The previous methods for communicating with the public are alternative ways of informing potential clients about the designer or design firm. These diversified forms of communication are intended to arouse potential clients’ interest while also providing basic information about the designer or design firm, such as (1) available services, (2) design philosophy, (3) design process, and (4) fees. The extent to which this information is presented varies widely depending on the media used, the targeted audience, available space or time, and budget. Advertisements and job signs provide the smallest opportunity to communicate this information, whereas brochures and Web sites offer the greatest chance.
Available Services Advertisements, brochures, Web sites, and so on should inform potential clients about what services the design firm offers. A variety of services are necessary for a design project to be fully realized. These include (1) design, (2) construction (dealing with structures such as terraces, decks, and fences), (3) installation (dealing with plant materials), and (4) maintenance (dealing with the ongoing care of the landscape after it has been built and installed). Potential clients should know to what extent the design firm is able to offer these various services because firms vary widely in their capabilities.
A residential design company that offers design, construction, installation, and maintenance services is generally known as a design/build firm or full-service firm. The advantage of this type of firm is that it can offer a coordinated package of services to clients and ensure a smoother flow from one phase to another. Other firms provide
only design services and then work with separate landscape contractors for implementation of the design. These firms typically provide excellent-quality design because that is their specialization. Further, such firms are not tied to inventories of plants or other materials and thus sometimes have more freedom to explore innovative designs. Still other firms place primary emphasis on plant materials including sales, installation, and maintenance, with less attention given to design and construction services. It is important to tell potential clients about a firm’s expertise and professional capabilities so they know what the company can or cannot do for them.
Design Philosophy Potential clients should also be acquainted with the designer’s “design philosophy,” or the underlying principles and values that the designer applies to design projects. Design philosophies are those concepts and feelings that pervade a designer’s work. Although a design philosophy can be based on almost any idea, most design philosophies express particular attitudes toward some or all of the following: (1) aesthetics or what is considered good design, (2) perceived benefits of design, (3) importance of outdoor space, (4) environmental stewardship, (5) preferred style(s), (6) preferred materials (both structural and plant materials), and (7) method of working with clients. The designer should attempt to define his or her design philosophy in a concise statement of two or three sentences. Ideally, potential clients should find designers with design philosophies that match their own set of values and attitudes toward landscape design. The entire process is much more enjoyable for everyone involved when this is the case.
Design Process Potential clients should be aware of the design process that will be employed in creating a residential design solution. Many homeowners don’t fully understand what is required to prepare a master plan for a residential site or the various steps that are employed. It is very helpful for the designer to provide an outline of both the necessary design process steps and the relative time it takes for each. Potential clients might be exposed to the following phases of the design process: (1) site analysis, (2) design program, (3) functional diagrams, (4) preliminary design, and (5) master plan. Each step should be very briefly described in clear, common language that can be understood by anyone. Graphic examples can sometimes be used to supplement the written description.
The underlying idea is to make the potential clients aware that design is much more than the selection and arrangement of plant materials. Each design solution is a customized, functional, and aesthetic synthesis of the clients’ needs with the site’s problems and potentials, all of which is made possible through the expertise of a design professional. It is important that clients understand the tasks involved in the process.
Fees Last, most potential clients like to have some information about what it will cost for a master plan and its implementation. This can usually be accomplished by providing a general fee based on either an hourly rate or a typical lump sum for a master plan. Although most potential clients benefit from this information, some designers are skeptical about providing it because they are afraid that fee information might scare off clients or might give competing designers or firms the ability to undercut them. Both of these fears are legitimate. However, the designer must inform clients about fees at some point in the process. It is usually better to let potential clients know about fees sooner rather than later before either party wastes time only to find out that the fees are not acceptable for whatever reason.
One other concern is about whether or not to charge any design fees. Some designers do not charge clients directly for a design fee if the clients sign a contract for implementation of the design. This is what is commonly referred to as a “free plan.”
Some free plans ought to be free because they are nothing more than a quickly sketched planting arrangement showing where particular plants are to be placed on the site. Often, these plans are drawn on a piece of company stationery with a list of plant materials and a price quotation. This type of plan is simply an estimate and should be as “free” as a plumber’s estimate or an electrician’s estimate.
However, there are other so-called free plans whose cost should in fact be billed to the clients. These are the plans that take a substantial amount of time to design and prepare and then are offered as “freebees” for the sake of luring potential clients into signing a contract for the project. Even if the designer tells the homeowners that the plan is free, the time spent to prepare the design is most certainly built into the total project cost. Thus, although the clients may think they have received something for nothing, they in fact have not.
A free plan is likely to influence the clients’ perception of the worth of the designer’s professional advice. Professionals charge for their advice, consultation, and services. If a designer “gives away” valuable and professional design time, what does that say for the talent it took to prepare the design? Surely the time spent designing is worth more than nothing, and clients should be made aware of that and charged for that time. Any wise consumer would look at something free as being worth nothing to the one giving it away. This same wise consumer also realizes that something “free” is a clever way of enticing them to buy something more expensive.