Landscape design is one of those career choices (like astronaut or writer or subway platform folk singer) that can be more difficult than the glamorized, idealized version people hold in their heads. I talk to a fair number of newbie designers and people interested in the career, so this post is an amalgamation of lots of conversations. There are really two common ways to make a living as a designer, so let’s look at each of them.
Working for a design-build landscape firm
Working for a landscape company or nursery that does design-build is the most common way to work as a designer and actually pay your bills. While you’re often tasked with doing some business development on your own, typically the company provides the marketing support to get you leads. In most cases the expectation is that you also manage your jobs. The bigger the company the more likely they are to take a risk on a rookie designer, as there are systems in place to help you succeed as well as other folks to help mentor you. In the DC metro area most companies (from what I’ve seen) offer either straight commission or base plus commission as compensation.
- you can typically start making money right away
- you get to do interesting projects right away
- these companies may often offer benefits, and you can actually take a day off here and there
- because someone else is bringing leads in the door, you get to focus on being a designer
- what you design may be limited to the capabilities of your crews
- what you design may have to conform to a company’s “look”, even if your idea is cooler
- someone else tells you what to do
Working as a freelance or independent designer
When I went out on my own I worked as a freelance/independent designer. While I don’t think that accurately describes how I run my business today, it’s a fun (if terrifying) way to earn a living that worked for me. The thing is, it’s not easy. While I worked for a stiflingly uncreative boss I dreamed of hanging out my shingle. I’d do all kinds of awesome design projects the way *I* wanted to, and when I wasn’t designing I’d have time to do some furniture design and maybe even explore watercolors or sculpting.
At this point every seasoned designer reading this is shaking his or her head and saying “MORON.” I know.
The reality of going out on your own is that there’s a lot of business out there, but it’s up to you to figure out how to bring that business through the door. Then you have to wow that prospect, figure out how to price the design so that it’s competitive while still profitable, complete the design on time, present it, and then get the job built. Throughout it all you’re responsible for marketing, admin tasks, client care and followups, making sure you don’t run out of toner, remembering to schedule oil changes, and on and on. My McLean office has cleaning staff, but guess who scrubbed the toilet when I was in the Manassas Park landscape design office? Yep.
Anyhow, it’s a long road to making decent money as a freelance designer. If you can’t afford some lean years as you build your business, you’re better off working for a firm. Anyhow, pros/cons:
- you’re your own boss and set your own hours. If you want to work half a day, you get to pick which 12 hours.
- your company, your aesthetic vision. You get to create your own style.
- you get to pick your target market.
- every day is an adventure.
- there’s no one there to catch you when you fall.
- you quickly realize how expensive marketing is.
- time management is the most important skill. If you don’t have it, you’ll struggle mightily.
- getting those first core clients is haaaaaaaard.
There’s obviously a little more nuance in descriptions of both approaches than I was able to fit in here, but this should get you thinking. If you feel I overlooked something, feel free to take me to task (gently) in the comments.
I love this field, but I’ll never sugarcoat it – to succeed, you’re gonna have to bust your butt. If you’re a freelance/independent landscape designer in the DC metro area and you do great work but aren’t getting the leads you need, shoot me an email. I’m looking for a few design rockstars to partner with.