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Creative Conversations: Phyllis Harbinger Talks Design, Time Management, and Marketing

Phyllis HarbingerPhyllis Harbinger runs an award-winning interior design firm, leads her own coaching and consulting firm servicing the design/build industry, and somehow still finds the time to teach the next generation at the Fashion Institute of Technology. With over 25 years of interior design experience, Phyllis—quite literally—wrote the book on how to get and stay organized as an interior designer. Here, she shares with us her tips for finding design inspiration, developing a system for time management, and focusing on who your ideal client is as a designer.

The Art of Curating

For Phyllis, the interior design process starts with a stroke of inspiration. This could come from a beautiful piece of artwork, a photo, or a recent fashion trend that caught her eye. According to Phyllis, what makes DCIStudio unique is that she and her team become “chameleons of sorts” where they really get inside their clients’ heads and think about the project from their perspective. This way, the finished project is a space that is a true reflection of the client’s needs, wants, desires, and personal style.

“I think that a really good designer is a curator. You're a curator of style and aesthetics, you're a curator of taste, you're a curator of bringing together different parts of the equation to create the whole,” says Phyllis. As a curator, she likes to focus on classic pieces that will withstand the test of time. “I believe in sustainable design because I think that we're too much of a disposable society today, and I like to do things that can be transitioned from space to space and will always be in style,” says Phyllis. That’s not to say that she never incorporates trendy pieces, but usually, she does so in smaller doses that can be easily interchanged.

"If you're going to sell yourself for the product, you're not going to be as successful in terms of what value you can bring to the client as if you sell yourself for the service that you offer.”

Phyllis is careful to note the difference between professional designers and those who take up interior design as a hobby. “We went to school to learn how to design,” she says. “I think that that's a really big deal today when people have so much access to information on the internet. If you're going to sell yourself for the product, you're not going to be as successful in terms of what value you can bring to the client as if you sell yourself for the service that you offer.”


Find a Process and Stick to It

Being a creative and running a business takes determination. It’s easy to get so caught up in the day to day operations that you lose sight of what it is you love most—designing. “When I get to do creative work, I love it, but unfortunately, that's not where most of my time is spent,” says Phyllis, who makes sure a certain amount of hours a week are allotted purely to design.

“I was one of the first people to ever have Design Manager back in 1996, so I've been a long-time client, and I love the way it helps me to organize my project management.”

In order to better manage her time, Phyllis uses an assortment of apps and tools including Asana, QuickTime, and Design Manager. “I was one of the first people to ever have Design Manager back in 1996, so I've been a long-time client, and I love the way it helps me to organize my project management,” says Phyllis. Today, she uses Design Manager in the cloud, which she says has been game-changing. “For your team to be able to interface with you, to be able to have photographs which you can actually put right into a proposal or a purchase order. That has saved my life,” says Phyllis.

Of course, project management tools and technology only work to the extent that you use them. “Find a system that works for you and stick to it,” says Phyllis. To cover all of her bases, Phyllis is careful to document and record every detail in Design Manager. “If you document every single thing, you are protected because a purchase order is a legal document,” she says. Having a well-documented record of all of your projects will also save you time and resources in the long run. For example, Phyllis recently looked back at a project from 2008 to quickly determine an estimate for a fireplace for her client in a matter of minutes. “It was pretty cool to be able to just have that at my fingertips and not have to go grab a file,” she says.


Make Time for Marketing

As a consultant, Phyllis focuses on helping other designers do more of what they love. “One of the things I do really well is help people see things about themselves that they wouldn’t otherwise notice,” she says. Through a number of exercises, Phyllis helps her clients clarify who they are as a designer, what they want, and how to get there. “We come up with a series of steps for how to best deal with different aspects of marketing because marketing is such a big scary thing for a lot of people, and designers don't do enough of it and they don't do it strategically,” she says.

Part of what Phyllis does is help her clients get out of their own way and figure out how they can reach their ideal clients. “We help them create their “ideal client avatar” so that's who they're attracting whenever they're going out and pitching,” she says. “It's really satisfying to get an email from a client or talk to them and hear how their business has shifted from the work that we've done together.” Phyllis loves a good challenge, and nothing is more rewarding than seeing how people implement the knowledge she shares to push themselves to the next level as designers and business owners.

When it comes to marketing, Phyllis is adamant that you have to start somewhere. “The best advice I can give you is that you need to devote at least one day a week, or even just half a day a week, to marketing, where you shut off your technology that creates noise and just focus on the marketing,” she says. “Even if it means that your budget is your time and you're getting out there and you're networking, you're creating your own graphics, you're doing something. You've got to commit some dollars and some time to marketing every single week if you want to succeed.”

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Melissa Bischoff, Contributing Author
Melissa Bischoff, Contributing Author
Digital marketer on a mission to connect people through content. Considers any day spent outdoors a success and dreams of visiting all 59 national parks.

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