where to start

inkognitoSeptember 19, 2008

Isabel has contributed to this forum in a very positive fashion but her recent post has me wondering if the notion of 'DESIGN' is too big, a scary subject that turns people off. Mad tripper has us wondering if plant arrangements within a well designed landscape are that important or perhaps if generally people can't tell the difference.

In any other field a designer is called upon to dot 'I's' and cross 'T's' but if the 'T' stands for tree and the 'I' for the ivy that grows up it we are working with a dimension that has a mind of its own.

People who drop in to this forum are not the people I work for although some are the people I work with and although we haven't had a pro versus amateur question for awhile Isabel's question and Madtripper speaks to that same dilemma.

Garden designers are often asked to justify what they do especially if Madtripper is right that most people can't tell the difference anyway.

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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

So, Ink, justify what you do :-)

Actually I'm curious about how many of the pros' clients fall into what categories. My guess of the possible underlying reasons why someone has a pro design and/or install a garden would include:
- client with a technical site problem (e.g. drainage, severe slope, etc.) that wants expertise to ensure it is dealt with correctly;
- client needing a lot of hardscaping and wants it done well, both from a design and construction point of view;
- client wants the garden to look good but lacks the knowledge and/or interest in gardening to attempt it themselves;
- client lacks confidence in their ability to do this mysterious thing called 'design' but is comfortable with the gardening part of things so only wants the plan and/or limited installation (e.g. install the hardscape and large items but they do the majority of the planting).

What other categories make up the client base and which are the most significant part of the business? If I had a tricky property, I'd fall into the first category. I could imagine a time when I might fall into something like the second category, although I'd have a lot of opinions about things and would probably drive the designer crazy! (How many of your clients drive you crazy... :-)

    Bookmark   September 19, 2008 at 8:31PM
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People hire designers for one reason and one reason only - to reduce doubt in the outcome of the project.

What those doubt reductions are varies.

My opinion is that the best clients knows what you do and wants it. They are almost buying a brand.They tend to let you do what you do best. These tend to go very smoothly.

Another common type that I get (delivered to me) are from landscapers who have the skills to build and maintain landscapes, but don't have the patience and/or the ability to bring their clients from point A to point B. These are what I find to be the toughest most of the time. They tend to be jobs that are already under way. The clients often think they know what they want, but it is usually an abstract vision that falls apart when it moves toward reality. Essentially, the landscaper needs someone to get his difficult client focused so he can build instead of going round and round. Your fighting dismantling bad ideas that took them a long time to decide on, your dealing with a landscaper and client that have an established relationship while you are new to the client, and your dealing with a client who has been all over the place, and you need to put them through it again with the benefit of your council which they are reluctant to do. Designing the landscape is the easy part. They value a designer because they know the project is getting away from them.

Another great type of client is one that hires design professionals for everything. They explain the concepts that they want, some things that they specifically want, a few things that they don't want, and then allow you to develop it whether you are an architect, interior designer, or landscape designer/architect. Then you have revision sessions and everyone is happy. This profile is usually in the high end.

The farther you slip from the high end, the more the client tends to want to design the landscape with you, at least in my experience. The more that they think that they are capable of designing, the less they tend to value you, your fees, and your opinion.

Another type is one that has to have a landscape plan due to some kind of permitting process. It could be conservation or planing and zoning regulations. It could be residential or commercial. The work is double sided because you have to please both your client and the regulatory body which sometimes are on two totally different agendas.

The real difference between professional landscape design and doing it for yourself and people you are close to is that 90% of the work is in establishing the correct criteria to design the landscape for. As a hobby, you can assume the criteria that you want to work within. That is the thing that blindsides the people who drop their day job to "do what they really love doing".

    Bookmark   September 19, 2008 at 10:34PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Purely speaking for myself, I find that the majority of the people who end up hiring me are those who have seen my work in the neighborhood, in a landscape design/gardening magazine, at one of their friends' houses, or on a garden tour where my designs have been featured. They tend to want to hire me based on their reaction to something they have seen personally, which resonated with them on some level, and they would like to apply to their own situation.

I had been concentrating over the past several years on marketing myself towards working in partnership with flippers/building contractors and designing speculative homes/gardens, but the local crash of the real estate market has made this a more difficult market segment to work in.

I find that the clients themselves tend to be fairly diverse; in that some are very hands on gardeners, others simply appreciate nice gardens but don't have the time or skill set to do it themselves, and often I end up doing a redesign of an existing garden which might have been previously professionally designed, but ended up not meeting their expectations as it matured. As we have a 6 month dry season here in northern California, very few gardens are installed without an automatic irrigation system, and it definitely helps to be able to market oneself around being able to design a garden hand in hand with an appropriate irrigation system, and have a firm understanding of appropriate plants for the level of irrigation to be applied. I also tend to specialize on designing gardens that use Mediterranean climate plants from around the world, along with a smattering of subtropical/tropical plants that do well here in California, in combination with strongly articulated garden architecture to tie the garden to the house and encourage indoor/outdoor flow. Really nothing unusual about this type of approach in California, as it is a given that most people are looking to achieve a better indoor/outdoor relationship here given the mild year round climate, and small lots that result in smaller houses; people want to make the most of what they have.

The other reasons for hiring me to help with the design and/or installation have sometimes had to do with getting a house ready for resale or to rent out, to revamp the garden to make it more manageable to maintain or use less water, or to tame a garden that had gotten out of control. Perhaps the most entertaining client I occasionally get is the garden connoisseur, who is a plant collector and wants to have a garden designed to better show off their collection of plants, and have designed several gardens for succulent, bromeliad and tropical plant and native California plant enthusiasts.

I personally find it most interesting when I am doing a design for a new garden that is addressing the whole site, but sometimes only get to this point after having wet my feet by starting in a smaller, problem area of the garden.

With the current turmoil in the economy and falling housing prices, it seems that things have slowed down considerably here locally, with a lot of my current work load concentrating on clients I already have rather than new, bigger new landscapes. I expect that the market here locally may change yet again if we are really entering into a second year of drought conditions and the various local water districts institute mandatory water rationing. I don't necessarily see this as a negative, as I do enjoy designing around plants that use less water, but typically this has not been under the duress of not being able to use water to get things established. This could all change if outdoor water is not permitted, and would change the landscape installation season away from the more traditional spring into summer period and push it into the rainy months of November through March. If outdoor water use is strictly curtailed, the window for planting new gardens will have to correspond with the winter rains and use smaller sized plants for initial plantings. It will be interesting to see how this pans out, and whether people will be forced to let their lawns die and replace them with plantings that can survive on much less irrigation. I remember when the last drought occurred here in California as I was finishing up my studies in the late 1970's, and the emphasis this put on designing gardens with drought tolerant California native plants and more hardscape in lieu of lawns. As soon as the drought was over, however, most people went back to wanting lawns, and replanting of water loving things like the Rhododendrons and Hydrangeas they had before, and had had to let die.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2008 at 10:40PM
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"if the notion of 'DESIGN' is too big, a scary subject that turns people off."
It used to be that way when I grew up - the word "design" was up there on the Olympus, something for the mortals to admire and learn about. Compare that to a mild culture shock I experienced while working at a flower shop in the Twin Cities: when some colleague said "So you're designing today, huh?" it literally, and not at all jokingly, meant "making 23 replicas of a flower arrangement". (I made as stoic a face as I could, and replied, yes, I guess I am). From then on, I've understood that the word "design" can have as many meanings as there are people using it (hence the controversies over the proper subject of this forum). But I'm drifting off topic now...

    Bookmark   September 20, 2008 at 4:11AM
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There is no faster way to ruin an enjoyable hobby than to try to make a living doing it.

Good design often goes unnoticed because good design is mostly an absence of bad design. Bad design calls one's attention. For example, planting a tree to overhang a patio that has a fruit that is highly attractive to birds.

Considering the title "where to start" and "too big, a scary subject that turns people off", I tried to address that in my thread "Drawing the Plan. part 1".

    Bookmark   September 20, 2008 at 7:48AM
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I guess I was off topic, too.

Where to start:
Glenda the Good Witch said "it is best to start at the beginning and follow the yellow brick road".

I think it is always at the same place. That is to find, establish, or assume the design criteria. Often we do this without realizing we are doing it, so it often goes unrecognised by the person doing it.

The design criteria is the beginning of the yellow brick road. Then you need to use heart, brains, and sometimes courage to get the twists and turns and what others will throw at you to get to the Emerald City.

It does not matter if it is a 2'x3' bed next to your porch step or the layout of a subdivision, you have a reason for doing it, goals and objectives, factors beyond your control that you have to conform to, and you will have to balance competing values. They may be so basic that you don't know you are doing it, but you are.

When you do it yourself, you apply the values that you already have, so you are missing the toughest part of the process that someone who does this for others has to do. You don't have to get into other people's heads to understand, process, and apply their values. That is easy when someone is buying "your brand", but not so easy when someone has spent two years watching HGTV, cutting out pictures and articles in garden magazines, and getting frustrated trying to design his/her own garden.

Many people think they can quit their high rise job and start "doing what they love" as a designer. The assumption is that people will hire them and let them do their thing and then shower them with praise and money. Then the landscaper will come in and be excited to be able to work on something "really nice" while being dutifully following the direction of the designer who he respects very highly.

It starts by breaking down your client without losing him/her in the process. The result of that determines a great deal of what happens next.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2008 at 8:17AM
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We have basically two types of participants in this Forum. Some are interested in all matters related to landscape architecture/design. The second group, which wandered in from the home decorating forums, understand landscaping to be 'exterior decorating'.

Before retirement I mainly dealt with land planning, erosion, large properties, woodland gardens, the natural world. Each aspect has a different starting point but the bottom line is working with and preserving the land.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2008 at 8:47AM
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I am not trying to establish a divide, incidentally.

If the majority of people only know it when they see it, or as pls8xx suggests only know it when it not there how do we plan for that? Or what if it makes no difference? If you have Andrews client II, who lets you get on with it, what criterion are you driven by? Is it elitist to design to the highest standard or do we do just enough to get by (paid)? We have TV that works to this standard as an example.

For those who are intimidated by the whole concept of 'DESIGN' whether big picture or details "Less is More" meaning simplicity and clarity lead to good design.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2008 at 9:34AM
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Taken in its most literal sense, design is defined as the process of creating, fashioning, executing or constructing a plan in response to a perceived need or for an intended purpose. In short, it is the methodical, planned solution to a problem.

In a landscaping/garden context and as appears often on this forum, I think the confusion or conflict arises from the lack of clear articulation of the need to be addressed or problem to be resolved and this confusion is then carried on to the steps involved in achieving a successful solution. Often we see this expressed as the vague "what to plant here" query or the broader "blank slate - what to do" postings. The poster or client is aware a need or problem exists, but most often has not fleshed it out sufficiently to be able to address it in a responsive, methodical, planned manner.

The need or problem can be very specific - a drainage issue, plant selection for a single planting area, where to place a shade tree - or quite broad - a need for 'curb appeal', how to renovate a mature but overgrown/neglected property or just general aesthetic enhancement of the landscape. What is lacking and what is most often requested is the knowledge of how to address the problem. Sometimes it is just a lack of technical data - how to construct a french drain or what plants will work best in a particular situation - but more often it is a lack of the planning component; a methodical, carefully thought-out resolution or series of resolutions that successfully answers the problems or addresses the need(s).

I believe that those who are not familiar with the design process or are less comfortable with problem solving tend to oversimplify. And too, as with any specific design discipline, there exists a vocabulary and/or technical aspects that are unfamiliar and often intimidating. Easing one's way into this and expanding the way the situation is examined is one of the attributes of this forum and the primary intent of a professional designer when initially meeting with a client.

Where to start is, as laag has astutely stated, at the beginning :-) How that beginning is defined is particular to both the client (or the forum poster) and the situation. And very often needs enlightenment from some outside source to identify.

So what is "good" design and is it important or even noticeable? Good design is the successful resolution of the problem or the accurate addressing of the need. That there may be many ways to accomplish this complicates the issue as does the fact that landscaping is a visual design discipline governed by the rules of composition - the design "principles". Its importance is entirely dependent on how it is perceived by the user (client/homeowner/poster). If it solves a problem (i.e., provides privacy, improves drainage) or successfully addresses a need (i.e., creates curb appeal or aesthetic enhancement), then its importance is inherent. Is it necessarily noticeable? Often to the layman it is not and by its lack of noticeablility, yet additional confirmation of a successful solution to a defined problem or need.

Design is making things right. Ralph Kaplan

    Bookmark   September 20, 2008 at 11:09AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I know very clearly that I would never be able to design for someone else! For me the garden is a very personal (and at times eccentric...:-) expression and I don't think I'd be able to - or want to - try to interpret and create a garden that attempts to express someone else's concept of a garden. And I'm sure I'd be a nightmare client for most of you if I hired you for anything other than technical assistance - but then I'm unlikely to hire someone to design the garden in a broader sense - local designers can breathe a sigh of relief at that! :-)

    Bookmark   September 20, 2008 at 1:50PM
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Woody, I also don't think I'll be taking anyones job, but I also probably won't put out a request for proposal either!

My spouse is always saying with all of the magazines,books and websites I have on plants and landscaping that I should go into the business or get a degree.

I'm content with being a hobbyist, but with knowledge comes a realization of certain aesthetic inadeqacies and skill gaps. Design television shows have raised the bar for expectations as well.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2008 at 5:47PM
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Good stuff, deserves a bump before it falls off the 67th page and into wherever it is that old posts go to die here on GW.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2011 at 9:09PM
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The biggest difference between most professionals and most amateurs is that the professional looks at the landscape as a whole while the amateur sees it in bits and pieces.

We work from general to specific, the overall landscape toward the niches, and from the big to the small. Amateurs often start with a detail and work from that to a garden, from one niche to the next, and then look at the whole thing after all the spaces within it are filled.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2011 at 7:20AM
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In my very limited amateur experience the biggest difference I see between homeowners and pros is the order in which they do things.
Homeowners see pretty plants and buy them, then wander the yard looking for a nice place to put them.
Pros wander the yard long before choosing the plants.

As an amateur I have owned plants that have been moved so many times they should have wheels on them- constantly realizing that what I had done just didn't work on any one of ten levels. Figuring out what I was doing wrong was an obstacle that was very difficult to overcome.

If there was but one idea I could convey to a homeowner it would be don't buy plants. Don't buy anything until you have wandered the yard and given thought as to what you want to feel when you look out your windows. Consider the dogs, the kids, the way you use your spaces and what you want to see when you pull into the driveway.

I'm not contributing anything new here so I'll move on.
I would just like to keep this thread going as I do so enjoy hearing the thoughts and methods of all pros and hope you see fit to keep posting.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2011 at 9:13PM
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So many interesting thoughts on this thread...

Laag says that people hire designers for one reason and one reason only - to reduce doubt in the outcome of the project. It's true that is my main goal as a soon to be garden design client, though I'm currently struggling with being able to hand over something so huge to someone else and to trust that I'll be happy with the end result. I'm one of those people who has spent a lot of time thinking (and re-thinking and over thinking) about a plan for a redesign of our yard. I have learned a lot in the last few years about plants, design, and how we want to use our yard, but mostly what I've learned is that I still have so much to learn. I could struggle on and just keep learning from my mistakes, but I think I'll get past my current garden paralysis sooner and enjoy my garden more if I have help from someone with a lot more experience in design than I have.

I'm a far cry from one of those "great" high end clients who hires design professionals for everything. It has been hard for me to break out of my DIY mentality. The hardest part for me has been finding someone who I think has the knowledge, enthusiasm, and talent to help design the "bones" of our garden in a way that meets our needs and tastes. I still want to fill in a lot on my own, making gardening mistakes and learning from them. I just hope to do it on a smaller scale.

I can understand designers wanting to work with clients who just let them do their thing without wanting to collaborate much. I imagine it would be hard (or at least not as enjoyable) to design for a client whose tastes were not a close match for the designer. If only I could hire Lauren Springer Ogden to design my yard I could remove all doubt and just let go :) Instead I'm just hoping my designer will be a close enough match for my tastes that I can give her some guidance and then let go and trust in her expertise. I think I'm almost there...

    Bookmark   May 25, 2011 at 2:34AM
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You are much more he typical client than the one who "turns it over to the expert". This is the part that people who want to do this professionally don't see coming. The easy part is putting plants down on paper, but that is the part that comes after working with a client.

The job is all about learning about your client and teaching them about yourself while transitioning their vision into the realities of the site and some functions that they either did not see or wanted to ignore.

This is why I don't think you have found the right designer until/unless you are very comfortable that they can get you where you want to be. Keep looking until you find someone who does emove a huge amount of that doubt. Designers are a dime a dozen, but the one you need might be harder to find.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2011 at 6:31AM
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What laag said ... we get taught to work from big broad questions like "how will this space be used" to smaller questions like "Do we want hardscape or trees for shade on the BBQ area" to details like "What species of tree is the right size and shape for this spot".

Novices tend to start by buying a pretty plant for the flower bed by the front steps ... and not noticing that the steps are 5x wider than the sidewalk and the plant is a species that will cover the steps and front porch in 2 years unless they prune it weekly.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2011 at 12:53PM
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Where to start? 2008 obviously. Me and the main man Obama got that right.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2011 at 5:56PM
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Cearbhaill - i think you got that right. I just had that garden consultation today; she said 'I got all these plants at the garden club sale- can you help me figure out where to put them?' with no reasonable garden areas in sight. Actually NO garden areas in sight!

I have a lot of clients who look to me for an overall design and plan but then install it themselves - I think its great for a person to have the sweat equity investment in their own landscape.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 4:33PM
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