Not that long ago, producing a design plan for a client’s property was a timeconsuming process. You visited the property, checked out the landscape, then went back to the office to labor over a drawing table. It then took as much as several hours to put together a rendering.

Eventually, you’d return to the client and attempt to showcase what you could do with the property if you got the job. If there were any changes, it was literally back to the drawing board. You’d go back and forth like this until the design was squared away and you were finally ready to get to work. Those were the days when, because of all the time it took, you were happy to outsource this to someone else.

All the time that went into getting on the same page with a client could have been spent on any number of other things. Ultimately, if you did subcontract the design portion of the job, you left money on the table instead of time. With six of one and half a dozen of the other as your options, it all amounted to a great deal of inefficiency.

Then again, remember the time when computer-aided programs were very expensive and hand-drawn renderings were standard operating procedure? No one competitor had a game-changing edge over the other when everyone moved at a relatively slow pace.

Here, as in so many areas of the economy, technology has turned the status quo on its head. More and more contractors use a number of gadgets and innovations to make their work more efficient, from smartphones to GPS trackers on company vehicles. Surely, it only makes sense that we would turn to computers for our design needs, as well. In fact, many of us are finding that we can use design software to create visually appealing digital renderings quickly and easily. The emergence of this trend has the potential to set a new industry standard, if it hasn’t done so already.

Software allows you to plan and design a landscape project in an entirely digital format. A typical program helps you create renderings using photo imaging, a method of editing an image or photograph. To use this tool, the first thing you do is take a photograph of the portion of your client’s property that you will be renovating. Next, open that photo in the program, where you’ll be able to edit the image to modify the current landscape. Now you can add in the changes you intend to make. This is done by clicking and dragging pictures of plants, fountains, pavers, benches—anything you could put in a landscape design—from the program’s database onto the picture you took.

Most programs also include black and white and color CAD tools, as well as 3-D rendering. Choose the right format for the circumstances, and then you can go back to the client with the rendering and very quickly get a sense of whether he likes what you’ve done.

If you haven’t used design software yet, don’t be alarmed by all the options. Many contractors in the industry have stayed away from the idea out of cost, fear or skepticism. When considering the investment of purchasing a software program, you might be doubtful about its potential for a return. In reality, contractors who have made the leap report that once you get the hang of it, design software can save you a lot of time and money, help you build a closer relationship with your client, and even stretch your creative muscles.

“Anyone who has transitioned from hand drawing to software will say there’s a learning curve they had to go through,” said Eric Gilbey, a landscape architect and product market- ing manager with Vectorworks, Inc. in Columbia, Maryland. “They’ll also say that once they got through it, they never turned back.”

The reason for this is that using software to digitally produce and store all your design plans reduces inefficiencies that are inherent to the hand- drawing process. Instead of making a base plan for the umpteenth time, you can load a template. Instead of recreating a plant symbol—“Tedious as all get out,” Gilbey said—most software programs come with a database of thousands of plants, trees, and other reuse, modify and repurpose any design features that you can use, number of times.

Time is money, and many small short on both. Using a design software business owners often find themselves program, it’s possible to come back to the client within the same hour of discussing the project with him. Some programs make this even easier through the inclusion of an app that can be installed on a tablet or smartphone. With these tools in hand, landscape contract or scan consult, design and sell a project all on the same visit to a client’s property. Locking in a job so quickly is good for both your watch and your wallet. Contractors who already use design software will attest to its high degree of speed and functionality. “A design that would’ve taken me two or three hours to map pencil and draw in 1996 takes me 15 minutes using a software owner of Immaculate Outdoor, program today,” said Joshua Cerda, Austin, Texas. (‘Map pencil’ is a Southernism for the drawing tool others know as a colored pencil.)

This is important because, whether digital or hand drawn, a rendering is often essential to getting a project it comes in, the better your chances of sold. The clearer it is, and the faster netting a new job. “The problem with customers is they often can’t visualize what their contractor is verbally proposing to do,” said David Sloan, sales and marketing manager at Drafix Software, Inc., Kansas City, Missouri, which produces PRO Landscape design software.

Any design software worth your trouble will include a database of thousands of landscape elements, including plants, trees, grass, and hardscape features that you can splice into a photograph you’ve taken of your client’s property. Typically, the plant database will include a profile of information about each plant. If you want to place plants on the shady side of the house, you can search the database for low sunlight or shade-friendly flora, and a list of all the ones on file will come up.

Pick one you like and drop it into the photograph you took of your client’s yard to see how it works. The same goes for other plant characteristics, including watering needs, color, size, flowering season and so on. You can even add your own tags to a plant profile, to make it easier to find exactly what you’re looking for.

Most programs also allow you to add not just your own tags, but your own images to the database. This can come in handy when you have a very specific vision. For example, say your idea is to plant a Japanese loquat in a client’s yard and prune it into a round shape to better complement some other aspect of the landscape. If the database doesn’t have an image of a Japanese loquat in that shape, you can always create one yourself. If that’s a design element you use frequently, you can save it to the database for later retrieval.

“Every one of these software programs is adaptable to the designer’s needs,” said Susan Cohan, APLD, principal of Susan Cohan Gardens in Chatham, New Jersey. She purchased DynaSCAPE, another choice among landscape design software tools. “I probably don’t use it as it was intended, but I use it in the way that it works for me.”

Whatever your style, completing the rendering isn’t the whole story. Once you’ve got that done, you need t o think about pricing out the project. Design software programs make this very easy by automatically producing an estimate based on the elements you click and drag into a rendering.

“There are a lot of apps out there that will draw landscapes, but they won’t actually merge to your Quickbooks or other tools,” Cerda said.

“You can draw it, but then you have to price it. With the design software, I just input the market value for the plants I’m using, and it will automatically price out my design based on those figures.” You can input all the costs associated with a job, including the plant material, labor, overhead and even your markup percentage. This way you know all your costs—no surprises.

Cerda said landscape design software saves him from overplanting, as well. Putting too many plants in a landscape, or plants that will grow too large for their location, will lead to an overgrown look. “In contrast, if you set a design and you really study it, you can plan to not overwhelm the landscape,” he said.

There’s an important point to this.

Prioritizing quality landscape design can increase your long-term profitability. When you plan your work properly, you’re providing a more valuable service to your clients. Satisfy your customers and you’ll be building lasting relationships, which, in turn, will lead to more referrals down the line.

Landscape design software can be especially helpful in fostering a sense of collaboration between you and the client. Say you’ve got your digital rendering, and you pull it up on the program’s mobile app while sitting with your client at his dining room table. He takes a look and says, “I’m not sure I like that lantana right there. It might look better on the other side of the house.” You can modify the rendering right there with him and see how he likes it. He’ll be gratified by the instantaneous change based on his input, which can mean good things for you.

You can also invite him to the office to look things over on a desktop screen. Either way, you’ll be working shoulder-to-shoulder and giving him the opportunity to take a sense of ownership over the design he’s buying from you. If he feels that he put his own creativity into the design, he’ll be more inclined to see it—and like it— in reality.

Cerda tells a story about a recent experience with a client who owns a large piece of property. The client wanted to totally redo the landscape; meanwhile, his wife was somewhere between neutral and disdainful of the whole project. Given that she held a degree in interior design and worked professionally in that field, she told Cerda that she didn’t care much about the yard. Cerda invited her to his office, where they spent some time looking over plant images, going back and forth.

He proposed Italian cypress trees along the side of the house, for scale purposes. He showed her a few different pictures; she said she hated how they looked. Cerda’s wry reply was, “And here I thought you didn’t care one way or the other about how the landscape looked.”

The next time Cerda spoke to the client, he learned that his wife said that she hadn’t had so much fun in a long time as she did working with him on the design plan. She now felt that she had helped create the design, and thus was set on seeing it become realized. With this in mind, Cerda was now able to get down to business in full confidence. When a client—or a client’s wife—can get that invested in a project, it’s a win for everyone.

That’s the meaning of a true business relationship, as opposed to just an exchange of a service for payment. “I don’t sell a client a lot of plants so I can squeeze more money out of a job,” Cerda said. “I sell a good design and a working relationship.”

After all this talk of figuring out what the client wants, how about looking at how design software can help with your own creative process? If the term “creative process” doesn’t ring a bell for you, you might be surprised at how well a software program can bring out the artist within, if you give it a chance.

Cerda said that using design software has been so inspiring to his work that he even bought a drone for taking better pictures of clients’ landscapes. “By getting a shot from eight feet off the ground, I can get a better angle of a house to then take to the photo imaging tool. After doing this, I think I could’ve been a photographer, if I weren’t already in the landscape industry.”

Cohan, the New Jersey landscape designer, was also very enthusiastic about expressing her creativity in her digital renderings. “One of the reasons I use the software is that it’s the closest design tool to a pencil that I can find,” she said. “The process is very much the same and the output is beautiful. It ends up looking like a hand drawing.”

The main advantage over hand drawing is, again, that the software is so much faster. “Say I want to move atree over here and see how it looks. If I don't like it, I can move it right back. In that process, I've wasted no time or paper in testing my idea," she said. "I don't need to redraw; I don't need to have millions of little pieces of tracing paper with tape over my drawing until I figure out what I want, and then I don't need to overdraw all of the changes that go into the final product. They're already there."

Nothing is wrong with doing things the good old-fashioned way. Cohan still starts her renderings by hand, in many cases. We each need to do what works for us. Bells, whistles and high tech just for high tech's sake won't necessarily change your business for the better. However, if working with a design software program appeals to you, you might want to give it the old college try. It could very well revolutionize your landscape design process by making it more collaborative and more creative as well as more productive.