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Andrew Wilson: Breaking into the garden design industry

Andrew Wilson provides Pro Landscaper with an insight into the position of garden design graduates upon leaving the London College of Garden Design. He tackles the pressing issue of breaking into the market as a new designer and suggests what could assist them in such a competitive market.
As I waved goodbye to our LCGD class of graduates in July, I couldn’t help but wonder: ‘How many of them will make it?’ I always ponder on this subject – in fact many of them do make a success of their new career, but it’s a long and winding road as Paul McCartney once sang.
 
For all start ups, about one third of new businesses fail in their first year. Almost half fail to make it through a second year! Although garden designers tend to do well against this background, it’s clear that garden design is not for the shrinking violet.
 
As garden design remains a fairly solitary career, it can be difficult to come to terms with that much of one’s life is about promotion and connectivity. Figures suggest that often only 35-40% of a garden designer’s time is productive designing or supporting design work. This leaves a whopping 60% or so doing other ‘stuff’.
 
While some of this ‘stuff’ is useful admin, it would be a foolish designer who ignored PR and networking. This element often produces the next or future commissions. For most graduates it may be possible to find one contact in their current social network who might commission a modest garden project.
 

Financial Breakdown

Let’s say that a typical project may take three to four months to complete from initial meeting to completion. We assume that a modest project might cost £30,000 to build and plant and that a designer (according to the SGD fee mechanism) might earn £4,500 for that design should it be completed. This means a designer needs to win at least four projects a year to hit the dizzy heights of £22,000 in earnings. That’s not clear profit!
 
More importantly, where do the other projects come from? Happy clients will often recommend within their own networks. But, these subsequent commissions rarely fall into place one after another. This is not a plea for sympathy, more an observation that juggling the time for actual fee earning work against finding and winning that work is hard. This is especially true for a one-man-band as so many designers are.
 
Some designers may benefit from a more expansive social network than others. They may also be able to tap into the wider network of professionals acquired through a previous career.
 
As a teacher I can do nothing about this. But, I also see highly talented designers struggling at the bottom of the ladder as they graduate. This is not because they have no skill or ability, but because they may encounter difficulty making good client connections.
 

What Can Be Done

Competition between designers is generally a good thing but only if the work is accessible. So many schemes are simply awarded because of who is known as opposed to who is worthy or capable.
 
In our small way at London College, we offer our graduates web space to give them a voice as they leave and start to work and we have enjoyed some success with this. Perhaps we as a college need to expand this service, although we have a vested interest in our own graduates.
 
With suitable sponsorship it would be possible to create a showcase for all garden design graduates in a virtual format. There are already other design fairs in existence but garden design is often squeezed out to higher profile creativesThis would be something purely for garden designers that would be easily accessible and visual.
 
The opportunity to circumvent the ‘old boy’s network’ so to speak and allow fresh talent and ability to shine through has got to be a worthy aim. Let this be the start of an appeal!
Andrew Wilson is an acclaimed garden designer, RHS Chelsea Gold medalist, and Principal at Wilson McWilliam Studio Landscape & Garden Design.
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