Landscape architect Brodie McAllister gives us his thoughts on what new landscape architecture professionals need to know in the first years of their career: At university, you have to balance deadlines for design and written work with a social life and the pressures of funding your place. You are challenged to let your imagination “fly” then pulled back to Earth with the consideration of practical details. This, to an extent, prepares you for the workplace after you graduate. However, nothing prepares you for work quite like “work”. What should you know or do, beyond what tutors have probably told you, to succeed in those first couple of years? It can be a bit of a hard landing when you finally get a job — there may be initial feelings of elation as you are released into the “real world” and a sense of independence. But in time, reality can “kick in” if your expectations are unrealistic. I want to offer some candid advice from my own experience, with a couple of anecdotes thrown in, so it isn’t necessarily beholden to some official line. 1. This isn’t boot campRemember, your job isn’t a continuation of college, and the employer doesn’t owe you training. This is business. Most employers will have a sense of responsibility toward mentoring you and guiding you to the experience you need to pass professional exams (e.g. Chartership in the U.K.). However, they are not obliged to — and some donʼt. Be the type of employee you would employ if it were your business — because the deadlines and time sheets are about money now, too, not just ideas. Itʼs expensive running an office, and the business owner is the one taking the main risks. 2. Be a sponge Learn as much technically/contractually as you can and get broad experience as soon as possible so you can branch out and do your own thing, if that’s what you want. You will make mistakes, so learn from them. For example, you may struggle toward some project deadlines or to reach or understand the presentation standards required. Donʼt worry. Keep working hard in an organized way and show keenness to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. The best comeback from a mistake is to go on to impress them. Use those first couple of years to find out what might be your preferred area of specialization, and keep working toward that. For some, there is nothing more liberating and satisfying than eventually being your own boss. You can take all the credit! 3. Pack your bags, we’re off Always grab the chance to work abroad. When I graduated, it was the start of a world recession. I thought that it would be better to suffer the recession abroad, while getting a great life experience. I chose New York and then San Francisco because, through reading magazines, I had admired what the profession did there. It was not easy working in difficult times, classified as a “temporary alien”, but I had a terrific four years and got some extraordinary experience, meeting wonderful people along the way. The work we do can be international, and the experience you gain can give you the perspective you need to pursue that. Who knows, you may like it so much you stay. 4. Take off the rose-tinted glasses Don’t always expect to do the fun, creative design work in the early stages of training. This depends on which country you are in. My experience in the U.K. as a young graduate was that I did get the responsibility of the conceptual design work on huge projects. I thrived on it. But then there was a depressing bump when I was asked to do drafting of what I perceived to be boring standard details again. In America, they tend to be more structured and give conceptual design the top priority, to be done by the most experienced staff. This explains why we still import and revere their designers more than they do ours, although Europe has become more advanced in the last two decades in terms of opportunities to complete exciting projects. For many graduates, though, their raised expectation of being given this responsibility may lead to the biggest disappointment they will endure. Instead, refer to my point 2 above: Itʼs the bedrock of good design, and good design flows into the technical implementation. 5. Face the fear of leaving Remember: If you find you are not suited to this job or to a certain way of working as a landscape architect, try something else. Transfer your skills. This may be necessary if you are in a recession and finding it hard to get a job. Donʼt feel morally obliged to stick to what youʼve been trained to do. Itʼs your life. Landscape architecture is supposed to be a vocational profession, but therein lies a little professional conditioning that tries to keep hold of you. Landscape architects are well set up to follow other career paths, such as art, film, the contractor or commercial side of landscape products, or anything environmental. Even if you need to get further experience or qualifications, if you are “flogging a dead horse”, make the change now. 6. Don’t go chasing waterfalls Getting good experience is often worth more than working for a “famous” office. When I taught at university, Iʼd always hear students express their desire to work for one of the “big glam” names. After all, that is where they believed they would have the most fun on the most prestigious projects. Their experience, in hindsight, didnʼt always match this expectation. Worst-case scenario, they would be used as CAD slaves fueling the projects of ego-laden bosses. 7. Learn to survive Surviving in the first few years is often more about getting along with people and meeting deadlines. As I got frustrated at times that I wasnʼt getting what I wanted work wise. I noticed that less talented (in my view) people were doing well (in their employerʼs eyes) by not having any design pretensions. Draw your own conclusions, but never lose your design ambitions. 8. Write your way to the top Record, write, and broadcast if you’re good at it. Don’t just design. In San Francisco, in the early 1990s, I got to work alongside Lawrence Halprin on various projects. He was quoted as saying that his secret to success was as much about writing about it as doing it. Often, writing about it or expressing your ideas in alternative mediums is part of the creative process of “doing it.” The world needs more good communicators whose objectives have integrity. While you are at it, collect and record your own experiences, as a good writer would do. They will be useful in “selling” yourself, perhaps starting with a website. 9. The specialist After the initial foundational experience, specialize if you can and now know which area, e.g. urban design, land art, landscape journalism, whichever best suits you. For me, that meant specializing in a site art-based approach, enhanced by my experience.
The know-how of being a landscape architect is an advantage in this case over “fine art” graduates (unless you have no artistic vision). Equally, I always saw myself as being better at creative writing than project management. Itʼs all about being creative, ultimately, and following and growing your strengths; just different levels of function, problem solving, and practicability.
The modern profession, certainly in the U.K., now encourages specialization. We need extra skill and power at visual impact analysis, for instance, as this is a growth area. You may be typecasting yourself, but there are advantages if you do this in a growth area. This is the opposite of the view that used to be held that a more “jack of all trades” approach would ensure success.10. Grow your connections Cultivate your contacts as they grow — therein lies opportunity. Friends you work with or who you cross paths with in connection with your career may provide fruitful opportunities either now or in the future. In particular, I always try to keep in touch with many of my ex-students. Years later, I have worked with several of them, and my enjoyment and trust is enhanced by the knowledge that I hung on to them as contacts. People usually only create employment for others if there is some mutual benefit. Ideally, they will only work with people they get along with, respect, trust, and who share the same vision/beliefs. That is made considerably easier if you donʼt meet for the first time at an interview. In summary, work hard at what you enjoy, even if this leads you off on a tangent. Be realistic in your expectations — it doesnʼt prevent you from being ambitious. Trust your instinct to lead yourself, and embrace those who open up opportunity and who you get along with, even if it means changing paths drastically. If in doubt, there is no shame in just surviving tough times. Put a positive spin on everything. Your life can tell a great story, so collect and record that memory as you go. Interest others in that journey –communicate well. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and work more on the former, moving away from the latter when you can. Be in awe of interesting people, not of fame alone. Have fun and travel. Remember that even creativity relies on work and, in turn, some level of skill and knowledge — just not knowledge for its own sake. Einstein As Einstein once said — “never memorize something that you can look up”. Keep your mind free for invention. Donʼt forget that landscape architecture is half business, half environmental design. How you interpret that is up to you if youʼve forged your own way — or up to your employer to determine as long as you are not the boss. Look for the employer who makes decisions through discussion, consensus, and shared vision — and be that person yourself.
Article written by Brodie McAllister
Brodie McAllister has spent the last 25 years dividing his time between the design of large urban parks and squares and urban strategies to garden design and land/site art, in Asia, France, the U.S., and the U.K. This was interspersed with teaching. He has received a number of awards, published many articles, and received publicity in a wide range of books and magazines. He can be contacted at www.brodiemcallister.com Featured image: dotshock / shutterstock.comPublished in