Cut from similar cloth: Discussion with a landscape architect

Many professional designers work for themselves or in small business, designing in-the-small, as solo or paired-up professionals working individually or under a studio umbrella. Many larger design and consulting practices are simply scaled-up versions of loosely aggregated ‘lone designer’ work-cells. What’s it like to work in this context, and what does it mean for the kind and quality of design that gets delivered?

A few years ago I interviewed one such designer. Martin Smythe (pseudonym) is a landscape architect of 20 years’ practice. He is founder and director of Martin Smythe & Associates, a suburban outfit in a busy mixed business and shopping precinct that employs six designers, all landscape architecture graduates from a leading university’s design faculty. The practice does commercial landscape briefs for private companies and councils, and some domestic landscape design for private clients.

Martin Smythe is typical of what Martin E. Gerber describes as a ‘skilled technician’. He owns the business, runs the business, is the business. He participates in the marketing and initiation of all jobs and is involved in the day-to-day supervision and design to a large degree. He spends considerable time mentoring his employees on a number of levels, supervising the engagement aspects of each job, so as to manage risk and the overall financial position of the company. But until he recognises this, he will exhaust his possibilities for growth as well as himself. This discussion illustrates the experience of many designers working in studio practices.

Me: What makes a good landscape designer?

Martin: There’s considerable variation in the range of abilities amongst my graduates…over the years, I’ve refined what I look for – the best indicator is spatial awareness – the basic ability to perceive space and spatial relationships. You can develop some aspects of spatial awareness with practice, but essentially, the ability [to design] is either there at birth, or not.

Martin does not consider himself to be the practice’s best designer. He defers to an employee who, despite being considerably younger and less experienced, is better at spatial arrangements, visualisation, and layout, and can anticipate and ‘see things’ in her mind before he and some of the other designers often do.

Martin recognises and mentors her skill by involving her in the early phases of design and site layout across a range of the practice’s engagements. Her spatial awareness does not appear to be limited to particular design problems, but is constrained at times by her knowledge and past exposure to specific problems.

Me: What are a professional designer’s broader capabilities?

Martin: Beyond spatial awareness, the broad skills of a landscape designer emerge over time. I closely supervise my employees and I quickly see their design and other skills. Beyond the basic ability to design, I look for awareness and openness to engage in business communication and client management.

Landscape design does not lean heavily on writing skills, but basic business writing is an overlooked capability. Strong writing skills and experience in researching diversifies options, opening up sub-fields traditionally left to the larger architecture practices such as (landscape) heritage assessments and studies, which deliver reports rather than creative concepts or plans. Several ‘more mature’ employees have proven to be better communicators and negotiators, able to discuss, clarify and negotiate jobs and new business with clients.

Me: How do you develop the practice’s design capability?

Martin: Through significant amounts of time spent mentoring designers. I find a significant gap between the capabilities of the graduates and the set of project and design skills which people require to be able to complete jobs autonomously in private practice. It takes most graduates 12 to 24 months with some periods of close supervision before they begin to become self-motivating in private practice.

There is no use of organised design instruction, knowledge sharing or discussion within the practice, other than that which happens informally. Design expertise is developed by doing and successfully completing jobs. Martin knows his team, matches jobs to staff, and personally manages each employee’s exposure to new work and activities.

Me: How is a new design idea, concept or product introduced?

Martin: Via trade exhibitions, journals, magazines and vendors. There is limited opportunity for my staff to work on the client’s premises or to do collaborative work with other landscape designers, although work is often undertaken in collaboration with project offices or project architects.

Martin assumes that his policy of hiring current graduates keeps his practice close to ‘best design practice’. He often learns new design approaches or ideas from his staff (via their course material and assignments), although the core landscape design activity has not changed. He is struck by the increasing familiarity and reliance of his new graduates on AutoCAD and its online forums and communities, and the way his graduates turn online for inspiration when sketching, planning, drawing, and solution refinement.

Martin is a craftsman working under the time-honoured apprentice model. He is stuck in a ‘Gerber trap’. He is personally involved to some degree in every job, manages new business and company risk single-handedly, and routinely works 80 hour weeks—the company’s growth is now stalled by Martin’s availability. Much of the practice’s work culture is also centred on Martin’s expertise, and is controlled by Martin’s interpretation and assessments. The next stage of growth, if it is to ever be achieved, will require Martin to delegate responsibility and authority to others via a different practice structure. The craftsman must remove himself from the centre of his studio, replacing himself with systems and a culture that empowers others to not only design but deliver the design service.