What’s a Designer to do?

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  • #173012
    Jess S.
    Participant

    Hi All! I’ve gotten so much informative help from this site, so thank you. My question is: I am a practicing landscape designer, specifically higher end residential at a small firm, with a degree in Studio Art (BS) from NYU. I’m looking to expand my opportunities and possibly try for my MLA, with the intention of increasing my technical, ecological and sociological knowledge, but I do have a good amount of design/artistic experience and a couple years of professional experience. My concern is that I’ll come up against a wall in a few years (career wise) without having had real technical training if I don’t return to school. But I don’t want to spend my time in classes learning what I already know or can learn (partially) in the field, and of course we’re talking more loans here ­čÖé Is going the MLA road looking out for my future? Thanks to anybody who can take the time to reply!

    #173029
    nca
    Participant

    I’ve shared my story here a few times and it’s probably getting a little old, but anyway…I was a landscape designer/contractor prior to returning to school for my BSLA in 2004. Andrew G knows probably all too well about the conflict I was facing similar to yours back then when contemplating leaving relatively successful positions as a landscape designer and micro-business owner.

    I had nearly an identical mentality to yours-feeling that I had a solid understanding of the breadth and scope of a landscape architect/designer, but also shared the concern that I would be limiting myself professionally by not at least exploring the opportunity to further my education as a landscape architect.

    I’d say the greatest piece of knowledge I gained while in school was the vast opportunities available as a landscape architect whihc I was not aware of prior to attending. In other words, going to school opened up a world of new opportunites to advance my career.

    In retrospect I would have to say that I may have entered school with a less-than-ideal attitude and vision for academic studio. I felt that a lot of what we learned was incredibly compelling, though, being a few years older than the average student and having a fair amount of practical experience, had a hard time drinking the kool aid so to speak. I think a few intructors picked up on this and were put off.

    We had site engineering studios and plant identification, which I enjoyed and felt were the bread and butter of my education even though I certainly excelled at conceptualization and graphics. I had a bit of a hard time looking at projects as completely theoretical studies and constantly tested the parameters, which also got me into some hot water. My advice with this would be to drink the cool aid and take it for what it’s worth. I still think it’s healthy to test theories and ideas, even if they come from the instructor, but be weary of those not akin to this form of ‘insubordination’ for lack of a better word.

    You will feel the irony of learning from people who have never planted a tree or lifted a stone, but such is life in an academic studio and the quicker you get past this, the better off you’ll be.

    From speaking with others here and elsewhere on the difference between BLA BSLA and MLA’s I would tend to agree with Andrew that undergraduate degrees probably tend to be more well rounded (for lack of a better term in my vocab) in that you will start with intro to landscape architecture (what is an allee, berm, plaza, trees…whatever) all the way through site grading, road alignments, GIS, and Urban Planning. Our program did ZERO residential design, though I think if you have this background it’s best to be in this type of prgram as you’re already familiar and can build on your experience there.

    Overall, I would advise you (please excuse me if I being too presumptuous) that there is so much to be learned about LA which you probably will not get even through further experience in the highest end residential design (For comparison, I was designing and managing $100,000 plus backyards prior to school, projects which I would consider very high quality if not the largest estate properties/projects). The key is to hold on to this objective mentality about the business of design and landscape through school (you need to produce ‘something’ tangible to get paid). I’m not sure everyone finsihing their degree understands this, sometimes I forget.

    I also want to add that school isn’t for everyone and it was certainly a struggle for me which I still think about daily on whether or not I made the right decision to return. If you have a good niche with some longer term security and you like your life I’d say think long and hard before taking on the debt.

    There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll stop here.

    Hope this helps!

    Nick

    #173028
    Bob Luther
    Participant

    I would have to say the best thing to do is to visit with the program you are thinking about attending and if they are in session see if you can sit in on a presentation of projects from the current students. This will give you an idea of what you are getting into. I was in the same boat as Nick, because i was not willing to “drink the kool-aid” some of the professors were not happy with me and disagreed with my perspective (my first degree was in Horticulture with an emphasis on Turf and Landscape Maintenance). Being slightly older I too wanted to push the boundaries a little more that other students. I learned a lot from the undergraduate program at Cal Poly, and learned the for the program there the masters program was much more theoretical and environmental and in some ways it turned off future employers because past students that had come out of the masters program were not as prepared for a work environment and the undergrads (I was told this by one of the professors who convinced me to stay in the undergrad program because I wanted to get into hands-on work after graduation.) Just make sure that you will get what you want out of any program you attend.

    It is up to you, now with the economy so poor and the jobs scarcity it is a great time to go to school and ride out the cycle, hopefully once completed you degree will allow you to either find a great job or to reopen your business with renewed vigor and a bounty of potential projects… good luck!

    #173027
    Jess S.
    Participant

    Thanks everyone, for the detailed and thoughtful feedback so far! I appreciate the sharing of experiences… This is really turning the issue inside out for me, its great to hear different perspectives. Unfortunately, I don’t know if realistically I could pay for four more years of school. But just knowing there is such a huge gulf between the BSLA and MLA is valuable info to have…. and will definitely color my further considerations….

    #173026
    Jennifer de Graaf
    Participant

    I will put in another plug for the BLA. Don’t get a BSLA. The difference is 4 years of school vs. a 5 year “professional program”, and once you do that (which shouldn’t be too tough to do p/t and since you’re degreed already, you may be able to eliminate a bunch of general ed) – after which, you should be working towards licensure. I felt that my BLA was holding me back until I got my license. Now it is the economy holding me back, LOL. (not really that funny, but I do think it is true). I hope to get a master’s degree in the future, but I will also be going for other kinds of credentials as well – I am a LEED AP (New Construction 2.2) and will go for LEED ND (neighborhood development) and the Sustainable Sites Initiative when each is published. Until I can afford to get that master’s degree, these exam tracks will be useful.

    Incidentally, if you have enough experience, you can sit for the licensure exam without any LA degree. I’m sure it is harder to qualify, but it can absolutely be done. A good friend of mine is licensed, she has a fine arts background and some kind of certificate? But no LA degree. Good luck!

    #173025
    nca
    Participant

    In Colorado. I believe it is 10+ years experience to sit for the LARE with no la degree. I think you still need to have experience in that time working under a licensed LA.

    I didn’t know there was that great of a difference between a BLA and BSLA. Fwiw, I have a BSLA and I learned to make websites (albeit stuck in the 90’s lol). If I wanted to ‘fast track’ to icensure and already had both working experience and an undergrad I would definitely do the two years or so for my MLA and be done with it.

    #173024
    Erin Canterbury
    Participant

    Hi Jess, hope you are finding the posts to your question helpful. I’d like to add a little based on my experience. Yes I have a bachelors in LA however I will say, although the undergraduate degree I received certainly geared my thought process and design eye, it was only in real working experience where I learned the most valuable items. I worked for a fairly well known design only firm for 3 years. There I learned so much about construction drawings having to create them nearly daily. I learned the professional side of the business, the artistic side of the field and the construction documentation and permitting sides. However, it was not until I joined a design-build firm where I gained hands on experience. Hands on experience is priceless. It may or may not help me prepare for the LARE however I know I never would have learned these aspects in school. There are a lot of people in our field of work that are Master Gardeners or have degrees through the local arboretums. How those degrees directly compare to university degrees is certainly up to each individualÔÇÖs perception. But those are also options. Those who mentioned that an undergrad help gear you up in studio are right on. I know the MLA program was intense, but at U of I the masters students are mixed in with lower classmen. Areas in which you would like to expand your knowledge can be achieved with continued education. But if a degree is what you realllly want then go for it. It is a time investment but only you can evaluate at the end if it was truly worth it or not. There are going to be those companies that only hire LA degree individuals or registered landscape architects for that matter. You then need to evaluate if those firms are where you want to end up. Good luck as you search for the right path to take!

    Erin

    #173023
    Jess S.
    Participant

    Thanks again everyone for your continuing feedback… Andrew your comments about teachers vs clients are very smart. I can definitely remember undergrad teachers who I didn’t mesh well with and yet learned from (or was forced to learn something from, in order to benefit from the experience!). And from my (albeit relatively short) experience as a designer, many clients fall into just that category. This is definitely something for me to remember in any and all of my continued education. Thanks Erin for sharing your experience. It’s great that LA’s come from so many different backgrounds (as you mention, gardeners and otherwise certified/qualified) and your point about on the job experience is a good one. I do work for a design/build firm now and I’ve had to do everything from permitting to dragging shrubs around to hand drawing and estimate and proposal drafting. It’s been a great education, although limited in its own ways (won’t go into a long story of course!). I’m beginning to think that simply staying on the working end of things (with my current company or wherever I end up) may be a positive way to continue and grow my skill set and design knowledge, while still keeping an awareness of available programs of study and what specifically they would offer me. Of course that depends on what opportunities I come across, but “the universe will provide”, right? ­čÖé

    #173022
    Jess S.
    Participant

    Also, overly theoretical education makes me crazy. I had much experience of that at NYU. ( Although now I realize that when you’re an undergraduate at least, its fairly harmless.) Maybe even when you’re a grad…..

    #173021
    Trace One
    Participant

    I have to speak up for the Master’s degree in LA, which seems underrepresented here. I have a Master’s from U of Pennsylvania, and it was an incredible experience – the studio masters were some of the most interesting people (and famous) I have met (some weren’t, that is true..). The interaction with architects in joint studios, as well as with planners was invaluable…..I think personally that too many of us are design/build, and we need to be much more dream/design…We don’t have a lot going on in terms of being at the forefront of design, and I think what you get out of a Masters degree is mental freedom, as well as an understanding of the importance of Landscape Architecture from a global perspective…

    #173020
    nca
    Participant

    I gotta disagree that a lot of us are “design-build.” I think most students, whether bsla, bla, or mla tend toward dream design and have no sense of how things go together. I’m also not sure why so many practitioners and academics balk at the idea of design-build as a legitimate and worthy sphere of practice. In my opinion, we could use a lot more people who know how to dream and build, ideally, but especially people who know how things go together and not just as cad details. I’m not sure if my perception is skewed though as I went through a program based in the horticulture and agriculture school, but taught by GSD people.

    At the same time I see Traces point and agree that there’s still a lack of real project leadership at the forefront of design representing landscape architects, probably because once those that are involved in such high profile roles their titles inexplicably switch to ‘planner’ or ‘urban designer.’ We’re running so far from the stereotype of dirt-kneed, green thumb landscape designer that we’re cutting ourselves out of the picture in a sense. I guess that’s if you subscribe to the notion that the profession is only as good as it’s so called ‘masters.’

    Trace also brings up a good point that there is some advantage to being in a design program with also houses related discipines.

    #173019
    Jess S.
    Participant

    Thanks for the Master’s perspective, Trace. Did you find that the program, although “dream” oriented, was still a practical course of study? Could you describe what you mean by “mental freedom”?

    Anyone else with a Master’s out there, I’d love to hear your story too.

    #173018
    Trace One
    Participant

    I think my particular Master’s degree was more practical than I realized at the time…We had two years of engineering, just doing the designs with the learning coming with getting the work done, a year of soils, a year of geology, as well as putting together specs, as part of engineering..It was all done through design work, though, which I think is perhaps what the difference is…You are given the design problem, and learn the McHargian layer cake method through the design process…We did not have such things as construction details (although were expected to proved them), and also did a lot of fancy perspective drawing stuff…It was extremely impractical in that we did not learn any ornamental horticulture – Penn has an agenda, or had an agenda, for native plants – we did not spend one second on turf grasses, or things like that that I think one finds in the bachelors degrees…The professors were amazing – we did a design for Ellis Island, went to Ellis Island, with Bob Hanna and Laurie Olin, who had the contract for the design (I still think they used some of my ideas!)…We had Sir Peter Shepheard, a garden landscape archtiect, the god of details, he was KNIGHTED for landscape design – his slide lectures were poetry..
    I think by mental freedom, I mean something that architects seem to have a lot more of – just to transcend the building plane and really start to imagine a new world..hard to explain..It was really fun to know the architects with all their egotism, while they were young and uncut…I just loved the Master’s degreee. Ian McHarg was passionate about sustainable design..I don’t think you get that with the undergrad..Of course, he is dead now, and I don’t know how inspired Penn is …Jim Corner is very successful, the current chairman – he was the LA on the famous High Line in New york…The programs are very fragile, and dependent on who is chairman, who is teaching, I think…But the sheer creativity let loose in the Masters degree, where all you do is design design design from the word go..I loved it..

    #173017
    Jess S.
    Participant

    Great details, thanks so much… All that geology and engineering and soils sounds quite practical. I like the idea of the program having a little faith in the student’s freedom to design. I wonder if that is characteristic of all MLA programs….Being knighted for landscape design is pretty badass.

    #173016
    nca
    Participant

    I feel like I’ve seen a lot more conservativism in architects than LA’s. Doesn’t stop me from wanting to learn how to design buildings, lol. Perhaps it’s the hubris you’re sensing, getting mistaken for unbridled creativity.

    The BSLA program I was in actually didn’t focus as much on horticulture as much as I expected. Though we did recieve healthy doses of site engineering, documentation/specs, soils, geology, irrigation, etc., all the while tackling ever more complex and esoteric design problems from small courtyards to urban and regional master planning.

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