For me, the content of client interviews is a constantly evolving process: I tinker with my own approach every time I head into a meeting, and I’ve spent a lot of time through the years listening to what other designers and contractors do and adapting their techniques to mesh with my own.
Not long ago, for example, I received a wonderful set of interview questions from a landscape architect who works in California. I was so impressed by what I saw that I’ve incorporated much of what they do into my own interviews and presentations.
In addition to those questions, sending out a pre-interview questionnaire sometimes helps to guide the discussion when you and your clients meet face to face and, in some cases, you can use the responses to begin forming design ideas. What I like most about their questionnaire is that it purposely gets clients’ creative juices flowing, prompting them to begin thinking in a more focused way about what they really want.
The questionnaire begins by offering a list of words describing various characteristics associated with swimming pools and other water vessels and asking the clients to pick the five they prefer while highlighting one term that stands out among all the rest. (The list includes words such as “curvilinear,” “flowing,” “natural,” “rectangular,” “geometric,” “modern,” “architectural,” “clean,” “bright,” “decorative,” “peaceful,” and “playful,” among many others.)
Then they ask a string of key questions: From which rooms inside the house do you want to be able to see your water element? Do you have a favorite garden or landscape? What’s your favorite country or city to which you’ve traveled? What in that city or country particularly inspires you or do you find especially beautiful? Do you have a favorite artist, architect or landscape architect? Are there specific materials you’d like to use? Is there a local project or property that you admire?
Next, they ask a question I think we all should ask: How interested are you in participating in this project? The options: Not at all – you’re the expert, you take care of it; Minimal – I’ll complete the questionnaire, but that’s about it; Average – I’ll discuss options and possibilities; and Extensive – I’ll personally decide most details.
The questionnaire then asks questions aimed at determining the clients’ degree of familiarity with their home’s architecture and design style by asking them to pick descriptions from a list of choices they supply ranging from Colonial and Craftsman to Contemporary and Spanish Colonial.Finally, they ask about color preferences, eliciting favorites as well as those the clients simple don’t like.
My own pre-interview questionnaire – again, a constantly evolving document – has adopted some of their ideas but diverges in other areas. No matter the specifics, the point is that such questionnaires are capable of gleaning a great deal of critical information from clients before we ever sit down with them in person. It’s also not lost on me that filling out such forms can be fun for some people – a wonderful way to get engaged in the process and express some of their likes and dislikes.
All of this, of course, sets me up nicely for the interview itself. When we meet, I start with a series of questions that some people might consider being unnecessary – basic no-brainers – because my desire is to help my clients feel relaxed and comfortable in opening up to me. My sense has long been that there are strong narratives at the heart of every great design – narratives that support the concepts that eventually make it onto the page and into the project itself – so my aim is to get them to a mental space where they’re willing to tell their stories.