E-Design Companies Exposed

Ever wonder what it’s like to work with an online design company? Real designers share their experiences. #interiordesignbusiness #cktradesecrets #capellakincheloe #onlineinteriordesign #edesign

I get asked about these quick e-design companies quite often.

Are they a good option (to work for?)

How do they make money?

How can full-service designers compete?

I don’t have any experience beyond the ads that pop up in my social media feeds. Frankly, I wondered the same things. So I asked in one of my weekly emails for people who had experience that could give a behind-the-scenes look at some online design companies.

In the responses I received covered most of the large e-design companies and many designers had worked with more than one. So if you’ve ever been curious about working for large online e-design companies, below are their unaltered responses.

Why did you choose to work for an online interior design site?

  • I was actually in the middle of a different career, but had started a design blog for fun, fallen in love with interior design, and was recruited by an e-design company shortly after.  It was more an opportunity that fell into my lap, and opened up a path I hadn't considered before.  It seemed like the perfect way to get my feet wet in the design world, and to determine whether or not I really wanted to go down that road (I did! ;)).

  • Because I was curious, was just out of my Interior Architecture graduate program and had never heard of online design before. Figured I'd give it a try. Also I had just quit where I was working (design firm) and was looking at other outlets to explore.

  • I was living in a small town at the time and it was a way for me to reach more clients. 

  • I had just moved cities and hadn't found new contract work yet. I was in an in between phase trying to decide if it was a good time to branch out and design on my own or keep working for other people. Doing the remote work gave me something to do while I didn't have work and it also let me test the waters of doing my own projects but with the safety of being under someone else's umbrella.

What are the benefits?

  • For me: a degree in interior design wasn't required, I had to master 3D modeling very quickly which I continue to use in my in-person design firm today, I could work from home and on my own schedule which was perfect with young kids (and I was also getting my MA at the time).  Most e-design clients are really looking for decorators and aren't planning on remodeling.  If you are a design enthusiast and are thinking about a career switch but hesitant to take the financial plunge of another degree, e-design really is a wonderful way to learn some of the ins-and-outs and build your portfolio.

  • At first it was awesome, got to look thru the projects and we could pick and choose which ones we were interested in. I could work whenever, or wherever, I needed to, and it really pushed me to re-learn Photoshop. Thought I could maybe pick up a few more clients, too. 

  • Work from anywhere, create your own hours.

  • I think the greatest benefit is that you make your own schedule. It is very easy to just click a button and say "I'm available" or not and usually within a few hours, you would have a project to bid on. It's also nice because once you design the room and make the selections, it's out of your hands, the clients go through purchasing with the rest of the website and you are not in charge of that portion (Which we all know can be tedious and time consuming).

What are the drawbacks?

  • You get paid very, very little for the amount of time and effort you spend on each project.  It really is laughable.  But if you lack experience, then that's just the price you pay for gaining it!

  • After doing a few projects, the criteria changed, we could no longer look thru the projects and choose which ones we were interested in, we were 'assigned' projects that matched our preferences, we could never speak with any client before we basically bid on their project (to weed them out), could only source vendors from their VERY LIMITED lists, payouts dropped dramatically, administrative support was lacking/going downhill, unlimited revisions, impossible budgets (a total bathroom remodel for $1200??? Come on!!), could not speak to the clients (for real, unless they called in to complain!!!), etc.

  • Lots of work for little pay. It can be hard to feel invested in a client you've never met. Even though you have measurements and pictures, it can be a challenge to design a space you've never seen in person. 

  • The pay. you start at about $125-$175/project. you would spend minimum 15 hours on a project (and that's pretty fast) and you would only make $125. With the amount of time it consumed, it wasn't worth it to me after a while.

  • You are on a pretty set schedule once you start, which has lots of benefits, but since the projects are so last minute, it can be a little restricting.

  • Communication with clients. I had one project where the client was needing some pretty serious millwork adjustments but didn't have the budget or frankly, the vision, to do it. Communicating drawings for the more tedious rooms was rather difficult, but I want to say that {the e-design company} has been updating their communication platform since then to make that process easier.

  • I also had one client I worked with and we came up with a great design, they loved it, I loved it.  But as soon as it came time to put it into action, they ghosted me and never finished. I still got paid but I'm pretty sure that they took my ideas and did it on their own, left without purchasing or giving credit.

  • You could only use furniture and accessories from their approved vendor list. It's pretty comprehensive and they are constantly adding to the list but sometimes it felt like it took some of the originality out of the designs.

  • The client provides photos, dimensions, a description of style, etc.  Clients don’t know how to take the right photos or dimensions and are usually not good at expressing what they want.  Plus, not having the opportunity to speak with the client personally or see the space makes it very difficult to find the “right” products.

  • The company told me that searching for products online for a room should take about an hour.  It does not!  The first room I pitched took me about five hours and at the end I didn’t get the project.

  • There is no customization of products for the client; everything has to be available on-line.  One of the reasons clients hire designers is for a unique and custom look, isn’t it?  Going to an e-commerce design company is not that different than just asking a friend with good taste what they think you should purchase.

  • The client doesn’t seek out the designer for their aesthetics; a client is presented to every designer in the community.  If the client is looking for a style that the designer feels they can do, the designer makes a pitch.  That doesn’t mean that the designer and client are speaking the same language.  After seeing the design that a client agreed to on one of my pitches, and it was so far from what I suggested, that was when I decided this was really not for me.

Describe a typical design experience from start to finish.

  • You are offered a design project with some info about the client, their budget, the rooms they want completed, and their style, which you can say yes or no to.  The clients have already uploaded photos and measurements of their project into the platform, and filled out a design questionnaire.  If you say yes, you then reach out to them and introduce yourself, and ask more specific questions you need to get started.  You have a certain amount of time (a few days up to a week or two, depending on the company) to submit initial mood boards for the spaces which include explanations of the design.  You then get feedback from the client, and revise, and again there's a certain amount of time for that -- before finally submitting mood boards, a floor plan, a shopping list, and (depending on the company) photorealistic 3D renderings of the finished spaces.  Typically it's room-by-room, so you don't have 3 rooms from one client all at once, but rather do them in order.

  • We got to look at a gallery, if you will, of projects to see which ones we were interested in pursuing. We'd get a filled out client questionnaire, and from there, we would create a "First Look" (which was basically a 2D Design Concept board = everything was to be in perspective!!..this is why they wanted to see if we knew Photoshop) and give an explanation of what we envisioned for the space, to the client. The first 3 designers to submit were basically competing against each other. If you were chosen, then we would collaborate with the client, via online ONLY, and make sure every single piece was approved before we could deliver a final design package together. We had 10 days to do all of this. To finish up the design package, we drew up a floor plan, put a shopping list together, and added any specific instructions needed for the project. That was about it. Only one client ever gave me a testimonial. Have no idea if anyone bought any furniture - which we were supposed to receive a 10% commission on. 

  • Each company will send you a project which you can choose to accept/reject based on how many projects you'd like to take on. You are not required to work a certain amount, it is up to you how much you'd like to work. You don't get to review the project/client previous to accepting/rejecting. They give you minimal information like "Master Bedroom/Bathroom" but not much more than that. Once you are matched with a client you can communicate with them through the company's online dashboard/website. They are each different but have similar concepts. The dashboard should already be filled with the client's information/photos of the spaces they'd like help with. In my experience, it was mostly help with space planning/furniture selection. Occasionally people want help with finishes but it's usually simple items like paint color or a backsplash. After communicating with your client/asking any further questions you need you begin designing. When the design work has been completed, you add all the client's furniture/accessories to an online shopping list through the company's online dashboard. You also deliver a rendering of each space to the client. Most of these companies prefer a perspective 3D rendering (I did mine in Photoshop) versus just a design board with project selections on them. Clients can then review the design and suggest any project revisions (within reason). 

  • There were two main ways of getting projects when I was doing it. 1) You get selected for a project based on algorithms of your style and aesthetic and the project is automatically yours. 2) You and two other designers are selected to bid on a project. For both types you have a few hours to accept or decline based on what the client send in their initial request. Once you accept, you have 8 hours to do a concept board for them, you are not allowed to specify any pieces at this stage, it is purely conceptual. For #2 this is when you find out if you got the project, if you did, then it proceeds the same as #1. When the project/concept has been approved/selected, you have a day(ish) to review it with the client and make any final changes. Once it is agreed upon, you go into "Design time" (10 days) which is when you would space plan for a few days.  Once the plan is approved, you start pulling specific pieces of furniture and accessories. Then you create a "Design board" which was not a 3D rendering, but you had to show the room with actual pieces you sourced from their list basically cut and pasted onto the board.   That was a little restricting as well. The whole time, you are checking in with the client and making sure they like the changes etc. When the design board is done, you link the furniture and add the pricing. ({E-design company} makes easy to track your budget and selections as you go). You submit the final design and the client reviews. If they have any change requests, you make them and submit again until they approve it all. Then they move on to purchasing with the client assistants and you are pretty much done. I was really good about following up with each of my clients when the projects were finished, yet none of them ever took pictures to show me the final product! So in that way, it felt a little like a waste of time since i had nothing to show for it but a few boards. There are other ways of doing the projects. You can be selected by the client, but I think you have to have had quite a few projects to get to that point. You can also set your own fee, and charge more, but at that point I don't want to be restricted in where I shop for the client or how long to spend on each section. 

What was the average design fee?

  • This really varies depending on the company, the room, and the level (there are usually three price levels, depending on the experience of the designer).  {e-design company} pays by far the best, usually several hundred dollars or more, but they also require the 3D renderings which take a lot more time.  Still, it's ridiculous once you're an experienced designer if you're doing entirely custom designs.  Where in typical full-service design if you made a few thousand for a space, e-design may be as little as $150 up to $700 or so.  

  • Average design fee, when I started, was from $299-$550 range, depending on what level designer (Classic, Elite or Pro) you were based on. I believe {e-design company} took a set amount, but I honestly don't remember what the exact amount was. When I started, the payout was almost $300/room, when I left it was $125/room. What a joke.

  • Each company is different but generally they give you a flat rate based on each project. Some companies pay you every couple of weeks, {e-design company} pays you as soon as you deliver a project to a client (that same day, through Paypal.) I would keep track of my hours even though it was a flat rate payment. I was curious to know how much I was actually making hourly. I think it came out to about $12 an hour before taxes. (These companies always hire you as a 1099 employee.) So the pay was very minimal for the work I was putting in. 

  • From $79-$249, I worked on four projects and made $590, before taxes. 

What was the average time spent on a design? 

  • Just as much as I would spend on typical full-service clients, minus of course the expediting/procurement/installation time.  I don't think I can give an exact number though.

  • It averaged from less than 6 hours for one project (awesome client who loved everything I sourced the 1st time, communicated very well and in a timely manner, asked questions and understood things of why I did or didn't recommend something) to over 20 hours for one project (client didn't like ANYTHING I showed her, changed her mind all the time, did 5-6 revisions, was never happy and she was quite upset when I told her all the things she wanted in the room wouldn't fit...she eventually stopped communicating with me and wanted her money back). Depended on how quickly the client responded, if they changed their minds about an item, etc. 

  • 5-20 hours

  • Almost 2 weeks. Granted that meant some days were 4-8 hours working on it and others were 1 hour, but you are given a 2 week time frame to do the work.

In what ways did the company support your work?

  • {E-design company} will photograph your project if it's in the Bay area, but that never happened to me.

  • Looking back, they were NOT designer friendly. The one client that wanted her money back? I didn't get paid the amount promised, because the client wanted a refund. They did say that I had gone above the norm and let me keep most of the paycheck (gee, thanks). I think I pretty much made less than $4/hr for that one. Lesson learned.

  • Sent you clients, some post your work on their social media feeds. 

  • They are very encouraging of taking on as much or as little as you want. They had great support staff that was there to mediate with the client or help with technical glitches on either end. 

What are the clients like?  What are their expectations of the final outcome?

  • Like anything, the clients vary but most have much smaller budgets than typical interior design clients.  

  • I only did 6 projects for this platform, because they kept changing things. Typically while in the middle of a project they'd tell us we could no longer do a certain thing, like the vendor list would change, payouts were being reconfigured, etc. it became a pain in the ass. I think half the clients that came to {e-design company} were not aware of just how much work goes into a 'design'...the other half understood what designers did. 

  • Clients were nice in general. The vast majority of my clients were female. My guess would be between ages 28-45. Whatever the company advertises on their website, is usually what they expect to see. If the company shows their projects on their website as 3D perspective renderings, that is what the client's expect to see for their projects as well. 

  • The clients were mostly really easy to work with and seemed to have a decent understanding of the limitations that online design comes with. As with most clients, they come to you because they don't have an eye for design. So communicating plans via the internet was really tricky sometimes and you had to simplify and label SO clearly and occasionally it meant a lot of additional explanations. That wasn't even that bothersome though because that's our job! 

Can/did online clients ever become offline clients?

  • A few times, if they were local.

  • No. They did not allow us to let the client know of our own companies...but I snuck my info into their correspondence and gave them my email address and website anyways. If we brought our own clients in, they had a killer deal where they'd get to keep 5% of whatever you priced your package at. (sarcasm here)

  • Not in my experience.

  • They can! None of mine seemed to need anymore than what we did together at the time. And frankly, most people using a site like {e-design company} are there because they have very limited budgets and don't want to pay a full design fee. It does happen though!

Do you need any experience/credentials to work for online interior design site?

  • It depends on the site, but you need significantly less than an interior design firm.  Degrees are not required, but you do need a portfolio of mood boards at the very least.

  • I had to show them that I went to school or had some kind of experience. They had a sign up form that asked if we had schooling, certifications, etc. I have experience, am degreed and certified in CA.

  • I am not sure, but I don't believe so. Each company usually has you do a trial design as part of the application process. They send you a mock design project to complete and use that for their hiring process. I have a BA in Interior Design and a decent e-design portfolio so they never asked about any other credentials.  

  • Yes! They like to know that you have a good amount of experience, especially if you didn't get an education in design. I believe this process varies a bit between companies. L&W gave me a fake project where they outlined the client needs and I had to submit a design board, select actual pieces, and create a budget for them. They approved my board, sent me a packet to read over and some training info and I was on my way very quickly! 

Do you still work for online interior design sites?  Why or why not?

  • I do not, because it's not a sustainable way to make a living unless you're doing rote design - your go-to pieces over and over.

  • No I do not work for any online design platforms, {e-design company} soured my taste working for them. I plan on implementing my own online design in the next few months. I know I can do a better job, with no vendor restrictions, and in a more organized manner- and be paid appropriately!

  • I do not currently work for any e-design companies. I find it to be a lot of work for very little pay. I also live in a big city now where there is a lot of work to be had! I prefer to work with my clients in person, choose my own projects, and set my own (much higher) design fees. 

  • I stopped after those four projects because I realized quickly that I wasn't making enough and I soon got a part time contract job that took more of my focus away. I have contemplated picking up a few projects here or there since I recently left my part time gig to go full time on my own, just to fill in the gaps while I hustle!

  • Payment to the designer is so low, what’s the point?

Anything else you'd like to share about your experiences?

  • I get asked about e-design a lot, and I always say if you are just starting out, need some income quickly or need extra income, or need a very flexible schedule, then it's great.  If you can whip out full designs quickly, then it can also work for you.  I think it's the perfect introductory step to design if you do not have a degree or to fill in gaps if you own your own biz and are still filling up your pipeline.  But usually it's not financially sustainable in the long-haul.

  • From the last communication I saw from someone on one of my design boards, "I was given the option to take either 25 projects a month for $3000 or 13 for $1500, so no premium, no nothing, basically all projects regardless of what the platform earned paid out $120"...NO THANKS. That is why these cheap online design firms cannot stay afloat. Disorganized company. Design assistants who, I think, know stuff but cannot comment on them to the designers they are supposed to be supporting. Changing the rules in the middle of a design project. Lack of transparency and communication. Not listening to designers on how to improve workflows or situations. Just a big cluster that I want no part of. If these companies cannot keep the people who do the actual work happy, then they will not have a viable company for long. 

  • I have mixed feelings about it honestly because I love the idea of bringing good design to everyone at an affordable rate, but I personally have to make money off of my work, at least right now.

Thinking about adding interior design packages like e-design to your offerings? Read this.

Many thanks to Amalia Gal, Anna Smith, Bailey, Caryn, Becky and the others that shared their experiences.

Have you worked for an online design company? Share your experiences below.