Jul 8, 2010

Choosing the Right Designer for You

As my voicemail fills with eager requests for landscaping ideas before summer slips away, here's some wisdom from a few years back that bears re-posting.

I'm often asked what my style of design is. It's a bit of a pat answer to say "your style," but it's not far off.

After all, no landscape designer worth their soil is so inflexible they can't work with more than one kind of client or architecture. And a really good designer will be part researcher, part psychologist and part psychic as well, so that we know our client really well -- so well that we can deliver unique ideas and solutions that may be unexpected but are never unwelcome.

So how can you know whether a given landscape designer is a good fit for your property?
1. Don't pick an "English country" designer just because you have a Tudor-style home. In the first place, you'll be limiting your design options, perhaps unneccessarily. (See #2, below.) In the second place, a designer who specializes exclusively in one genre like this probably would offer you the same palette of plants and cookie-cutter look as their last customer. (The notable exception may be designers such as Indig Design who specialize in native plant communities... not an aesthetic style as much as an ecological one.)

2. Unless you give very clear-cut and detailed direction, don't put too much stock in the designer who, on first sight, knows "exactly how" they would design your garden. Intuition and vision are wonderful, and certainly first impressions last. But anyone who weds themselves to a single idea without doing a bit of reconaissance on your property and developing alternative designs is missing the details that will make your garden truly yours over the long term.

(2b. If you do have very clear-cut and detailed direction, you may want to simply hire a contractor and skip the design phase. You'll have more money to allocate to construction, and you'll be able to move forward with your project faster.)

3. Don't pick a designer just because theirs is the biggest ad in the phone book or at the top of the search engine ads. That's only an indicator of how much advertising they do; it tells you nothing about the process or quality of their work.

4. Do retain the designer that your friends, neighbors, or trusted associates are raving about. Even if their home looks nothing like yours, the raves probably are for how the designer handled the project -- process, fees, attention to detail, communication -- as much as for the finished look. Websites like Yelp can be helpful here as well.

5. Do retain the designer who asks about and understands your budget -- and agrees to work with you anyway. If you have $100,000 - $250,000 to spend on your landscaping, you'll want to make sure you interview designers who are accustomed to budgets (or properties) that size. On the other hand, if you have 1/10 that amount to spend, you'll want to talk with the designer who knows how to make $25,000 look like a million bucks.

6. Do retain the designer who "feels right" to you, regardless of budget or style. You'll be working closely with this person on myriad details, and s/he will need to interpret your wishes, dislikes and personality. If their references check out, if they have creative and practical ideas to offer while respecting your own, if they know their stuff and can communicate it clearly in pictures and/or words, and most importantly if you feel comfortable talking and exchanging ideas with them, that designer will probably be a joy to work with... and your new garden will be a joy to live in.


Anonymous said...

Great blog! I agree 100% with your views, as I practice this in my own business. I believe it is why in these tough times I am still working...mostly off referrals and past clients who have purchased new homes. It's a good feeling to have clients come back once, twice dare I say three times : )

John said...

Anon, I'm thrilled to know you're staying busy. But, I'm not surprised. Clearly, you understand a concept overlooked by far too many designers, and contractors, and service providers in general: the relationship. I'm guessing your clientele aren't calling you back to re-create the same design you did last time. Nope, they're calling you back because they liked the processof working with you last time. You earned their trust by delivering on your promises. It's high praise indeed when a client refers us to their friends; highest of all when they call us back for themselves. Kudos!

KatePresents said...

I love it! Mind if I repost this to my blog at some point?


John said...

Kate, I'd be delighted and honored by a repost... especially at your blog. Thank you!

Heidi Schreiner said...

I love the part about the advertising -- so true! Choosing a contractor or designer based on their ad 'flashiness' is dangerous at best. Do your research!

Julie Orr Landscape Design said...

It's all about relationship, creativity and listening. I cannot tell you how many times a designer will ignore a clients budget, charge them a high fee for a pretty drawing that never gets built and then hire me to do the 'real plan.' Choose a designer that actually understands installation costs and you will save yourself this headache.

John said...

Right on, Julie! I'm always careful to let my clients know that since I'm not a landscape contractor, I can't give them truly accurate cost estimates. But, I learned early in my career that even the prettiest pie-in-the-sky design is worthless if the home owner can't afford to install it, and the designer has to know enough about installation costs (which, by the way, are different from straight materials costs!) to create a design that is buildable.