WORKING WITH DESIGNERS:
The Interior Landscaper's View
by Joelle Steele
Developing professional working relationships between interior landscapers and design professionals — interior designers, architects, and landscape architects — requires the establishment of personal rapport through mutual cooperation and a thorough understanding and fulfillment of professional needs.
For many interior landscapers, working with design professionals for the first time proves to be an exasperating experience, and, as a result, many have avoided further contact with these highly creative individuals. This is indeed unfortunate, as these are the very people who can provide us with some of the most exciting and profitable design projects.
The people interviewed for this article are interior landscapers who work with other design professionals on a regular basis, and they have taken the time to share their valuable insight into what makes these special relationships work.
Finding a design professional with whom you can establish a close working relationship requires considerable effort on your part. It is conceivable that you will meet many interior designers, architects, and other professionals with whom an association of any kind is impossible, but you will also find those who share your work ethic and design viewpoint. They are the ones who will have the most significant impact on you and your business.
So how do you connect with these designers? The majority of interior landscapers with whom I spoke agreed that the direct approach is usually the most effective.
Sunday Panagopoulos, Living Designs, Marina Del Rey, CA, pursued an interior designer after seeing a home under construction. She called him to express her interest in the project, and he liked her "go get'em" attitude. The same was true for Marilyn Hencken, Plant Connection, Hollywood, CA. She approached an architect at a residential job site two years ago and continues to work with him today.
Hencken also approached designers from within their own ranks. "I joined the American Society of Interior Designers, the International Society of Interior Designers, and the National Home Fashions League. The monthly dinner meetings allowed me to meet designers in a relaxed atmosphere and introduce them to my services and vice versa," she says.
There are various methods of introducing yourself to other design professionals, including direct mail and cold-calling. However, whatever method you choose is only a foot in the door and not a guarantee that you'll get the job.
MEETING THE DESIGNER
Three of the most important things to keep in mind at your first meeting with a design professional are: 1) preparation, 2) punctuality, and 3) appearance.
Being prepared means having everything with you that thoroughly illustrates what you do for a living. "I bring a small book with pictures of plants, my flyers and brochures, business cards, container and basket catalogs, and even some ceramic chips," says Buffy Maple, Forever Green, Topanga, CA.
Another helpful sales tool is a portfolio of previous work. If it is not possible to prepare a portfolio, use some carefully mounted magazine photos that reflect your design style and showcase plants in commercial and residential settings.
Punctuality is a real plus on the first meeting and on all consecutive ones. Richard Segal, Richard L. Segal & Associates, Santa Monica, Ca, says, "Being prompt has always paid off for me. There have been many occasions in which I got the job simply because I was the only one who showed up on time."
Punctuality shows you are interested in the job, place a value on the other person's time and are organized. Segal comments that "clients frequently express surprise and appreciation" when he arrives on time.
The interior landscape industry is a rather casual field and many of us have left the rigid, formal corporate structure for this more relaxed workplace. But, it's important to remember that being in such a trade does not justify showing up for a business appointment in dirty jeans and a T-shirt. Philosophically speaking, one should not judge people by the clothes they wear. However, when working with other professionals, you do not have the luxury of spending hours chatting about yourself and letting them get to know the "real you." The first impression you make is the one that sticks. To determine the appropriate wardrobe, try and match, to some degree, the formality of dress worn by the professionals with whom you wish to work.
DESIGNER v. DESIGNER
With the design process comes the exchange of ideas that determines the ultimate outcome of the project. Show proper consideration and listen carefully as you take copious notes. Keep a positive attitude at all times and do not interrupt designers while they outline the design elements. When it is your turn to talk, ask any questions you may have and present your ideas and suggestions.
As an interior landscaper, you are a technical expert and a designer in your own right. Your ability to balance these two opposing facets puts you in an ideal position to understand and interpret the designer's ideas and then apply your specialized knowledge to the final design. There may be times, however, when you may not agree with everything the designer has in mind.
"Sometimes it's difficult to work with a design professional because you are a designer too," says Hencken. "When a disagreement arises you need to be flexible and willing to compromise."
When the designer wants to do something that will not work, you should be tactful and present possible alternatives to specific design problems. Instead of criticizing the designer's creative judgment, suggest making substitutions for a proposed plant of container.
"The most common problem I face in working with designers is that they want a particular look but are not always too practical about what will actually work," says Segal. "I go out of my way to give them the look they want and still use the right plants. After awhile, they gain confidence in me and trust my creative judgment."
Once you have established a close working relationship with a design professional, you can encourage them to involve you in the initial design stages. "I prefer to become involved with a project from the very beginning," says Maple. "That's when such things as lighting are being discussed, and that has a direct impact not only on the installation, but on the future health of the plants."
DESIGNING AROUND MAINTENANCE
Maintenance should always be taken into consideration during the design process. As Panagopoulos says, "I'm always thinking ahead toward the maintenance. It makes up a good portion of my business, so I keep it in mind and design accordingly."
Because the income of many interior landscapers depends in part on maintenance services, it is advisable to include an estimate for plant care along with your design proposal and contract. In many instances, this total packages of services ensures that your submission will at least be given serious consideration.
PROPOSALS and CONTRACTS
When the time comes to talk dollars and cents, some interior landscapers resist the written word. The importance of proposals and contracts cannot be emphasized enough. They are not written to intimidate and should not be interpreted as such. Written proposals and contracts simply verify your communication with the designer, and they should reflect the scope of the interior landscape project, the financial terms and any long-term conditions or guarantees.
The question of who pays is an important one, as the designer's fees are often negotiable, for example, whether the designer works on a percentage or flat fee basis. This must also be included in the contract.
"I always get the money issue settled up front," says Panagopoulos. "Because the financial arrangements vary from one designer to another, I ask who pays and who gets the contract."
Proposals and contracts should be submitted on time, every time. They should be typewritten, accurate in all details, legal, and binding, even if it means hiring a typist and lawyer to ensure a professional presentation package. The end result will be well worth any additional costs. "I do not do any work at all without a contract," says Hencken. "I get it signed, and I get a deposit."
As project time approaches, it is also a good idea to contact the designer a few days before installation to confirm that no last-minute changes have been made.
Panagopoulos advises interior landscapers to "show genuine interest in providing what the client wants and make every attempt to accommodate the client's budget." This does not mean that you should sacrifice profits by selling yourself short. Carefully determine all costs involved in a project, and don't underestimate your value.
"The people in the interior landscape industry need to treat it more like a business and start making money instead of giving away their valuable talents and materials," says Hencken.
As interior landscape designers, we can learn from our fellow designers, and they can learn from us. Sharing some insight into our individual needs will strengthen the bond between our professions. It will also encourage us to trust and to respect each others' talent and judgment as we work together to provide beautiful interiors for everyone.
This article last updated: 09/09/2010.