design in doing business. Think about it. When it comes to kitchens and baths in particular, where a lot of money can be at stake, one design flaw can be costly. Eatons knew that decades ago, and hired interior designers to make sure the job was done right. It was a lesson we’ve never forgotten.”

In fact, the lesson was learned so well that Binns himself became an interior designer and can add various design-related initials after his name, including CKD (Certified Kitchen Designer), ARIDO (Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario) and IDC (Interior Designers of Canada). The company itself has less than 20 employees, but about a half-dozen of them constitute a team of designers ready to help a client design a project professionally.

A kitchen project designed by Beverley Binns. She and the team of designers at Binns have earned countless design accolades, including awards at the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) and Canadian Design Competition.

Working with the client is the point most emphasized by the design experts we talked to. It is a crucial part of not only building a product, but of establishing a rapport, and getting repeat business. According to Binns, “Even if you can’t afford an interior designer, or a team of designers, manufacturers should look at the back-and-forth with the client with respect to design as a real opportunity.

“This is one area that also highlights the difference between design and style,” Binns adds. “If you’re truly working one-on-one with the customer, then you are going to create one unique kitchen, for example, that is perfectly suited for him or her. So, in these cases, I don’t think you want to follow a style. Instead, you want a design that is unique.”

Binns provides a couple of examples to drive home the point. “If you’re working with an elderly couple,” he says, “suggesting easy-to-use faucets might go a long way. It shows you listen and you care. Similarly, a young couple with kids might respond well to a kitchen design where a view of the kids in the next room is crucial. In all cases, the more you listen, the better you can meet the clients’ needs, the more impressed they are with the service, and the more likely they are to refer you, which is where most new business comes from.”

Raf Szeremeta of Polwood Cabinets in Kitchener, Ont., is in full agreement when it comes to working with the client. So much so, that he tends to refer to the clients as the designers, and points to back-and-forth correspondence with them as an example. According to Szeremeta, “We go through so many details, and the client loves the process. It gives them a certain amount of control and satisfaction.”

There was consensus among the design experts we talked to about the power of this client-centred approach to design. So much so, that it’s considered one of the most powerful marketing tools in the business. According to Szeremeta, “We tried some print advertising, and it just didn’t work. We got business from strangers who just wanted to do it their way. Referrals from clients who appreciate the design process has worked out best for us.”

Asked for his thoughts on the differences between design and style, Szeremeta replies, “It has been my experience that on large projects where the client has a lot of money to spend, you can spend a lot of time on style; on how grand a kitchen can look. However, it’s when you get to the smaller projects with a tighter budget where you focus in on the functionality; on some of the more crucial components of design.”

When it comes to the basics of kitchen design, and functionality, Szeremeta keeps it simple. He says, “Honestly, we take a look at where these four things need to go: sink, fridge, stove and dishwasher. We use our expertise to help the customer determine these locations, and the rest of the kitchen design tends to flow from that.”

Kondra provides his own insight into this client-driven process towards design. He says, “I have learned through experience to read the client’s body language. It’s often not what they say, but how they say it. They want to be involved in the design process, but they also have to rely on your expertise. And they’re afraid to sometimes admit it.”

As a result of his experience, Kondra has developed a design tool that helps the communications process with the client. He says, “It’s pretty simple. I create a one-quarter scale mock-up, usually from MDF, and paint it black. It gives the client an excellent reference point to work from. The best back-and-forth communication starts after that point.”

Communicating with the client not only helps the process of design, but it builds customer relationships and, as a result, business, too. Whether the focus is on style, or a more comprehensive process tailored to the customer, design is a tool that makes for better products, happier customers, more effective marketing, and enhanced profits.

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