Ivy Designer Spotlight | Jane Thomson, Downie Thomson Interior Design

Based in Sydney, Australia, Jane Thomson is an experienced interior designer and presenter with over 30 years in the business. She founded her practice, Downie Thomson Interior Design along with her mother, Liz Downie, in 1990. Jane is also a proud designer on Channel 10’s Changing Rooms

How did you get started in design?

I guess I was super lucky growing up in a beautifully designed mid-century home. My dad, an architect, designed this stunning whitewashed brick home. It was very on trend at the time. Lots of white and some exposed timber and quarry tiles and it was stunning. We were so lucky. 

When visiting other kids’ homes, we’d be shocked to think that people actually lived like this. A very odd and perhaps judgmental thought process for such a young child. I just don’t know where this came from within me, but these homes really scared me. I used to create excuses not to visit my friends’ homes. I think I was really a weird little unit.

I always had this weird fetish about the environment around me.

I didn’t always know that I’d end up being a designer because in high school I decided to be an actor. I left school and started quite a famed course in acting here in Sydney, called the Ensemble Studios. But halfway through I thought man, I really want to be an interior designer as well.

After having a baby and embarking into marriage, I was the Marketing Manager for our family’s bodyboard and surf ski brand. So I was marketing those products around Australia and still yearning to be an actor and interior designer. 

So it was kind of a weird start. Really, I got into interior design quite late in life, when i was about 29. I completed a course in interior design. I was already highly educated in aesthetics and understanding of design through my parents. I then joined camp with my mum who was already an interior designer and that’s basically it.

Photo by George Fetting

What was it like working with your mum who was also an interior designer?

My mum sadly passed away in January. We were in business together for about 15 years so when she died it was really weird not having her to bounce ideas off. It’s really hard.

When she was alive It was awesome being able to — you know if you’re stuck on something and just need that sounding board — just pick the phone up and go “mum what do you think?” I loved working with her.

How has your experience as an actor helped you in the design business?

As an actor you train to assess people and their psychology and respond in kind. So if you’re invited into someone’s home as a professional on aesthetics, they’re automatically going to be feeling a little bit nervous and like they’re being judged. So I think as an actor you can readily identify these cues, respond, and try to allay their fears.

As an actor it’s all about listening to the actor’s vibe and answering based on their delivery of the lines, so I think my education as an actor has allowed me to really listen to what my clients are trying to convey beyond their words. My acting education helps me listen more intently to assess clients’ true needs and wants.

Design by Jane Thomson
Photo by Brett Boardman
Architect: Bennet Murada Architects

What project was the most interesting for you to work on?

When mum and I were in business together we were approached by a brothel to complete a refurbishment of the premises. I remember mum saying to me at the time, ‘you are so not going to this meeting!’ 

She ended up attending and she so straightened them out! Suffice to say It was a really fun project. Our parameters were loose [pardon the pun!] and we could be as  — irreverent as we wanted — and our scope was so much wider than we’d ever have with normal residential or even a commercial job. So that was a real eye-opener and a really fun project. 

Have you had any challenging projects?

I recently completed a small project for a CEO of a large company. And that person found this process so difficult to deal with because they didn’t have control. 

For a very small project I lost so much money and much sleep. Halfway through the project I had that “ah ha” moment and decided that I couldn’t do this job anymore. It really made me question if I actually wanted to carry on as a designer. It made me question my ability.

I had to really navigate around her brain and actually front her. I said, ‘I know that you are a professional, you are in control of everything. But you need to just relinquish control. Do you think you can do that?’ 

Finally she had her ‘ah ha moment’ and her penny dropped. Finally she realized what she was doing and the mental environment she was creating for both of us.

I was disappointed in myself that I didn’t pick it up earlier. But at least I finished the project and we ended it on good terms and that’s always my main objective.

You always have to think about your client and put yourself in their shoes.

What advice can you give other designers dealing with challenging clients?

You always have to think about your client and put yourself in their shoes. They’re handing over huge amounts of money and huge amounts of trust to us as design professionals, you’ve gotta be able to tap into that and have understanding and empathy. 

My main objective is to make sure my clients feel valued and that they’re being listened to. Even if it’s driving me mental, as professionals I believe that’s what we have to do.

Why did you choose Ivy for your business management needs?

I found out about Ivy about 6 months ago. I was looking at project management tools . When I was starting off 30 years ago, there was nothing. We were just stumbling around in the dark. 

I was kind of using my father’s method of project managing, though with Dad being an architect, our processes are so different. So I decided I really have to develop some good project management skills — and I was rubbish. 

So I heard about some tools and by listening to other designers and some podcasts, I thought Ivy sounded amazing. I jumped on board and I’m really happy that I did! 

How has Ivy transformed your design business?

The greatest thing for me is this project tracking. Tracking what you’re doing — you know it’s all there. So often you have lots of invoices coming in and orders going out and this way you can actually track everything. 

To be able to look up and actually see what you’re making — your profit on a particular project — is amazing. I mean otherwise, I’ve got Xero as an accounting package but that’s just too clunky and accountancy based. Ivy gives me a really simple way of being able to go, ‘Wow! I made that much?’ or “Damn. I really screwed up there.’ You can actually see it. It’s there right in front of you. 

It’s been huge for me to be able to do that. And now being on my own, as “one woman-band” it’s a lot of work for one person. So to be able to have a quick look at the screen and see where you are? It’s brilliant. 

Ivy has cut out unimportant billable hours for the client. That’s time I can now spend doing things that are more important — like the actual design!

What are your favorite Ivy features?

The clipping tool is unbelievable. You can just click on an item and then you have everything there. And then being able to mark it up or not mark it up is just amazing. It cuts loads of precious time down. 

Years ago we didn’t have anything like this. Ivy has cut out unimportant billable hours for the client. That’s time I can now spend doing things that are more important — like the actual design! 

Time tracking is another awesome feature . At a glance you can see where your time is spent. My actual design portion of some projects is only 25% which is so tiny. But I can say that this is getting bigger and the other procedures, the ones that we don’t want to have to charge for, are decreasing. I think that’s due to Ivy, so that’s just been amazing. It’s actually making the less attractive fee side of our business for our clients so much smaller. 

What advice would you give an Ivy rookie?

When anyone is attempting anything new, it can be overwhelming. Because so many other programs are so complicated, we think everything’s going to be complicated. But Ivy, in comparison is an easy tool to use once you’ve navigated your way around it. 

Take advantage of it because it just makes things so much easier.

And use the support side of it. Use those 15-minute check-ins. To have that offered to you is amazing. Those chats can help you exponentially. After those instructional chats just hop right in there and experiment. The penny drops pretty quickly!

What advice would you give new designers?

As designers, we all have to remember our main purpose is to help people and to navigate them through what they believe may be a tough time. 

Always be mindful. Our clients need us. 

It’s taking them by the hand, guiding them through the process, and pushing those boundaries with them a bit, because that’s our job. But at the same time, we’ve got to give them the best version of what they think they want. I think that as professionals that’s one of the most important things.

I would say to any young designer. “Yes, you’re a young vibrant designer bursting with amazing ideas, and yes you’re incredibly smart and talented. But at the same time, this isn’t all about you. It’s about our clients. And we’ve all got to remember that.

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