BIID’s president-elect Charles Leon uses his impressive spectrum of professional experiences to blend design, economics, politics, philosophy and current affairs in discussions on the topic of interior design. Trained as a theatre designer, he began his professional career working for the National Theatre and the English National Opera. Having progressed from theatre to film in the 1980s, by 1994 Charles was ready to set up his own residential and hospitality design practise — Charles Leon Associates — having spent the previous five years working at the UK’s foremost international hotel design company. Fast-forward to 2010 and Charles was joined by Nicholas Black, who he would (in 2014) officially partner with as Leon Black.

Having spoken at conferences around the globe (including last year’s BIID conference) Charles will share his wealth of design business knowledge with this year’s audience via his Building a Great Interiors Brand session. We caught up with him to talk about why being a great designer doesn’t necessarily qualify you to run an interior design business, and what he hopes to achieve as the next BIID president.

Charles, you are an experienced speaker and have talked to audiences around the globe. As a designer and BIID president-elect, why do you think it is important that you and your industry peers take part in conferences like the BIID’s?

Without the exchange of thoughts, opinions and ideas, nothing changes

or progresses and the BIID needs to be in touch with the needs of interior designers. I think that in order to really become an organisation that represents the interior design community we need to engage with our members as often as we can and listen to their wishes. BIID should be a hub for knowledge, community and representation. The conference is a great forum for designers to get together and discuss their shared interests.

This year’s conference topics focus on the business, ethics and marketing of interior design businesses. How has your career prepared you to talk about this side of the industry?

Most designers, like me, set up their business because they love design and feel that they can make a difference, but that doesn’t prepare you for running a business. The realities of accounting — VAT, market research, managing people, cashflows and resources — can come as a hard shock. I realised very early on that I didn’t have the necessary experience or knowledge to run a company, so I took myself off to do an MBA. But in truth, most of the lessons have been learnt through bitter experience and listening to others, not necessarily those in design. I’m a big fan of learning from completely different disciplines and benchmarking. Nothing ever prepares you for every eventuality, it’s not a case of things not going wrong, it’s more often how you handle them when they do go wrong. What I’ve learnt that helps is a clear strategy for what you want to get out of it (in business terms) and building trust in your clients and suppliers.

You spoke at last year’s conference and during your talk you said, “Designers develop a heightened sense of empathy. Design is a behavioural skill. Does this also apply to the business side of design?

When I spoke about empathy and design as a behavioural skill, I was referring to the specific task of designing.  A designer has to be able to “play the part” of the end user of the design, to literally get into their shoes, to feel what they want them to feel. It’s a kind of sociological and psychological skill mixed with an acting skill. However, this is where the conflict lies in running a design business (or any business for that matter). In order to be able to negotiate, fight and win in business, you have to have a clear idea of what you want out of it. It’s a strategy that enables you to set your boundaries and your goals and to know when to walk away. The only place where empathy and behavioural skills are also useful are in managing people.

Last month you joined a number of BIID members at our ‘Ask The Expert event where interior designers could speak to a number of industry experts about specific elements of the interior design process. How diverse are the skill-sets and areas of knowledge required in interior design businesses?

People often underestimate the amount and diversity of knowledge and skills a competent interior designer needs to have. A designer needs to be aware of the legal and statutory requirements, how building contracts work, about how things are made, about what materials and techniques are available, about their business responsibilities, let alone be aware of design trends. Keeping up with CPDs is an absolute necessity. I would also always encourage all designers to get out and see things too.

Following on from that, how do professional bodies such as BIID support interior designers in making sure they cover all the bases particularly those who are small studios with sometimes only one or two employees?

BIID have put the Professional Pathway in place — supported by mentors and the knowledge hub.  In this way we would like to ensure that each and every individual designer has a rounded knowledge of all aspects of the design process and some business management. BIID is also involved with several Universities and colleges in trying to encourage and help students to achieve a high standard of knowledge when setting out on their professional careers.

Your work focuses predominantly on hospitality design, what is your favourite project you’ve ever worked on?

Probably the best working experience on any project was The Grand Hotel in Vienna, which was some years ago when I worked for Richmond International. When a client says “we don’t have a budget, but we want to be the best in Europe” you know it’s going to be great. Otherwise, the Majestral in Beirut was a very difficult project but very rewarding (sadly closed due to the current situation in Lebanon). There were many objective design problems to overcome, but the joy of both these projects was the relationship with the client. All of our most enjoyable projects have been as a result of a good relationship with the client.

You’ve worked with different businesses within the hospitality design sector, what is one theme they all share in terms of business and marketing?

The big difference between residential and hospitality projects is the clients. Residential projects tend to be on an emotional level, dealing with people’s perceptions of how they live or how they think they would like to live, it’s often also about how they want to be perceived by others (this is partially true of Hotel owners too).

In hospitality projects the clients are normally professional design-buyers and see their project as a marketing and business tool. It has to sell — preferably to make a profit. They will often spend a great deal of time working out a strategy for a brand and will have a clear idea of their target market. The interior design has to fall in line with the brand strategy and often elevate it. The clients or operators will have carefully profiled their guest and will have built narrative around them. They will also often have a strategic plan for the locations and demographics.

Design for hospitality is directly entwined with branding and marketing. How do you navigate this and work collaboratively with that side of the creativity industry, without compromising on the quality of the interior design?

The Interior has to be “on-brand”. While this sounds very restrictive, at the top end of the market (four and five star) there is enormous flexibility as to how that is interpreted. “On-brand” is really a kind of touchy-feely wish list. It has to feel right for the brand aims. At the lower end (two and three star) it will be much more restrictive and more accurate in terms of the branding.

If you could only give one piece of branding advice to interior designers who want to start their own businesses what would it be?

If by this you mean building a brand for their businesses, then it must be to say “trust your instincts” and be clear about your aims. Building a brand is building a personality for the company, be clear what that is and what your story is.

You will share your panel discussion with Karen Howes, Alex De Blonay and Nick Cross who all bring different expertise to the table. As BIID president-elect, how do you plan on promoting and developing diversity in skills and knowledge?

I would like to build a stronger community of interior designers, in all their different guises. Some of that is about raising public awareness of the range of skills and expertise that good interior designers can bring to a project. I would also like to engage with and support young designers, universities and colleges. We have a great foundation in place, now we need to build on these strengths.

Learn more about Charles’ session and book tickets for the BIID Inside Knowledge conference here.

Follow BIID on Twitter and #BIIDIK17 for news and updates.