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  • Writer's pictureEric McQuiston, PLA

Adding a Designer to your Team

Adding a full-time, in house designer or architect to your company is a big step. If you find that you are in need of this, you are moving in the right direction, it means your business is growing and you need help! A skilled designer can pay huge dividends in the long run. The right person can increase sales, professional appearance and improve efficiency. The challenge is to find a design professional that is a great fit for your company and business model. As a landscape architect and a veteran of the Design/Build industry I am offering a few thoughts here to the business owners and the potential designers.

Landscape Designer vs. Landscape Architect

It is very important to understand the difference between a Landscape Designer and a Landscape Architect. A Landscape Designer may, or may not, have formal education in design or even horticulture. Landscape Design, or Garden Design, is generally unregulated in the U.S. however there exist some professional associations, namely The Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) who advocate and self regulate. A Landscape Designer probably has experience, education, and skill in designing outdoor spaces including planting design, hardscapes, lighting, drainage or other elements. In some cases a Landscape Designer may have graduated with a degree in landscape architecture but has not yet fulfilled the necessary licensing required by most states.

A Landscape Architect is a professional who has met a number of strict requirements to achieve licensure and recognition by most state licensing boards. In most cases a licensed landscape architect must have achieved a degree in landscape architecture from an accredited university, performed an internship or equivalent experience and pass a rigorous licensing exam. In addition, landscape architects must accomplish continuing education requirements and should hold professional insurance, either personally or through the company that they work for. Landscape architects are skilled at the design and construction of outdoor spaces and rely upon a fundamental education and knowledge of physics, engineering, horticulture, sociology, biology, and geology among other things. In general, landscape architects are professionally recognized structural designers with the training and experience to design built structures in a safe and creative manner.

Since landscape architecture is such a broad field, not all landscape architects are skilled in the design/build realm. On the other hand, not all designers have the professional abilities needed by your firm. Most business owners who face the need for a full-time designer for the first time do not really know how to determine the right person for the job. Let alone the skills and requirements!

Start with what you need!

If you are a young company (yourself and 2-3 guys) doing about $500k per year, you are probably handling all the sales, design, estimating, business, accounting, supervision, labor, and everything else. That is not uncommon. But, if you see the potential to grow your business you recognize that you will need help. If you could offload half, or more, of all the time that you spend on sales, design and estimating you realize that you could devote that extra time to developing, growing and supervising your crews and business. This is the most common reason to hire a sales/designer.

A good Sales/Designer understands your company, your business model and is a great representative to your customers. A good sales designer will be the first person that your customers meet and the last hand shake. They will develop a great rapport with the customer and design a solution that fits their needs and yet remains within your company's scope of work. They will estimate that design and provide a proposal for services to the customer. And finally sell that solution and steward the project to the end.

A good Sales/Designer also has a fundamental understanding and appreciation of efficient production. A good designer will not spend 40 hours working on a $20k project! My general rule is that a sales designer should spend no more than one hour on sales, design and estimating for every five thousand dollars of work. This varies of course, depending on the project and customer. But I feel it is a good rule of thumb.

Hiring a Designer

If you decide to take the plunge and hire a designer there are a few things that are very important to establish with that designer.

  • First, your new designer should clearly understand that although you have hired them to sell, design and estimate work for your company, they are not first and foremost ARTISTS! They are salespeople who are responsible for the growth and development of the company. Their creative ability and skill set are tools for them to use in growing the company and themselves. Set sales goals and provide a framework of the sales and project pipeline. If they do not know what is required of them or how to do it, you will both fail.

  • Next, provide the tools that they will need to accomplish what you ask of them. This includes office space to work, design and estimating software, email addresses and/or phones, furnishings (drafting table if hand work is needed), marketing materials including business cards, folders, informational flyers, uniforms, vehicle signage, etc. In other words, give them the tools to do their job!

  • Finally, measure the production of the sales/designer and share that metric with them. If they are falling short of sales goals then it is important that you both analyze what is preventing that and determine a strategy to correct it. Make them part of the solution and help them to own it! Like anything else in business and life, you must cultivate for greater yields!

Designer vs Architect Revisited

So, if this is your first step into hiring someone to design, estimate and sell work for your company; I believe that hiring a designer is the way to go. Due to their desire, but limited experience or credentials, the landscape designer may provide what you are looking for. You must set forth achievable goals and provide the necessary tools, but they have every potential to become a tremendous asset to your company!

In my opinion a good landscape sales/designer should be responsible for developing $500k-$1.5 million in revenue per year. As the business owner, you are responsible for generating the sales leads but they should be closing them. That is their job!

When your business becomes large enough you might want to consider hiring a landscape architect. You may also develop and encourage licensure among your designers. The landscape architect adds a whole new dimension to the services that you can provide. The landscape architect can supervise numerous sales/designers and provide professional design to more complex projects like retaining walls, storm water management systems, significant grading and structural solutions.

The Freelance option

With the advent of the 'Gig' economy, there are a number of freelance design and architect options available. You may now hire designers and/or architects as and when you need them. I feel this will be the future of our industry. If you choose this route, I would advise you to check out their credibility and professional certification.

This can be a great compromise for a growing company but I would caution that it is no replacement for a great design team that is an integral part of your company!

Best Wishes!


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