The collaborative design process

The collaborative design process


I’d like to debunk some myths about the design process. Regardless of the scope or magnitude of a project, (from demolition to furnishings), or level of complexity, the design process is not usually conducted by a lone designer sitting in a room coming up with a grand idea.

The creative process may seem to unfold instinctively, as in your favorite home and garden television show, but in reality, most projects evolve through thoughtful planning, collaboration and execution.

True, a designer often comes up with an initial idea or concept containing form, function, layout, color, etc. However, each project is taken through a series of steps requiring the involvement of the clients and other professionals in major and minor ways.

The design is collaboration by and between the property owner, interior designer, architect, craftsmen or contractors, and many others. For example, suppose the design is for a restaurant or a winery tasting room. The designer not only needs to have an understanding of the owner’s needs and desires and the staff to be employed, but also the restaurant patrons or the targeted market the owner would like to attract, or the end users.

The environment might need to be different for different user groups. What functions need to be carried out in the space? In addition, there are time and project management tasks that may be carried out by one or all of the collaborators.

For an interior designer, it is important to gather inspiration from people from various backgrounds and expertise. A good designer often has a preselected group of people to contribute to the project. Sometime, a diverse pool of participants from different professions is needed to develop the product/idea. In that case, it is better if everyone can help to choose the best and most promising ideas. The designer can then coordinate those ideas or considerations and select ideas for development.

The actual planning does not truly begin until all preliminary data are gathered, organized and documented. After that, the design and concept needs to be interpreted.

Moving from concept to execution may require steps and input from various professionals. Is the design feasible to install? Are there constraints (like a retaining wall, for example), that need to be taken into consideration or requiring a different path to installation? The people most knowledgeable about their part in the process need to be consulted.

The key to a successful design process, whether the project is large or small, is clarity of who is doing what work and, definitely communication. It begins with a discussion of what is involved for the owner and the designer: what preconceived ideas or expectations are in place with respect to the design, time and money.

How many or what type of features does an owner already know they want? Alternatively, how much does the owner want to start from a blank slate and is open to many styles and suggestions? Critically, a rapport must be established between the designer, owner, and other contributors.

This collaborative process is true whether the design project is residential or commercial, small or large. No designer is an island, and no client is simply a receptacle, awaiting the wisdom of the creative professional. Many people have a part to play for your dream design to come true.

Deborah Macdonald is the Napa-based owner of Napa At Home, an interior design enterprise. For more information about her products and services, visit her website at call (707) 255-0246; or email

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