It’s very common these days to run into people who aren’t being serious, but are just trying to pull you in to a frenzy of convoluted arguments, especially online. This not only wastes your time, but leaves you with a bitter aftertaste and maybe a migraine.
Trolls exist in real life, too, but aren’t as easy to identify.
Last year, I taught a workshop at the Annual NASA (National Architecture Students’ Association) Convention with an architect friend who teaches and practices architecture. On the last day of the five-day-long workshop, we had an exhibition displaying the processes, outcomes and student work. Since our workshop was an unconventional form of design research, and its connection to architecture was not immediately apparent, there were more than a few confused visitors. One elderly gentleman began asking a lot of questions, and my colleague, who is usually quite friendly and responsive, kept giving him smart-alecky retorts. Their conversation went something like this:
Visitor: “This is very good work, and I really appreciate you teaching this workshop. But what is the application of it?”
Visitor: “I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s all very beautiful…”
Colleague: “It’s not beautiful.”
Visitor: “No, no, no. But what is the practical use of all this!?”
Colleague: “It’s useless.”
Hearing this from a distance, I joined the conversation, confounded by the sass and the lack of willingness to engage from my colleague. I felt that this visitor was genuinely trying to understand our work, and was being rebuffed for no reason. I stepped in to salvage the moment, and, after calming him down, explained to the visitor in detail about the premise of our research, how it was being applied by various architects internationally, and how the students would benefit from our workshop. Within minutes, I realized that this man was not interested in learning at all, he was only looking for an argument, and his aim seemed to be to prove us wrong and our research worthless. The conversation ended abruptly with him walking away mid-sentence. I was left with my jaw on the floor and my friend asking me with a smirk, “So, were you able to convince him?”
As creative professionals, architects and designers rarely have a straightforward, step-by-step method of working, and there is no absolute right or wrong, no single solution to so many of our challenges. Our clients, however, may not always understand or accept this, especially if they work in a space where there is one clear-cut path to a single correct answer. We’ve had the opportunity to serve and work with all kinds of clients, and while there have been a few who grasp the creative process and know how messy things are inside a designer’s mind, and many who don’t fully comprehend what we do, but trust us to know our stuff, there are occasionally some who neither understand nor accept the process, our experience or unconventional methods of working.
Some of these clients may ask questions which don’t directly relate to their project, or aren’t relevant or even appropriate. Just as there are some questions that are off-limits in job interviews, there are some questions that aren’t asked in good faith, and don’t deserve to be answered when working independently. However, if you’ve landed a client or a potential client who asks you these unprofessional questions, you can’t just ignore them. Very few people have a penchant for declining to answer point-blank (like my friend), or may not wish to for many reasons, such as not wanting to sour the mood or risk having this interaction affect your reputation.
When you’re put in an uncomfortable position by being asked something inappropriate or irrelevant, it’s always a good idea to evaluate whether you really think this client is servable, will appreciate your work, and is worth your effort. No matter what you decide, there are multiple ways of handling these questions, and, to keep this interesting, I’ll give you two. One is the sassy reply (which you’d give in your head, or, if you’re brave and have little to lose, out loud), and then the reply I recommend. Take your pick.
Getting too personal (or Kidhar free horein?*)
How old are you? This is an inappropriate and unprofessional question for a client to ask, and it’s too personal to respond to.
Sassy reply: “Old enough to have successfully completed a wide range of projects, and to be sitting at this desk.” 🤓
Recommended reply: “I don’t think that’s relevant to our project. I have the qualifications and experience to handle your project, and I’d like to discuss more about it.”
Are you single? It’s one of those questions women get asked all the time.
This is completely inappropriate and not very nice to ask anyone, but especially to a professional who will be designing your bathroom, and may skew the tiles ever so slightly that you’d spend hours in there wondering if the alignment is off or if you’re going insane.
Even socially, such questions are off-limits. However, some clients may not ask you this point blank, and instead What does your husband do? which is tricky to dodge. You may not mind answering, but if you do, you can go with either of the following options.
Sassy reply: “If you think my husband is going to take over and design your house from behind the scenes, keep dreaming.” 😴
Recommended reply: “I don’t think that’s relevant to our project. Now let’s have a look at these floor tiles.”
- Are you married?
- How come you’re not married yet?
- Is your career keeping you from finding someone?
- How come you don’t have any kids?
Do you accept cash payments?While there’s nothing wrong with being paid in cash as long as you pay your taxes, it’s always best for a professional, and especially for small business owners, to get paid by check, Paypal or online bank transfer. This creates a good record of doing business, keeps your payments on track, and becomes proof that you’re running a legitimate business that’s on the up and up.
Sassy reply: “Yes, but only in dollars. We also accept gold bullion.**” 🤑
Recommended reply: “It’s easier for us to keep a record of payments if you pay by check or online transfer. We also accept Paypal and Bitcoin.”
Can you give me a discount? This is a genuine request, and must be taken seriously. Asking for a discount is a part of negotiation, and does not mean the client doesn’t value your work. It’s always best to be prepared to offer a discount, or to decline gracefully, and prepared to let go of the project in either case.
Sassy reply: “Sure, I’ll bill you 50% of my fee and do 50% of the work. Sound fair?” 😏
Recommended reply (if you’re willing to give a discount): “We can give you a 5% discount, but anything beyond that would mean doing away with some of our services.”
Recommended reply (if you’re not willing to give a discount): “We’ve already offered a very reasonable fee, so there’s no scope for further reduction. You can engage our services and give us a chance to prove that our work is more than worth our fee. You won’t be disappointed.”
What is your profit margin? Let’s be clear. As in any business transaction, your profit margin is not something you should be asked to disclose. And as most architects and designers hardly make any profit, this question is sure to incite anger.
Sassy reply: “Oh it’s 0%. I just do this to avoid feeling useless.” 😒
Recommended reply: “We don’t really look at projects in terms of profit. Our fees are based on the guidelines set by the Council of Architecture, and the rates depend on multiple factors, like floor area, market rates and location.”
- How much did it cost for you to get this chair fabricated? (This may be a genuine query, and you may not think twice before answering, but it opens up your internal business processes and is a slippery slope.)
How much did you charge that other client for their project?
Sassy reply: “We were able to buy this office space with the fees from our previous client.” 😜
Recommended reply: “Each project is unique and has its own customized design, so the charges also reflect that. Our fees generally follow the COA guidelines, but we aren’t authorized to disclose them as per our agreement with each client.”
Why are you more expensive than that other architect/designer/firm?
Sassy reply: “I don’t know, maybe their work isn’t worth as much, or they don’t think it is.” 😬
Recommended reply: “I wouldn’t know, because we don’t have the details of their process or work. These are our fees, and we can assure you that you will love the design once it’s completed, and understand that it’s worth every penny. We make sure that we provide long-term solutions that will help you avoid expensive mistakes.”
How much did you pay to be featured in a magazine? This one is outrageous, of course. Though there’s nothing wrong with paid marketing, and there’s a fine line between advertising and promotion, it’s wrong of someone to assume that your work is being featured not for its merit but because you have connections or you paid for it.
Sassy reply: “We didn’t pay them, they paid us.” 😎
Recommended reply: “We didn’t pay this magazine to feature us, and they don’t do paid features. They select projects and firms they find interesting and want to write about, and they contacted us for a feature.”
Can you show me a concept before we sign the agreement? This shows that the client doesn’t attach much worth to your services. They’re trying to get you to work for free, and chances are high that if you agree (which you shouldn’t), you’ll never hear back from them after giving them the concept. They may even take your concept (while pretending not to like it) to a draftsman or builder or execute it themselves without paying you.
“Let’s go out for lunch, your treat. I’ll pay my half if I like the food.”
Recommended reply: See sassy reply.
Who’s the Boss?
How many hours did you spend on my design? This is again a left-brained question. While it may be easy to account for how many hours a carpenter spends in cutting and assembling a bookshelf, this is not the case for a designer or architect, who isn’t always making something, but spending considerable time thinking, reading or imagining. The act of thinking or being inspired may take days or it may just occur to you as you’re on your morning jog. In any case, unless you’re charging your client on an hourly basis, you are not answerable to them about your time. You may show your work process, but you shouldn’t have to account for your hours. You owe them the agreed upon work, not your time.
Sassy reply: “We spent all of one hour. Then we all went out for happy hour.” 😖
Recommended reply: “We’re not authorized to disclose that information. Anyway, design is not about the amount of time it takes, but the innovativeness of the idea that is customized for your particular project. If you’d like, I can show you our process, and the different iterations we went through before arriving at the final design.”
- What time do you usually go home?
- Can we meet on Sunday morning?
Can I call you a few minutes before I drop by? This shows that the client or potential client doesn’t value your time, and wrongly believes you’re always available and free whenever they want to ‘drop by,’ based on their convenience. It’s best to discourage such expectations, as rewarding this entitlement will give out the signal that your other work isn’t as important, or that you’re always available. And making last-miute adjustments to your schedule is usually not worthwhile, because these people never show up on time, if at all, and you’ll be waiting all day.
Sassy reply: “Sure. Let me know about 15 minutes before you drop by so I have enough time to sneak out.” 🏃
Recommended reply: “No, today isn’t possible. I usually schedule my week in advance, and I have other commitments. Please let me know a day or two beforehand so I can schedule a meeting.”
- What are your office timings?
- Till what time will you be at work?
Would it take the same time to complete this if you were to work solely on my project? Again, a client is not entitled to know what other projects you’re working on (unless they’re interested in seeing your other designs), and how you’re prioritizing their project. This is an internal matter. Every client feels their project is the most important, but a design firm may have different qualifiers to prioritize their projects. As an architect or designer, it is important to make your client understand that their project is your priority, but not at the cost of compromising the internal workings of your firm.
Sassy reply: “Well, if we dropped all our other projects, we’d have to drop yours too, because we wouldn’t be able to pay our bills. 😰
The Saudi palace really helps us indulge in non-profit endeavors like yours.”
Recommended reply: “That is not a scenario we can imagine, as we always have multiple projects going on in parallel, and they’re each handled by different members. The time taken for design would remain the same in any case, as it’s based on the work and process, and not the number of ongoing projects.”
Can you collaborate with my niece who is also a designer? Unless she’s a top designer, you probably wouldn’t be interested in collaborating with someone whose work you don’t know. Either this client isn’t able to say no to his niece or doesn’t want to hurt her feelings, or he thinks she could learn from you. If you’re willing to take on an intern, you could agree, but think of all possible ways the arrangement could go wrong before you agree. If it’s not about learning for her, just decline in a straightforward way.
Sassy reply: “Sure, we’ll divide the work. She can do the project and I’ll collect the payments.” 😜
Recommended reply: “We usually don’t collaborate with other designers we don’t have an established rapport with. Every designer has a different style and way of working, so it may not be a good idea. Perhaps you’d like to give your niece this project, and we could work on any other one you have in the future.”
My builder friend, who designed half the houses in Palm Jumeirah and most of Jubilee Hills, will be guiding you with the design of this project. Hope that’s OK with you?
Design Awareness: Questions you should definitely answer
It’s difficult to know right from the first interaction whether someone is being serious or if they’re just pulling your leg. It’s an art only experience can teach. What my friend was able to see at the exhibition, I had completely missed initially. Here are a few questions you should answer for the sake of setting the record straight.
You never know when someone is genuinely interested to know, so instead of getting irked, take it as an opportunity to educate.
What website do you generally get your designs from? Some clients may seriously not understand that each design is done from scratch.
Sassy reply: “Each of our designs is different, so we copy from whatever website each client picks for us.” 😑
Recommended reply: “We don’t get our designs from websites or books or anywhere else. We begin from scratch, understand your specific requirements, and work out a customized solution just for you. We believe that spaces aren’t replicable, and there’s no one-size-fits-all in architecture or interior design. We might come up with modular elements or parts, but they’re always original and designed by us, not copied from anywhere.”
- Can you design a building exactly like this one?
- Can’t you just use one of your existing designs?
I’ve designed this apartment building myself along with my civil engineer friend. Can you stamp the approval drawings? Red Flag! We really hope no architect is agreeing to this, knowingly or unknowingly! But it is true that most of us receive such requests on an incredibly regular basis. It’s best to keep yourself informed about what’s legit and what’s not, and the legal ramifications of working the system. If you’re not careful, you could end up looking at a malpractice lawsuit. Moreover, such practices dilute the integrity of the profession and its respectability, and devalue our work.
Sassy reply #1: “I am going to own one of these apartments in exchange, right?” (Wink, wink.) 😉
Sassy reply #2: “I’ll tell you what. Let’s put those drawings in this round portfolio,*** and we’ll start from scratch.” 😅
Recommended reply: “We don’t sign or stamp any drawings which we haven’t designed entirely. It’s borderline illegal, and we would become liable if there were any issues with the building.”
- I’ll design the building, as I’ve done so many before. Can you do the decoration/ façade design?
- Can you disregard the byelaws and prepare another design for municipal approval?
How much will it cost me to build this? Although this is a legitimate query, and every client would like to know how much they should plan to spend on a particular project, answering this would likely land you in trouble. Unless you’re administering the execution yourself, as a designer, it is very difficult to assess how much a project will cost. Not to mention most projects exceed their budget.
Sassy reply: Don’t be sassy about this.
Recommended reply: “It’s a little early to say, and difficult to calculate before the design is finalized. Since we won’t be executing the project, it would be best to ask your builder or contractor for their rates. Once you approve the final design, we can work out a tentative Bill of Quantities which you can take to your builder or contractor, and figure out the budget with them.”
**I thought some advice about cash transactions was due in view of the current economic situation in India, where ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes have been devalued overnight in an effort to counter tax evasion.