A Message to My College Graduate Self (Ten Years Later)

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You did it! You survived four years of studio without noise cancelling headphones and managed to pull all nighters for projects without drinking any coffee. Your road to professional and personal success is only the beginning and you will achieve much more than you realize even when the odds are stacked against you.

I know you will harness your creativity and intellect to visualize beauty and function in the midst of seemingly impossible landscapes and you will produce ideas that not only impress others, but also surprise yourself. Like any professional creative pursuits, this will take time, patience, courage and a lot of hard work to get there, but the rewards will be immense for your career, as well as, for your personal endeavors. It will not be easy and there would be many times when you want to give up and cry in the office bathroom. It is okay to fail, as long as you get back up and continue to move forward. How do I know this? Well, ten years later, I am a forward-thinking landscape designer with a salary I wanted and working on projects I enjoy. And so much more.

I cannot tell you how I got to where I am today, but I can reveal this: continue to be your weird, unapologetic self and just keep going. Be original in your work because there is no one else like you. Also, have some fun when being creative and do not be so serious all the time. You can have a child-like mind when it comes to creativity, without actually being childish in front of people. There will be moments when you have no idea what you are doing, but you will figure it out eventually and be wiser than the day before. Learning new things will be scary, but you will be glad you did.

It will be a year later since the Great Recession ended. Times will initially be tough as jobs are slowly being recovered. Though, the bright side is that many landscape design firms will restructure their workflow and team sizes to become more resilient during economic downturns. Professionals in the field still reminisce about this period six years later during an office tour or eight years later in an interview. People never forget and are very understanding about the times that are bad in the past and will also be incredibly forgiving of any economic hurdles in the future.

You are stronger than you think because you have already accomplished one of the greatest feat in life, which is getting a college degree. That’s more than what Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg can say. Now, these billionaires have also achieved beyond what most of us couldn’t thought was possible and yet they have made it happen. The final lesson here is to not be the next Zuckerberg or Jobs, but to be you and make your ideas happen. If studio classes have taught you anything, it is that you can make it work and pull off a decent, presentable project by the due date. You can do it.

You have come so far when you began this journey four years ago without knowing anything about the program or profession. Now, you have the foundation and tools to help provide creative solutions to real world problems. Your future success awaits and I look forward to seeing you do it.

(Note: I graduated from college in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. The ripple effects of the Great Recession remained in my industry, even many years after it ended. Many professionals in my field remember the tough aftermath and their proactive decisions then that have led them to be here today. While I know this worldwide pandemic has devastated our economy, do keep in mind that we will get through this and know that opportunities will come, just delayed for now. As we slowly recover from this, people will be very understanding about these unusual circumstances and be intrigued about your story on how you overcame it. Carve out your own story, as I have done, because it is the one thing you can still control even during difficult times.)

Make Work Interesting For You

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This can apply to any job that is inherently interesting or one that is dreadfully mediocre. If you have some flexibility to make work more interesting for you, then why not add some joy and enthusiasm to your work? This should not be reserved for a fresh grad from college and it is something I still continue to do in my professional job even after 10 years of graduating from college. It helps pass the time quicker and your supervisor may actually reward you for your newfound work ethic. As long as this is not offensive, unprofessional, or risk client confidentiality, then it may be something worth doing at your job.

I first did this when I volunteered as a gardener for a local cemetery while in college. My responsibilities were to help maintain the cemetery grounds by weeding, planting, pruning, and other light laborious tasks. I was tasked to help devise a planting plan for their annual bed mound. Although I could easily just come up with a bubbles of plant labels on a planting plan and call it a day, I decided to make it more fun for myself and, also, for the visitors. I came up with the idea to make a “volcano” concept: a metaphoric explosion of annual Iceland poppies with yellow and orange flowers snaking down like lava towards the bottom.

DESIGN CONCEPT

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PLANTING SCHEME

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The concept sounded absurd, but it was bold, different, and completely surprised my supervisor (in a good way). He loved the idea and believed it could really brighten up the space, providing a little bit of peace and calmness for visitors to the cemetery. It did, based on the feedback from visitors in the next couple of weeks after we planted the annuals. It was a great success in a way that it really did lighten up the area and helped create an inviting space for all, from a visitor to a passersby. It was a space not only for those who passed, but for those who are still living too.

FINAL GARDEN DESIGN

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If a 12 feet diameter planting bed can make such a big difference, then I believe you can too. Try and test if you can make the work you do more interesting for you, whether professionally or something so menial like a house chore. It does not need to be over the top and just needs a little bit of effort to go the extra mile. People, not just our bosses, can tell if we put effort in our work or not. For example, we can already tell whenever a chef puts love into the meal based on his or her presentation and taste, so any signs of apathy will be noticed. But if we go above and beyond our responsibilities, the rewards can be immeasurable.

Doing something fun, unique, and exciting in your work can produce big results. And big results can lead to bigger opportunities. Whether you are just starting an entry-level position or in a job for over ten years, you can make your work interesting and still maintain professionalism. I learned personally over the years that the more creative, original and bolder the design is, the more WOW factor and reaction I get from my supervisors and clients. And the feeling never gets old.

Take a Mental Break Before It Becomes a Mental Breakdown

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At the start of the week, I had not one, but two deadlines due the following day. One was a Photoshop rendering perspective for a project I never worked on and another was to make minor updates to a re-submittal construction document package for a project I loosely worked on. I also did not have a full two days (16 hours) to work on them since both were given on short notice. I was notified about the rendering at 11:00 am with a noon deadline the next day and the other with a similar notification time that was due later in the afternoon the following day. So, in reality, I only had about 11 hours to complete both – 1 hour lunch not included. Mondays are a buzzkill, amiright?

On the same Monday, I also had planned on doing a quick run to the office during lunchtime to grab a couple of drafting supplies I have been running low on, as we were on the 9th week of quarantine. For me, I personally see driving – not commuting – as a therapeutic way of relieving stress and anxiety. There’s something about driving at my own speed and pace that is mentally soothing and relaxing. I also enjoy driving on my own from time to time and, plus, the freeing ability to unashamedly blast selected K-pop songs on repeat in my old SUV.

Others may view this little errand run an as an interruption to workflow and productivity, but I believe this was a good “mental break” for my mind. Not working on those deadlines and doing something mentally calming was more productive than me sitting anxiously in front of the computer and most likely wasting half an hour mulling on the fact that I had two deadlines with no game plan in sight. While driving, I unconsciously came up with a bunch of ideas on how to plan the rendering quickly from scratch during the 40-minute drive to and from the office. If anything, the scheduled office run worked in my favor and quite possibly prevented me from having a mental breakdown by hour four of the deadlines.

Deadlines happen all the time and never at the moments you ever expect. But lately, I have been seeing the glass half full than empty when it comes to such realities. Nothing I do will change this reality, so I find it helpful to accept it, move on, and focus. Like really concentrate on the task at hand for a couple of hours with a few breaks in between. I also choose not to worry about those two deadlines outside of working on them. Instead, I find something completely opposite to occupy my mind with for the latter part of the day. Even knowing fully well I had two deadlines the next day, I slept well and not a single thought about either projects entered my mind that night. It was tomorrow’s problem, not tonight’s nightmare.

The remaining four to six hours left of the deadlines consisted of intense focus. And yes, I did finish the rendering in the nick of time (ok it was really only 10 minutes over). I also did monitor the clock a few times that morning, but I did not panic or dwell into worry. I was already in my work groove, so I just worked a bit faster and kept going. I also made my second deadline by 2 pm.

The familiar saying “Whether you can or can’t, you are right” rings true here. If we were really being honest, I actually did not think I would make the deadlines. Turning a blank page into a manager approved, client-worthy product in a small time frame felt very nerve-wrecking. Though, in actuality, it was the fear of not getting it done in time that caused me more anxiety than actually doing it. When I was in full concentration mode, my willpower to finish and rendering skills somehow combined to work magically and produced magical results. It is astonishing what your mind can do in just little time.

It always helps to take a mental break, even when the odds are stacked against you. Luckily for me, driving was the mental break I needed, even though it was probably the last thing I would have done in such a time-sensitive period. This fortunate incident reminded me that it is okay to take a step away from the screen and to calm the mind before diving in too deep into the work. A refreshed mind can really turn seemingly impossible tasks into very real, tangible possibilities.

Rethinking Parks as a Landscape Designer For Post COVID-19

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Public parks are closed, but my ideas about public parks are not.

I was wondering how my work as a professional landscape designer can make a difference during times of a full blown global crisis. In actuality, COVID-19 has made me rethink about what public parks can actually mean for people. The mental aspect of public parks has never mattered more until the pandemic happened. Sure, healing and “zen” gardens have been designed in many spaces, but typically in healthcare campuses and hospital environments. But why does it stop there? Can’t these types of spaces be weaved into public parks with other programs such as children playgrounds and open courts?

These are the questions I have been asking myself when developing public park concepts and being cooped up at home for the past six weeks. The ability to work from home and continue working on projects as a landscape designer with a financially healthy company has been a grateful blessing and I am now more diligent than ever before to use my experience and understanding to create concepts for public parks that is not only functional and aesthetic in form, but also mentally calming when being inside the park. Adults need sanctuary and healing spaces too and have the chance to go to parks not only for recreational purposes or watch their children play in the playground.

The pandemic has actually sparked a fire-breathing dragon of creativity inside me to create spaces that are relaxing and tranquil within public parks. There is never a better opportunity to start now. I have been given the opportunity to design multiple parks for a neighborhood development project and certainly did not let this go to waste even while being isolated and working remotely. It did take some adjustment to sketch ideas on an 8 ½ x 11″ paper with a 100’ scaled base, but this did not stop me from developing really cool and interesting ideas about how to incorporate such spaces in 5-acre public parks.

And guess what? The project manager loved my ideas and told me so with five exclamation marks. He’s also the type that barely shows much emotion through a Zoom message or let alone, leave any punctuation marks at the end of a sentence. While I can contribute financially to the pandemic – and I do have the sufficient means to do so – I wanted to help in a different way and something that has a lasting impact to locals and even visitors from afar. I have the power to make spaces good, but I also have the power to create something truly unique and better for everyone. These times of uncertainty is not a time to be lazy or uncreative; it is a time to start thinking, be creative, and do things fearlessly (not recklessly).

It is ok to be afraid, but not to live in fear. This period of instability is making many people anxious, including myself. But I choose not to dwell in the rabbit hole of worry and have opted to instead figure out ways to contribute professionally (through concept ideas) and personally (virtual hangouts with friends and constant updates with immediate family members). Just remember you do not have to be the best or the brightest to think of big ideas, you just need to start and keep going.

How to Make Your Landscape Architecture Portfolio Stand Out

A few months ago, I recently accepted an employment offer as a landscape designer using a portfolio I developed six years ago, with minor tweaks to show updated work. I also got a park internship and my first employment opportunity with the same portfolio years prior. My portfolio has proven to be timeless after all these years and the techniques I have used to seemingly make my landscape architecture portfolio stand out remain applicable today. 

These techniques are gathered from my own experiences, learning from my mistakes and successes throughout my career. They could help your portfolio set you apart from other applicants and get noticed by prospective employers. It worked for me, so I believe there is some merit to these strategies.  

Here are a couple of ways to help your landscape architecture portfolio stand out:

1. Show YOURSELF in YOUR portfolio.

The first portfolio I developed early in my career was quite memorable – in a terrible way. My portfolio was a hot mess of colors, text, photos, and graphics spread into only 10 cringe-worthy pages. I am ashamed to have submitted this with my job application to several reputable landscape design firms and, not surprisingly, I did not get a response from any of them at the time. 

I am not sure why I thought this was a good portfolio then, but I know I was partially attempting to imitate what others were doing in their portfolio. I was showing my work in a way that looked “cool” like theirs with embellishment of unnecessary text and photos, but made no real sense to do so. I was trying to be something I was not and created some sort of Frankenstein result out of it, with bits and pieces of me, others, and nonsensical things in one unapologetic format. It is not that I was presenting bad projects either, I was just not displaying them properly. 

Ultimately, I was not showing who I am as a landscape designer and my own creativity. So after a few years of various career ventures, far too many Sunday morning hangovers, and an MLA degree, I scrapped my Frankenstein portfolio. I devised a new one, using fonts, a color palette, and organization of my own style. I made my portfolio simple and cohesive, with a variety of graphics, and wrote paragraphs briefly introducing and explaining every project. I also became incredibly detailed with how I wanted each page to be displayed: I wanted to control how the viewer would visually experience this collection of my work when mouse-clicking onto the next page, since this would be initially viewed on the computer 100% of the time in a matter of seconds. Each project also showed something different, dynamic, and new, to indicate that I was diverse in various skills and project types, while simultaneously keeping the portfolio unified. 

My new portfolio got me interviews with several prospective employers. I even got an interview with my dream firm, which was also one of the reputable firms I applied to with my Frankenstein portfolio years ago. (Side note: I did well in the interview, but actually took a job offer with a more local firm instead.) It is my best portfolio to date as it shows the real me and, along with it, my own originality and creativity. 

So find out who you are as a designer and showcase this in your portfolio. There will be nothing like this out there. It will probably take a lot of back-and-forth brainstorming, much keyboard slamming out of frustration, and maybe times when an indecisive measly detail will keep you awake at night. Just remember the reward outweighs this first-world and short-lived anguish and the outcome will perhaps even surprise yourself.

My portfolio revealed who I am, my talent, and my potential. Your portfolio should do the same. So be your good ole’ self in your portfolio.

2. Improve your project graphics.

Now, I know what you are thinking. Why on earth would I spend more time on these projects when I have already spent countless hours on them already? 

Well, because when you actually finished them to meet that 9:00 am class deadline, they are most likely a representation of your rushed work, not your best work. Perhaps you met the minimum criteria of graphic quantities and quality to get a decent grade, but this does not mean the same in the real world. Re-evaluate your project graphics and see what you can do to improve. Better yet, take the constructive feedback you have gotten from your professor and peers. Their criticism is generally meant to help you and, while sometimes it’s tough to hear after three straight all-nighters of studio work, you may find some truth in their words.

Do take some time to figure out what worked, did not work, and things the project lacked. I did this for all my projects in my portfolio, doing minor changes to some and major revisions for others. I discarded several mediocre perspectives and developed new renderings instead, to show the concept at different times of the year. I also made new graphics to help enhance my ideas further. This took many hours of intense computer staring, with some panic moments of Photoshop unexpectedly crashing in between, and lots and lots of caffeine. I probably spent more time doing this than the time to complete the project itself for the class. Though, in the end, I couldn’t have been happier with the results.

I used some of the same projects from my Frankenstein portfolio in my new portfolio, just a 1000x more enhanced than before. Here is a tip: if you figure out how you want to display your graphics and the overall layout beforehand, you do not need to redo or revise the entire section or perspective, just the part that will actually be shown. There may need to be some early coordination between InDesign and Photoshop, but this can help save time and effort. Also, smaller graphics on the page may not need as much revision as the larger graphics since they will not be as readable.    

There was a project that I had to revise the most, but it is my favorite project of all time and one that I did back when I was a sophomore in college 12 years ago. Yes, it is okay to include work that you have done in the distant past, as long as it is relevant to the position you are applying for. There is no rule against this and if it makes you feel any better, I did note down the year for all my projects in my new portfolio and no prospective employer has ever bat an eye or questioned it.

3. Be unique in your graphics.

While you are in the zone to update your project graphics, you might as well consider how to display them differently or in a way where they are not typically shown. Think of it this way: most web pages today have a beautiful UI interface with large photos of happy, good-looking people enjoying the atmosphere around them and symbols and text to make the content seemingly more user-friendly. Though, I feel this makes them all look the same and dilutes what they are trying to market. Nothing stands out. A hiring manager may experience something similar when going through hundreds of portfolios in a competitive market. 

A good portfolio needs to be interesting. Find ways to display graphics, particularly analytical data, that are both visually captivating and informative. For example, I did a public survey for my graduate thesis and I was intrigued to do an infographic of the results in my portfolio. I went out of my comfort zone to do this, as I have never done this before, and it became the first graphic in my new portfolio. I also found creative ways to transform my site analysis and collected data from GIS or written research into interesting graphics that would lead into the final concept.  Not only should you show your talent to make pretty renderings, but also your ability to interpret analytical information. 

Along with creative data related-graphics, hand drawn sketches are useful in a portfolio and can be a major part of the project in some instances. I voluntarily did a planting design for a small garden bed, roughly 64 square feet, in a local cemetery (don’t ask). I sketched my vision of the garden bed, planted the annual plants with another crew member, and tended to them as they grew within several weeks. I later took a photo of the garden bed in full bloom, and it looked pretty much like a replica of my original sketch. This hand-drawn graphic is the second largest on a page in my portfolio and has not been re-drawn or edited much ever since. Hand sketches are a display of your original ideas and could really help differentiate your portfolio from others. 

Part of this making your portfolio journey is to actually enjoy being creative and developing graphics to make ideas visually alive and exciting. This is the most fun aspect of the landscape architecture profession, so why not give the portfolio your best and show prospective employers your enthusiasm and personality? This is what an entry-level job description usually highlights anyway.

4. Little details matter.

The tiniest details in a portfolio can make a difference between you and another potential candidate. I made a personal logo out of a casual whim and placed this in my portfolio, along with my cover letter and resume, to make my application coherent. It impressed my new employer because I think that extra effort shows diligence and meticulousness. I also labelled all my graphics using the same font and size across all projects, to add consistency to the portfolio. I did the same with project cover pages, north arrow, and scale too. Because I like quotes, I added one to the beginning of some of the project introductory paragraphs. This was also noticed by my employer. 

Little additions and details can go a long way to making your portfolio stand out from the rest. You never know if the prospective employer will relate to anything that you show in your portfolio, but try and see what happens. If you are into watercoloring, show this side of you. If you are into plants, show your planting skills and ideas. If you like to write (like me), then write good paragraphs. As long as the content is not offensive or illegal, then you can really show other sides of you in your portfolio, beyond just standard course projects.  

If you made it near the end of this blog post and you are still not convinced in putting that much work into your portfolio, then read my last piece of advice. I will confront the elephant in the room and actually talk about the financial aspect of the landscape architecture profession. For those who are applying for a new job position after a few years of industry experience and are able to get a job offer, then you can perhaps negotiate a higher salary with an exceptional portfolio. It proves your hard work ethic, your talent to do great graphics, and your potential to do bigger things with the new company. I was able to negotiate the salary I wanted, about 20% higher than the national average of my experience level. My portfolio was probably a big reason for the salary increase, so hard work can really pay off.

It took a lot of time, thought, and patience to make my portfolio what it is today. I was not the best drafter or had the best grades in school. In fact, I was average compared to my peers, but I persevered and did a couple of freelance and side projects to help add to my portfolio. If you are willing to do the work, then you can create your own Frankenstein portfolio that you can call exclusively yours and nobody else’s. It could be your greatest creation yet.