March 09, 2020

Why practical experience is critical to a landscape designer's growth

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"What will you do now that you've graduated?" remains a simple, yet challenging question for many post-secondary graduates.

Through this uncertain transition between university and the workplace, I discovered that my formal education was merely the first step toward becoming a professional landscape architect. Finding a relevant job would be the next and most challenging step.

Fortunately, in November 2019, I started work at Nadi Design—a landscape architecture, urban design and planning consultancy with offices in Winnipeg, Calgary and Rochester, MI. Even though I work as the creative administrative assistant at the firm, a significant part of my role consists of helping the landscape architecture and urban planning team with projects, including 3D modelling and rendering design.

After five months, what I have come to realize is how critical it is to have practical project experience and how the university did not prepare me for the unique challenges associated with working in a design firm. If I compared building a career as a professional landscape architect to learning the alphabet, a bachelor's degree would be equivalent to the letter C.

Even so, because we begin as a blank slate and we can learn from our experiences, the path to becoming a professional in our field exponentially increases in the beginning and will continue until we retire.

At the post-secondary level, landscape architecture offers a shared cultural experience between peers, making for more well-rounded and inquisitive professionals in the workplace later on. Future designers will ultimately be able to learn and challenge the status quo to improve our quality of life. University teaches students how to explore and think in different ways, and more importantly, it encourages students to ask questions: Why are we designing in this way? Can this method be improved?

It is important to note, however, that a university degree does not include practical experience for a position at a firm. Sean Griffiths for Dezeen writes, "It is emphatically not the job of architecture education to mimic practice and generate workers for the profession in its present mode. The task of architecture education is to carry out experimental research, to critique practice and provide the tools, skills and attitudes needed to reinvent it."

Although the university's experimental research model produces reflective and innovative designers, recent graduates have no knowledge of promotional strategies used by a firm such as business development and marketing to generate client relationships.

At Nadi, I often help with tasks such as logo design, website management, and business card development. It's within these tasks where I realized how important it is to create a professional image for the firm to communicate services, practice areas, and aspirations to future clients.

In terms of project work, the design itself is only one part of a landscape architect's job. This profession also involves budget estimations and collaboration with a variety of professionals.

For example, the estimated timeframe for working on a project is critical. As I worked on renderings for some of our community design projects, I realized I needed to strategize in terms of my workflow and time management to avoid cost overruns on the amount of time spent these developing models.

Moreover, I adjusted my rendering preferences according to what the client was looking for, often discussing the model with the design team, which is a more effective collaboration compared with conversations between my professors and classmates.

To help students better understand how a design firm operates, business management courses can be offered near the end of their educational career. These courses are mainly geared toward small businesses and can introduce students to the management and budget skills involved in a project.

Internships, apprenticeships, and co-operative programs are also an excellent way to better prepare recent graduates for this transition phase. Such programs will allow students to find temporary work in a relevant field, providing a more practical learning experience.

Management courses and internship experience can teach a student how to go through the realistic stages of a project, which involves marketing and selling the firm's services, site analysis and planning, developing estimates, project design, and problem-solving during and after the installation process. These experiences will prepare a recent graduate, and by extension, a future employer, for a higher amount of success in the workplace.

I have come to the conclusion that a degree is an essential set of tools needed to continually learn how to improve my design work as a professional landscape architect. However, practical management skills are required from a business perspective, and the next step is to obtain a workplace education. And so, I look forward to absorbing as much as I can here at Nadi while approaching my master's degree with real-world knowledge to enhance my education experience.