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Design Communications: Engaging the Clients

By Toby Wolf

Ecologically designed landscapes come into the world small and vulnerable.  Until they are established, they rely completely on their owners’ patience and care.  And their owners rely on us, as designers, to tell them what to expect from their new landscapes and — even more importantly — to make sure that the landscapes fit the owners’ needs, values, and capabilities.

In my career, the greatest successes have occurred when the owners were fully engaged throughout the design process. Based on that experience, I’ve gathered some techniques that can help establish effective client communication.

Make the interview an opportunity to listen.

Walking around a site and envisioning its unrealized potential, it’s natural to want to share your vision, and to show your prospective clients that you’d be a perfect fit for the job. But if you’re talking more than you’re listening, you may be wasting a valuable opportunity to see the landscape through your prospective clients’ eyes. 

To learn as much as possible from your prospective clients, arrive at the site knowing what information is important to you. What do your clients see as their site’s assets and liabilities? How do they currently engage the landscape? Who else uses and takes care of the landscape? It might be helpful to think about everything you wish you had known at the beginning of your least successful project. (And near the close of the conversation, try asking the reporter’s standby: “Is there anything else I should know?”)

It’s still fine to show the clients your portfolio – in fact, the more you have learned about them, the better you’ll be able to customize your presentation to their needs and interests.  But as much as possible, let the quality of your questions be what sells you.

Explore the project’s goals.

Wait, what? Didn’t the clients already tell you their goals when they interviewed you?  

Yes and no. You heard their “presenting goals,” which are the easily stated goals that led them to undertake the project. But they also have “emergent goals” – root causes rather than symptoms – which require more exploration. Both types are important.

Here’s how I like to develop goals:

  • I state each goal as one sentence, in the imperative case. Each goal takes the form of a need or an action, not a solution.  “Screen the adjacent property,” for example, can open up a conversation about scale, appearance, and seasonality; “Plant an evergreen hedge” is more likely to end it.
  • I include images that support and expand the goals.  To illustrate “provide year-round beauty” I might use a photo of a winter meadow. The clients’ reaction will tell me whether seed-heads qualify as beauty or whether they’re really craving evergreens.
  • I start with my clients’ goals, but I might stretch them a little. If they ask for a pollinator garden and I come back with “provide habitat for wildlife,” for example, I may find out what kinds of critters they’re comfortable having around. 
  • If there’s a goal that I’d like to recommend to them, beyond what they’ve told me, I’ll add that too. (If we disagree about it, I’d rather find out now than later.) 
  • I often add a sentence or two of explanation.  “Protect the existing oaks” is a good goal but it doesn’t establish why or how.  I might add “The oaks provide shade, support wildlife, and give the landscape a sense of scale and maturity. Too much foot traffic on their roots can weaken them.”
  • I go into the first meeting hoping that I’ll need to edit, delete, and add goals.  I’m looking for the clients’ participation, not just their consent.

Your techniques will be different from mine, but if you state the goals clearly, you will end this process with a project mission statement that will help maintain a steady sense of purpose even as schedules, budgets, and stakeholders change.

Develop Meaningful Alternatives

Not all goals can be met completely.  That doesn’t mean the goals are wrong, just that each goal competes with the others for the available space, money, and time.  

Goals tell you what we value, but alternatives can tell you what we value most. Design alternatives are a way to translate goals into physical results and to demonstrate the trade-offs they entail. If the goals are structured well, the clients’ choices will show you their priorities.

Some sets of alternatives are more useful in this than others.  Choosing between brick and bluestone pavement can tell us a little about our clients. Choosing whether to use the space next to the front door for parking or a vegetable garden can tell us a lot more.  Make each set of alternatives an opportunity for your clients to give you the information you need.

This step is also an opportunity to explore, to pursue what you love, and to share why you love it. Design alternatives are a safe way to see how far your client will go. Your clients may not have come to you for a rain garden, for example, but putting a rain garden in one alternative gives them the opportunity to decide for themselves.

Give the Process the Time it Needs

The Curtis Cottage Garden at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, completed in 2019 by Wolf Landscape Architecture.

Even though I advocate for these approaches, sometimes I resist. Just when I’m ready to get into the “real work” of design, why bring things to a halt to talk about goals?  Just when I’m getting along so well with my new clients, why go through an exercise that’s bound to expose differences between us?  And how can I justify the cost of adding these steps?

But this is an essential part of doing my job.  My clients are the ultimate stewards of the land they own, so they need to engage with it and understand it during the design process. My success depends on establishing rapport early on, and on making my clients’ full participants in their landscape.

These steps are a good investment for my clients to make. The earlier we discover a difference of opinion, the better (and more cheaply) we can resolve it and learn from it. (And the more transparent my design process is, the better my clients will understand the value of my work.)

Most importantly, the better I understand my clients, the better I can craft a landscape that they will use, love, and take care of for many years.

About the Author

Toby Wolf designs regenerative landscapes that connect people to the natural world. His work includes design and planning for Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Wellesley College, the Native Plant Trust, Cornell Botanic Gardens, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the Friends of the Public Garden, and homeowners throughout the Boston area. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, he is a frequent lecturer and guest critic at the Conway School. He is the founder of Wolf Landscape Architecture and serves on the board of the Ecological Landscape Alliance.