Practical Tips on Avoiding Disputes with Your Interior Designer

Foreword by OTP- To herald the New Year, we have created a new category of articles under “Miscellaneous Information” called “Other Professions”. Here, you can find contributions on non-law topics by other professionals in their field. Although these articles may not deal specifically with legal issues, we hope the information provided can nonetheless help our readers avoid the often stressful and expensive legal disputes following uninformed choices. Our disclaimer continues to apply.

Mr Wan Yew Fai is the Chief Financial Officer of Mason Works Pte Ltd. More information about his company can be found at

Badges of Disaster

Many people shudder in fear when they realize they have to take charge of a fit out project. It is not uncommon to hear of unhappiness with one’s interior designer or main contractor in retrofitting or construction contracts.

My word of advice:-Don’t be afraid but don’t hire a nightmare either. Here are some tips to avoid hiring someone who has neither the discipline nor equipment or skills in the trade.

The Signs-: Each sign may not be significant or conclusive. However, bear in mind that many insignificant factors, taken collectively, can add up to something big! I have listed some of these warning signs which I am labelling here as “Symptoms” for you. (Please note that the conclusions stated here are at best likely, always only a possibility and never foregone, so please do not take it as the Gospel Truths. These are however observations I have made over the years in this business with feedback from our customers as support.)

Symptom 1:

Says one thing and does another – the game seems to be constantly changing. Things either seem incomplete or inaccurate.

Possible conclusion:

This person is not sure about the trade but is afraid to admit it. He checks around with his subcontractors and friends only to find out that he is wrong and now needs to retract. It may be an indication of a person who is trying to wiggle out of a promise when things are not in his favour.

Symptom 2:

Says that everything can be done no matter how far-fetched it seems.

Possible conclusion:

This person may have very little project experience. You’ve got to dig deeper with him and chances are many of his renovation ideas cannot be implemented. The project is unlikely to turn out like he said it would (or worse, it may even look awful). When you complain about it, he is likely to twist the facts and make it sound like it was YOUR ideas or instructions in the first place or blame the failure to realise his fantastic schemes on “your low budget”, a budget he did not seem to have any problems with when he tried to get your business.

Symptom 3:

No prompt respond even if it is a simple query.

Possible conclusion:

This is the guy who takes on more than he can chew. He may be cheap but the real price that you will have to pay is TIME! Delay in handing over is common. This means unhappy customers and slow or no payment from them, resulting in financial difficulty for his company. This often leads to shortcuts or unfinished work.

Symptom 4:

Concerns more with what you can do for him (i.e. getting paid) than what he can do for you.

Possible conclusion:

This is a sign that the company is already in financial difficulty and is unlikely to be able to fulfil their end of the bargain with you. You should try and conduct a financial check on the company before you engage his services. He may only be interested in getting his deposit from you so that he can fund the losses he has incurred somewhere else.

Symptom 5:

A flashy lifestyle crammed with expensive social activities and very little time for honest hard work.

Possible conclusion:

I know I am being controversial here and I stress that this is only my very personal view and I have no intentions of casting aspersions on how others should do their business.

The caution here is to realise that everything has a price and that the price of your designer’s expensive taste is likely to be coming out from your pocket. This price is too high only if you are not getting your money’s worth. If he has neither the time nor the energy to run your project properly after a night of heavy partying, my advice is, don’t pay this price.

Symptom 6:

Unable to use IT tools.

Possible conclusion:

Unfortunately, in this era of e-filing, e-application and e-submissions, this may mean taking more time to get you your permits and licences. Further, with the advances of IT, better 3D presentations, drawings and communication tools can be made available to you, saving you time and eventually money. This is especially crucial for commercial construction contracts.

Symptom 7:

Instead of recommending solutions like an expert, he waits for you to instruct and tell him what to do – even on technical matters.

Possible conclusion:

It’s an inexperienced and unskilled person you are dealing with: He’s not likely to be able to come up with some creative ideas or solutions – you might as well be the designer.

You do not want to engage someone and then see these symptoms and say “Uh-oh, I am in trouble now”. Assess your ID providers carefully and these are some of the qualities you want to see in him:

1. Good creative mind with a willingness and passion to learn;

2. Ability to understand technical matters;

3. Ability to do detailed planning – the key word being “detailed”;

4. Skills in IT for prompt applications, submissions and drawings;

5. Disciplined, calm, thorough, organized and responsible personality;

6. Willingness to spend the time to monitor and follow up on your project;

7. Financial acumen for proper budget planning and accurate cost assessment

All successful relationships take at least 2 willing participants and the following are the qualities your ID provider wants to see in you:

1. Recognition and acceptance that everything has a price. Quality or timeliness often means higher initial outlay but lower long term costs. Cutting costs almost always means compromising or worse, cutting corners.

2. Clear leadership at your end. There must be one instructing party and one set of instructions. Too many chiefs with differing views can only confuse and confound and your project will end up messy and incoherent.

3. Stay the course. By all means, take more time to plan (bearing in mind the delay cannot then be attributed to your designers) but once you have made the decisions and given the go ahead to proceed with the works, don’t waver or change your mind without good reasons. Always remember: Changes =Variation Orders = Additional Costs both in terms of money and time. Too many changes also often result in mistakes and the person who suffers will be you.