You’re a skilled designer. You listen to your clients and understand exactly what they’re looking for. You draw beautiful plans according to their wishes. But do you ever wonder what business would be like if you could just get your designs out faster? Or if you could eliminate repetition and time wasted on changes? Or present clients with a more polished proposal?

If you’re still producing drawings by hand, it’s time to take a serious look at landscape design software. You might be surprised at how much more productive you could be using high-quality software designed specifically for the landscape field. Professional landscape design software uses the computer to produce detailed, accurate drawings and even 3D designs or realistic photo images.

Programs eliminate duplication of efforts and allow for easy changes, so designers can be more responsive to customer’s wants. Users often find that they can do the work in a fraction of the time it takes to do it by hand.

Software can also streamline the estimate and quote process. Finally, good software can produce sophisticated, compelling proposals that make it easy for customers to say “Yes!”

Any software this powerful will require an investment in money and a commitment to the time it takes to learn it. But many who invest in design software reap generous rewards.

Freedom to succeed1_7.jpg

John Noble, president of The Noble Garden, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, has been in the design/ build business for nearly 30 years. “I did the bulk of my design work with old drawing tools. I thought about taking up CAD (computer aided design) but it was so labor intensive that I postponed it, like many do. Then I was introduced to DynaScape at a trade show.”

Noble was hooked. He purchased the software and spent some of his winter downtime learning it. His investment quickly paid off. “When I was doing things by hand, I was doing about $400,000 in business per year,” says Noble.

“When I became sophisticated with DynaScape, I started doing about a million dollars per year. This is because of the turnaround time, and also because of the design freedom it gives you. When you present, the client is just blown away.”

The freedom Noble talks about may seem counter-intuitive to people who think of the computer as a more controlled workspace, but Noble found the computer actually unleashed more of his creativity. “Some people think working with technology can take the life out of your drawing, but for me it was quite the opposite,” Noble says. “With hand tools, you have to think more about your actions. You don’t want to have to erase. With this you have more freedom. You have room to make mist. Takes because you can easily change them. I’m doing things now that I couldn’t dream of before.”

Taking time to make money

Chris Walter, owner of Coles Creek Nursery in Bethany, Missouri, uses PRO Landscape software from Drafix. “When I was doing it by hand, I was so busy that I couldn’t keep up,” he says. “I would see clients all week, then sit there Thursday and Friday nights drawing things up by hand. When this software came out, it made the whole process much faster.” Walter has been using PRO Landscape since 1994 and says that back then, it wasn’t as easy to learn as it is now. But learn it he did and he’s never looked back. “If I see something that I think will make me money, I don’t care if it takes me time to learn it. And that’s what this did for me.”

Walter’s program includes components for realistic photo imaging, CAD drawing and proposal generation. After becoming competent in the design tools and inputting the data he needed to use the estimating and quoting tools, Walter was able to spend much less time at the drawing board. This allows him to see more people and sell more landscaping.

2_1.jpgHe uses the photo-imaging component to show clients what his designs will actually look like in their own yards. With this tool, users take a digital photo of the property and use it as a background for the landscape design. Then, choosing from thousands of included photographic images or their own imported files, they can drag and drop plants and other elements into the picture, building a realistic design that’s hard for customers to resist. “It’s a great up-sell tool,” says David Sloan of Drafix, Kansas City, Missouri. “For example, let’s say you’re going to do a design for Mrs. Jones’ new flower bed. She’s requested steel metal edging. With a few clicks, you can show her what it would look like with a retaining wall or if you dropped some lighting in. It’s harder for them to say no to a particular design once they’ve seen it.” It also makes it easier to get the customer involved in the design process, he says. “If you have the software on a laptop, you can take pictures and even sit down with them at the table and start some designing right there.”

Walter likes the ease with which he can use his program to build master plans for clients who may want to add to their landscape over the years. “A plan might include fifty or sixty thousand dollars of work but the client might not want to spend the money all at once, so I’ll do the whole plan and they can add on in stages.” The fact that it’s stored on the computer makes future access easy. “I might get a call from them later—it might even be when I’m on the road. I can pull over, get out my laptop and make a deal right there.”

Those who think they will have to sacrifice the personality of a pen-and-ink design might be surprised by the coloring and “hand-drawn” aesthetics some software can offer.

“A lot of software produces drawings that really look computer-generated,” says Len Hordyk, product manager, DynaScape, Burlington, Ontario, Canada. “We wanted to change that. We put emphasis into proper line weights to communicate design ideas. That’s a critical part of the output, if you’re following the proper standards for drafting. We also made our symbols look hand-drafted. And we all know color sells. It’s even more important than line weight. So we created a product that allows you to take your drawing and add color. There are three different styles and all have a hand-rendered look and feel. When you print it out, it’s hard to tell it’s not hand drawn.” He stresses the importance of detail and accuracy. “The look and feel of the output is critical.

“It comes down to making drawings look professional and easy to interpret. Communication gets carried through because of proper drafting and details. It’s the professionalism we really strive for.”

Efficiency by design3_1.jpg

Landscape design software can add efficiency in other ways, too. “Part of our goal is to reduce or eliminate duplication of tasks,” says Hordyk. “Once you’ve labeled your design with all the plant names and materials, you don’t have to go into separate estimating software and recreate the information. The estimating component goes in, reads the design and builds the estimate from that. And there’s no need to manually create a material list for crews or suppliers. So there’s a huge time savings there.”

Steve Secondo, owner of Steve Secondo Designs, Santa Ana, California, is another one who has converted to computer-aided design. “I simply couldn’t be making the money I’m making now if I wasn’t using the computer,” says Secondo, who uses DynaScape.

Formerly a contractor and now a full-time designer, Secondo points out that the software offers major benefits for both kinds of businesses. “When I was working as a contractor, the goal was to gain a construction client, and I could sell a job with a one-page drawing. Now as a designer, the set of drawings is the product. For someone who’s making a drainage plan, a construction plan, a lighting plan, etc., the computer makes all of those much easier to produce. And it’s more accurate than doing them by hand. For both kinds of users, this has been a great tool.” It took a leap of faith for Secondo to jump on the technological bandwagon. “I’ve been doing design since 1980 and I came kicking and screaming into drawing with the computer. I spent my whole life doing artistic drawing with ink and sat on the fence for years before I jumped in.”

Secondo actually made the move when problems with his eyesight started to make hand-drawing difficult. “I finally just said I’m going to have to bite the bullet and learn something new. Initially, the drawings took longer to produce than if I had drawn them by hand. But that block of time got shorter and shorter as I got more proficient.” He especially appreciates eliminating wasted time on design changes. “When you’re drawing in pen and ink and the client wants to make changes, you have to make a new drawing. ‘Landscape design’ is kind of a misnomer. It’s really ‘landscape redesign’ until you get it right. On the computer, you can make your changes and continue going forward.”

The right fit

Not all landscape design software is the same. Different packages include different features that may or may not be valuable to your company. To avoid having your head turned by the “wow factor” of a really cool feature that you’ll rarely use, make sure you understand exactly what you need from your software before shopping.

“A lot of people don’t really know what to look for in software,” says Hordyk. “A lower-end product may catch your eye, but you might hit a barrier at some point where the product can’t take you any further and you’ll have to look elsewhere. You may have wasted time and money on something that won’t take you where you need to go.”

Among other things, it’s important to look at:

Ease of use: A program should be reasonably easy to learn, and once you learn it, should be easy to use. Ask what kinds of classes, tutorials, and manuals are available. However, don’t expect to jump right in and make money without putting in significant study time. And don’t overlook a program that has a longer learning curve if, in the long run, it will do more for your business.

Content and output: Look at the program’s built-in library of symbols, plants, images and other content. More content means less you’ll have to import or create yourself. Look at the designs and proposals produced by the program. How accurate and detailed are they? How engaging are they to clients?

Technical support: When learning powerful software, most users have many questions at the beginning, so tech support is critical. Access to a knowledgeable live professional to walk you through snags will keep you from stalling in the middle of a project.

Efficiency: In addition to the design capabilities, look at the other tools, such as estimation and proposal generation, that can streamline processes and save your company more time and money. How do they fit with your current system? How can they improve it?

Demos and guarantees: Ask if you can demo the product for free or if you can return it for a refund if it doesn’t work for you. Then, make sure to take the time you need to thoroughly test the product on typical projects. Remember, software doesn’t make the design, it makes designing easier. “If you’re already a designer, software can help make you better,” says Sloan. “Software is good but it won’t make you a designer. It’s only as good as what you tell it to do.”

If you’re not already on the computer design bandwagon, you’re competing against people who are. “We know the old phrase, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ ” says Sloan. “In this case, a picture can be worth thousands of dollars.”