I often see debate among landscape design service providers about which is the best landscape design software to use for their business.
Individuals moving within or even into the landscape industry and setting up their own practice as freelancers are often interested in learning from the experiences of others so they can evaluate which software is best for them.
Is it compatible with other platforms? Does it offer 2D as well as 3D? What’s the plant library like? Can you use it to quote as well as design? How easy is it to learn? How much is it and are there any ongoing licensing costs? The list of questions and criteria to determine which landscape software is the best, is endless.
Myth of the perfect design software solution
Funnily enough, there is no “ultimate package”, which is the same conclusion almost everybody comes to in the end, but you already knew that. There is one that will suit the way you work, and it will be close to ideal, for sure, but there are always things it simply can’t achieve. Here at Pitch Box we use FOUR kinds of design software to deliver our presentations – AutoCAD, SketchUp, Lumion and Pool Studio (click here to see a sample of the 3D fly-throughs I create for my customers using Pool Studio). Pool Studio in particular is perhaps not as precise as other packages and you can’t quote from it as accurately as other packages, but it certainly generates the “buying” emotions our customers want to arouse in their clients.
In that sense, for the budding designer, Pool Studio would be my recommended software of choice because it’s relatively easy to learn and it helps clients – people who are less accustomed to reading plans – really engage with your project, your ideas and in turn develop a thirst to start building; after all.. a concept without a signed contract isn’t worth the cloud it floated in on, right?
In any case, rather than add to the pile of existing arguments for which design software is the best one or turn this into a design software review, I want to use my experience and observations to propose an alternative approach altogether.
Think OUTside the box
I want to outline the case for outsourcing of design tasks as a very real strategy for running a profitable small business in this industry, in the current climate. I’ve used the example of 3D software as a way to guide this conversation but I really believe the same applies for many design support tasks.
If you’ve read any of my other articles you’ll know I like to play the role of devil’s advocate but at the same time put forward both my personal position and an actionable strategy that I think could improve an aspect of the way design and design + build firms do business.
As I mentioned earlier, there is every chance that out there in the technosphere exists a piece of software that will suit the way you work. Of course, as you will soon realise there are always features that are either missing or completely superfluous to what you actually need the software to do.
In either case it logically follows that you’ve either spent more than the value you’re actually seeing in return, or haven’t spent enough because the software doesn’t actually do what you really need it to do in order to make the exercise worthwhile.
What I’m proposing here is that it doesn’t even matter. Instead I will be putting forward the case to identify the tasks that need to be done, if that means a certain type of software then so be it, but then instead of putting those tasks on your own head, or creating permanent position within your company for what is and will always be a fluctuating workload, find a way to get someone outside your business to do the work, only when you need it. In otherwords – outsource.
To add a bit of depth to this discussion, here are five short points related to this topic that I want to throw into the mix before I move on to possible solutions.
More time in front of the computer?
So you’ve decided you want to offer your clients 3D as part of your service? Supposing you do find and make a decision on the piece of software you think is going to give you what you need. Before you go ahead and buy it, have you considered how long it takes to achieve a functional level of proficiency before you can actually use the software for a live project?
Given the time and existing tasks already needed to run (or start) your business, is spending more time in front of a computer an additional undertaking you feel positive about?
Design departments barely break even.
Design and construct firms typically have to subsidize the retail cost of their design fees in order to stay competitive and they do this in the hope of winning valuable construction contracts, which is where they can turn a profit.
By doing this the design department of design and construct firms with in-house designers rarely break even. The cost of updating equipment and paying for licenses alone is enough to cripple small teams in the long term.
In the overall context of project delivery, the ‘design’ aspect of their service is really a component of the sales funnel that guides prospective buyers towards a construction contract.
When you think about it this way, there’s obviously more than one way that will do the trick. If you can have someone translate a simple sketch design into a 3D fly-through and CAD drawn plan withing a few days, is developing a full time in-house design capacity within your business really worth all the effort and overheads?
Flexible businesses win.
In this day and age, being able to adapt and change to market conditions, to expand and contract your team’s capacity to meet the challenges in front of you is what will determine whether you sink or swim in the long term.
OK so perhaps you don’t exactly have a ton of projects coming in the door everyday, so you don’t need a full time team. Does that mean you can’t deliver the same results as someone who does? Is there anything from stopping you from hiring a flexible team of freelancers to deliver your drawings only as needed?
Have you seen what the internet can do these days?
Technology particularly the internet, is incredible, at times almost unbelievable. It has never been easier to communicate with other people online, and I don’t just mean Skype. There are literally hundreds of online applications out there that have been developed with the explicit purpose of helping small businesses build teams and deliver projects across borders.
The days of the traditional 9-5 office are numbered, you can count on that.
Your job is to generate value.
As the owner of your business, the one with the most drive and passion to make it a success, your job is to concentrate on those tasks which will directly generate the most value for your business and your brand.
There are multiple tasks this applies to but this conversation is about the design process and how it relates to choosing the right 3D landscape software.
In the design process, your main job is to win the confidence of your clients, listen to their needs and aspirations and then propose a clear design response that addresses them. Everything that happens in the design process from that point onward – including putting together 3D imagery or any other drawings for that matter, can very easily be done by others.
So what’s the solution here?
As I indicated earlier, the case I’m putting forward is one for outsourcing design support tasks so you can create a process that feeds projects into your construction schedule more efficiently; faster and at lower cost. As you already know I help people outsource the 3D component of their design process (if you weren’t aware you can learn more about my simple yet effective packaged services for landscape design and construct businesses on this page.)
I believe that it is entirely possible to build a small team of support staff that assist you to push projects through the system without having to burden yourself with preparing all the associated drawings or burden your business with the cost of employing in house staff to do it all for you.
Instead, and this goes back to the software selection issue I began with, I’m proposing you can choose the software that works best for your business, identify the tasks that need to be completed to win more projects and then set about sourcing freelance professionals who are already proficient in using that software to do the work for you.
In that sense it is perfectly feasible you can produce and reap the benefits of offering 3D services to your clients (or any other type of design material) without having to learn or use the software yourself.
Three Basic Models for how this could be done.
Now that I’ve put my chips on the table, I’d better follow up with some actual suggestions for how this can be achieved. I think it’s worth reiterating that I firmly believe this entire process can take place online, it just needs a shift in perspective and the courage to try something different.
I want to acknowledge that while I do offer a service to enable landscape businesses to outsource their 3D work I’m no expert in the area of ‘off-shoring’ just yet. This is the first of what may turn out to be a long line of articles on the topic as I slowly uncover my findings of on-the-ground research. I’m also not going to attempt to explain how you might go about achieving any of these, we can move onto that later. For now I would definitely start with researching someone like Chris Ducker who has years of experience in outsourcing in the Philippines.
It may interest you to know I have already been exploring each of the following options personally for my own interests with a lot of time already spent doing on-the-ground research both in Australia and South-East Asia to develop a comparative understanding of how it might all work. Definitely send me an email if you’re interested in this kind of thing too.
Easily the most straightforward option. The idea is to build a working relationship with a freelancer, proficient in the software you’ve chosen that lives in your own country. They may or may not be from your own town or city. If they don’t use the software you use (as I’m finding with Pool Studio) then you may have to train them.
A Local Sub-contractor – If they’re in your home town and you’re uncomfortable with the whole online aspect of my proposition, you can just think of this person as a local sub-contractor.
Understands Landscape and Lifestyle – In the Australian context, this person will be familiar with the culture of Australian outdoor lifestyle, how people entertain at home, what they do on the weekends, the games their children play, the qualities that make a landscape great and so on.
Work Culture – easily discuss things like public holidays, business hours, working to a deadline, expected communication frequency, coming forward to raise issues that they’re concerned with, admitting mistakes, taking responsibility for mistakes.
Language – another distinct advantage; being able to speak and write fluent English is incredibly important for fast-tracking training and minimizing or revising errors. They will most likely already be familiar with local construction terminology.
Evaluation Skills – This relates to cultural alignment in that a local freelancer will have a good understanding of the comparative value of landscape design elements. eg. being able to tell a high spec paver from a cheap and nasty one. Being able to distinguish a minimalist design from a balinese design.
Cost – good freelancers could cost more per hour than in-house staff, this is the trade-off for having a flexible workforce that bring the advantages noted above.
Work Culture – local freelancers are effectively self employed business owners and will always be acting in their own interest. It’s difficult to guarantee they will be around for long, particularly in a design ‘support’ position that may not be intellectually or financially satisfying for them in the long term.
Definitely a hot topic amongst business owners of larger firms who experience the heavy overheads from employing a large team of in-house staff. The idea is to take advantage of the low cost of labour in developing countries and employ freelancers through management sites such as Upwork.com or Freelancer.com. Particular countries of interest include the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, China or India.
Cost – the biggest drawcard by far. It is possible to hire full-time staff in these countries for less than 50% of the cost in a developed country, sometimes as low as 10%. This has huge implications for your bottom line, particularly if you turn over a lot of projects. Cost alone can make offshoring worth it but you will need to be prepared to work through numerous challenges to come out on top.
Work Culture – certain developing countries are renowned for their hard work ethic, it’s common to work 10 hours per day and six days per week with very few holidays in between. Employees in developing countries don’t really value flexibility, they prefer stability and fixed term contracts. This means you can build a great team of loyal staff who will be with you for the long term, even though they’re technically freelancers.
They can be taught! – usually the biggest barrier is language, but that’s not to say they’re stupid. If you’re willing to spend the time, or hire an assistant to help you train your staff, you can certainly mould a star player.
Skill – you may not be aware but design and 3D modeling is a very popular career path for many in the developing countries. This means there is a lot of skill in an extensive pool of talent that you can draw on at low cost if you can tap into the source.
Skill – while there is a lot of talent, there are plenty of people who will deliberately over-sell themselves just to have a shot at the title. Graduates in developing countries are increasingly aware of the longer term stability and higher income opportunities that outsourcing positions can bring, so be wary if you embark on sourcing these people directly.
Language – possibly the biggest barrier for most people looking to enter this space. being able to speak your language effects other aspects of your working relationship like trust, training, design intent and avoiding errors. Even accents can be an obstacle for those unfamiliar with the the way other speak English.
Doesn’t understand landscape and lifestyle – it’s unlikely they will share an understanding of the landscape industry or of the lifestyle and outcome your customers a looking for. It’s unlikely in the first instance that they will be able to tell a concrete pool from a fibreglass one, or judge whether one project is more valuable than another, simply because people don’t have $100k+ backyards where they come from.
Standards and conventions – related to language but more specifically to landscaping, this person will require a lot more training and explanation of landscape jargon, species, material types and so on in order to understand what you’re after.
Tax and regulations – who you employ, the terms on which you engage them and the country they’re located, could all be affected by regulation, tax and the need to declare your involvement. This needs to be researched an assessed on a country specific basis.
Cultural differences – this can be a deeply confusing and frustrating issue for many. Work culture and social customs in developing countries can be vastly different from what you consider to be ‘normal’. I’ve heard of all sorts of incidents ranging from not telling you when there is a significant problem to suddenly vanishing altogether without explanation, for reasons you may simply not understand. Perhaps the only way to get around this is to really spend some time in their country experiencing the people for yourself.
A Hybrid Solution
This is definitely the one that interests me the most. The idea is to set up a small office in a developing country that is managed by a competent design manager from the landscape industry in your own country. This person is on the ground to oversee training of local staff including a replacement project manager. At the same time you’d have someone on the ground in your own country. These two anchors communicate with each other and form the reliable bridge between your business and the off-shore workers.
I started creating a list of dot points against the good and not-so-good but soon found that there were too many variables to create a list with any real meaning.
Realistically the benefits and disadvantages are a combination of those already noted above; how you balance the way each interacts will determine how profitable this model will be and how easy it is to establish and maintain.
So the next time you come across the question..
“What’s the best landscape design software for 3D?” or others like it, I hope you’ll consider as I am, whether this is even the right question to be asking.
I would be very interested to hear from other landscape business owners interested in being offered the opportunity to benefit from the lower costs of offshore labour while defining a process that mitigates the challenges involved in making it happen. Please leave your comments below or send me a direct email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I help Landscape Contractors who design their own projects win more work, more often.
Pitch Box offers business owners a number of competitively priced packaged services that help them deliver industry leading digital sales presentations in short timeframes and with minimal input.
You just send me a sketch of your design and I’ll finish it off for you! In addition you high resolution 3D renders you can get a 3D fly-through, a ready-to-print CAD plan and even a web page dedicated to hosting your design featuring your logo and contact details!
All this is done for you in as little as three days starting from less than 1% of the estimated construction value of your project! You spend your time working on your business and let us take care of the rest.
Interested? CLICK HERE to see a sample of a fly-through, screenshots and CAD plan hosted on their own web page.