Design as a Sensory Experience by Joni Vanderslice

We must learn to see before we draw, listen before we speak, hear before we communicate……

We all think of Interior Design as a visual art, however, after 35 years in the business, and after employing 100’s of designers and support staff, I believe that the most important sense we have is our hearing….more specifically our listening skills.
While we may create the best design possible for a client, if they do not feel that you have their best interest at heart, do not feel heard, and if you are unable to keep their attention in order to properly explain your design ideas and concepts to them, these great ideas never make it to reality. 

Since we often work in teams, particularly on our larger projects, it is interesting to come out of a meeting or conference call and to discuss what each person heard and to begin the process of assigning tasks and setting priorities. Inevitably, the priorities that I heard in the meeting and perceived are different from other members of our team.

It also amazes me that when I give instructions to support staff, some are able to listen and carry out your instructions.  Others, however, are so busy interjecting their thoughts that they vary your instructions to fit their concept of what is better. 

It is difficult for any of us to listen without formulating our own opinions during the process.  This process can be a detriment or an asset to the client and project. 

Learning to become an active listener and to give your client or team member the signals that you are listening and hearing what they say is very important in the design process.  I have worked with people who have a totally blank look when you are speaking with them.  When this happens, I don’t know whether they are hearing me or comprehending what I am speaking to them about.  There are others who nod, change their expression to respond to what you are saying, and occasionally interject a question.  My confidence in the fact that they have heard me increases substantially.  We should all make sure that we use these cues and facial expressions. 

Our brains process visual images and emotions.  If our listening does not create a positive visual image, the client or team member may not feel connected to you or believe that you have their best interest at heart.

Eye contact is the most important aspect of active listening.  It has been proven that our filters go down when we use fewer words, listen more, use a person’s first name, and use eye contact.

In our age of emails, texts, and all social media, I have learned that we can solve a myriad of problems through actually picking up the phone and talking through a problem.  We all know that people will say things in an email that they would not say face to face.  In fact, with a curt answer, the situation can escalate and lines are drawn in the sand.  I have learned that if I will pick up the phone and call the person as soon as there is an issue, 90% of the time we can work out the problem.  THEN I put the solution into a memo so that they do not confuse it or forget what they said!

For our large projects, we have weekly conference calls.  All of the projects with weekly meetings run more smoothly.  The fact that people ask about vacations, and exchange personal greetings weekly creates comraderie and esprit de corp, which may encourage the contractor to actually want to execute the more difficult designs or the architect to help you work out a detail.

I have also learned that when a client calls and is upset, that it is best to simply listen and to acknowledge their feelings.  If you fully do this and let them get their story out, even if you see this entirely different, you will find that they will then listen to you….or even ask your opinion and will be ready to hear it.  To simply say, “I am sorry that you feel this way.  I am sorry that you are not pleased.” Or a similar acknowledgement of their feelings goes a long way in solving the problem and the relationship. 

We have two quotes that are often used in our office.  One is “Perception is Reality”.  What your client or team member perceives is their truth and reality.  Their brain has processed the visual and the emotions.  We have to accept that their reality may be quite different from ours.  How you present your outlook can make the difference in a lifelong relationship.

The other is “Feedback is a Gift”.  Don’t get so upset if someone disagrees with you or if their perspective is different.  Listen and know that you can improve their perception…and yours.

Designer Joni Vanderslice founded J Banks Design Group in 1986. Since the company’s inception she has served as the Owner and President, growing the company into an internationally recognized design firm.  Vanderslice’s reputation for out of the box yet timeless design has enabled her to secure high-end, publicly acclaimed projects throughout the world. Visiting a multitude of diverse markets keeps Vanderslice’s creativity inspired, providing her with fresh insight for her many endeavors. A resident of Hilton Head Island, SC,  Vanderslice committed herself to the betterment of the island community. A dedicated volunteer with the Hilton Head Boy’s and Girl’s Club and the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce, Vanderslice was named Woman of the Year in 1996. She is also on the board of the Sea Pines Montessori Academy.


  1. Great points raised here. Indeed, interior design is not just about the visuals. What your visitors feel while inside your house also matters. Much like these lafayette indiana apartments, you should invest in decoration to completely beautify your home.


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