Designing a Room: Traditional Designer vs Virtual vs On Your Own

How to Design a Home

I love interior design. If I could go back to school and start my career over, it would be in this field. Seeing a room come to life brings me so much joy. And I love seeing how people express themselves through their homes.

Over the years I’ve designed many rooms in many different ways. I get a lot of questions about how it all works so today I’m sharing the processes, costs, pros, and cons of working with different types of design services.

There are a lot of options out there and it can be hard to navigate. I hope that my experiences help you make the best decision for your home if you’re looking to design a room.

Virtual Design Services

The process: In my last experience (with Modsy), I sent in images of the room from every angle and filled out forms with my budget, my style, and my Pinterest boards for inspiration. A few weeks later, I would get two 3D designs of the space. The way I responded to that was by picking and choosing what I liked from each design by emailing the designer to get the next update about a week later.  Then we go back and forth until it’s perfect. I order the furniture and decor pieces directly form their site.

Cost: Virtual design services are a really great affordable option if you don’t want to spend a lot on a designer, but want a polished and well-thought-out design. I’ve used a few of these services over the last decade and recommend The Havenly and Modsy (the company I worked with on our family room pictured above). Modsy’s premium service costs $150 total and includes designs (with unlimited revisions!), phone and email communications with a real designer, and discounts on certain products.

Pros: My favorite part about working with virtual design companies is that they send an image of what your room will look like with the designs. This is great for Anel because he has a hard time picturing the finished product when I show him fabric samples alone. You can see what I mean in this post where I shared the final outcome and the design images for our family room. It’s been almost a year and I’m still so happy with the results.

Cons: The designer never comes into your home and doesn’t really get to know you well so they can’t see the little nooks and crannies or include personal emotion into the room if that makes sense. They also pull from big box stores for the most part so there isn’t much custom work going into a project. I love finding vintage objects and furniture and making custom pieces where it makes sense and that is hard with virtual design services. Every time I’ve worked with a virtual service, I go with 90% of their design then add in little details on my own to finish up the job.

The room above was designed by Modsy as part of a partnership with the service. You can see more details here.

Interior Designer: Project-based

The process: The process of working with a designer is so much fun. In my experience, I meet with one in the space and tell them what I want from that room and give them a budget. The next step is they come back with vision boards that include layouts and the general design for you to give feedback on. Then comes the fun part, they come over with a bunch of fabric samples, paint samples, and wallpaper samples to get a feel for specific details. Once everything is picked out, they help you order things and start installing as pieces arrive. They think of every little detail and help you make decisions throughout the whole room.

Cost: It depends where you live and who you work with but designers charge anywhere from $100 to $250/hour  or they charge per project which is upwards of $2000/room.

Pros: That said, nothing beats working with a talented in-person designer. They can come into your space and really visualize the outcome in a way that is hard to do on your own. In my experience, they know different brands and patterns and colors like the back of their hand and know how to mix things in ways I would never have thought of. Plus they will order all the furniture and manage delivery and installation. You definitely pay for what you get. If you have the budget, I recommend working with a designer all the way!

If you’re local, I recommend both Prudence and Dana, two wonderful designers with different styles. If you’re not from around here, look up designers in your area and do a deep dive on their website and social media to see if their style meshes with yours. And be sure to interview them before hiring because you do end up talking to them a lot so you have to get along with their personality too.

Cons: The only con for me is the cost. I love the process of working with designers so much. The whole process makes me so happy.

The room above was designed by Prudence Home & Design. You can see more details here.

Interior Designer: Hourly Projects

The process: I’ve actually never seen anything like this before but I worked with a local company, The Finish, on our living room and they charged hourly to finish up a room. They do virtual and in-person services and it was a nice mix of working with a designer and working on your own. I had the room 75% done and needed someone to come in and finish it up so it ended up being only a few hours of work. They sent over a designer, Dana, who got my vibe from meeting me and seeing what we had done and she made recommendations for window treatments, the wall, and decor details.

Cost: $100/hour

Pros: You get the benefit of a talented in-person designer without having to pay the cost to design a full room.

Cons: It can feel disjointed having someone come in midway through the project but in the end, I was really happy with how it all came together.

The room above was designed by Molly Patton Design for The Finish. You can see more details here.

Designing on your own

The process: Whatever you want it to be!

Cost: Free

Pros: In a world with Pinterest and Instagram, designing a room on your own is easier than ever these days. I follow a lot of designers on IG where I pull inspiration from when I do my own designs. A few favorites are @_havensent_ @clarybosbyshell @prudencehomeanddesign @amylberry @eyeswoon. I also pin like crazy to all of my home boards.

It’s nice to not be on any sort of timeline and to go at your own pace. And you can take the money that would have gone towards a designer and use it for the project itself.

Cons: I often don’t know where to look for a certain product or how to tell if something is good quality or not without knowing the brands. I also second guess my choices a lot and get impatient which leads to me buying things just to buy them and get it done which I’ve sworn off in our new house. I also have a hard time properly measuring for some reason… as you can tell by the curtains in the photo above from my old office!

But I’d say as long as you’re willing to put in the work of finding the styles you like (and measuring correctly) then designing on your own can be really fun and satisfying. I’ll be sharing the designs I’m putting together for Amalia’s bathroom later this week so you can see my whole process.

The room above was designed by me.

Questions? Comments? Let me know!

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  1. Sara said:

    Is it typical for designers to charge an additional percentage of the furniture cost? Does the finish do this?

    8.18.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      I’ve heard yes but no one I’ve ever worked with has done this. In my experience, they make money because they get a discount on the furniture then you get charged the full price which feels fair.

      8.18.20 · Reply
  2. Tara said:

    Your timing is impeccable. I’ve been communicating with Havenly and Modsy for a week now!! My concern is EXACTLY yours- re: custom. I have a super talented husband who will put in recessed lighting for me, build built in book shelves, crown moulding, etc so I’m worried but honestly I JUST need the picture that they provide with general size guidelines. I THINK i can do the rest and your post has given me that confidence to know Modsy is right for me!!

    8.18.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      You are so lucky to have a husband who can do all of that! I’m dying for built-ins but they are so expensive labor-wise. Good luck!

      8.20.20 · Reply
  3. Irene said:

    Julia – the top image of your kitchen is pure perfection!! Love your designs and watching your new home come together.
    Last year you influenced me to use Modsy and it was great – what I was mostly looking for was ideas on how to arrange the layout for an oddly shaped room in my starter home – so using their service worked out perfectly and I would recommend them for anyone looking for that!

    8.18.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      I’m so happy to hear it! I’ll pass along your feedback to the team 🙂

      8.20.20 · Reply
  4. Quincy said:

    I feel the same way about interior design! I love what I do, but still kinda wish I’d pursued it as a profession. Thank you for such a thorough breakdown into the prices, pros, and cons of each approach. It came at the best time and I know I’ll be referring to it again and again.

    8.18.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      Maybe we can both make it a side hustle!

      8.20.20 · Reply
  5. Molly Laufer said:

    I LOVE the idea of The Finish for “finishing” services. I have 2 rooms that are like, 75-80% of the way there (one of which was actually done with Modsy, and I overall love the room but it’s not *quite* all the way there in terms of personal touches) and I just don’t know how to put in the finishing looks/styles. Do you or any readers know if there is a way to find “finishing companies” like this in other markets? Or maybe just Google around locally to find “project based” or hourly (vs. full room) designers? If I figure it out, I’ll report back but if anyone has tips for finding good finishing designers, I’m all ears!!

    8.19.20 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      I would just look it up but you could also reach out to designers you love in your area and ask if they would take on an hourly project like yours!

      8.20.20 · Reply