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

IMG_1910-2

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

IMG_0131

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

IMG_0001_2

PLANTING SCHEME

IMG_0001_new

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

IMG_8921

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

driving-photo

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.

Your “Tick” to Creativity

artwork

(Photo taken from an art gallery in The Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, 2017)

When you hit a creative block, it sometimes helps to follow your anger. Criticism rather that polite praise can work more wonders than you think. Throughout my personal and professional life, I have received a fair share of hurtful comments, outlandish critiques, and harsh judgements. Of the many, those from a very strict manager I used to work with were the most critical, toughest words I have ever received for my concept designs. Deep down, I knew he was coming from a place of heart and did this in my best interest to succeed professionally. He wanted to push my potential to the limit, even to a 25-year-old entry-level employee with barely any experience in the industry.

Whenever I showed my manager my crappy concepts, he would sarcastically ask, “What would the client think?” I would go back to the drawing board, huffing and puffing inside, knowing fully well that I had failed in his eyes. Rightly so, I did suck at developing residential design concepts in the beginning. I also naively thought they were good and, looking back, they were terrible and my manager was right. While his critiques were big blows to my self-esteem, I channeled my frustration to developing better and more creative designs, to prove my worth and to show him I can get to his level one day. I eventually did get much better and faster at developing concepts, after many hours of practice and many rolls of trace paper.

So that this impressed my new manager at my new job recently. When I showed him three concepts for a neighborhood park, the manager was actually taken aback and was torn between choosing one of the three. That was the biggest compliment to date in my professional career. Not positive words like a “good job”, but the reaction of surprise and indecisiveness of several great designs was the long-awaited approval I have worked so hard for.

If it weren’t for my previous manager’s criticism early on in my career, I probably would have foolishly still been producing unaspiring work today. His critiques were my main motivation to do better and propelled me to become a full-fledged professional who can come up with really cool, interesting concepts for many different types of design projects now.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. One outlet of inspiration is from constructive criticism, as this is actually my biggest driver to keep improving and keep going. Try to use criticisms to your advantage and not only do better, but also overcome and overachieve in front of others who have placed doubt in you. Take actions to prove them wrong and be “so good they can’t ignore you” (a quote by Cal Newport). Find what make you “tick” and funnel all that energy to become somebody others never thought possible. You would surprise even yourself at how far you can go.

Another person’s doubt could be the path to your greatest victory yet.

How to Make Money Without a Bra or Makeup

woman in pink long sleeve shirt holding brown book
Photo by Alexavier Rylee Cimafranca on Pexels.com

I am ambitiously lazy. I have been making extra money, aside from my full-time professional job, but in my own comfort zone, barefaced and un-shaved legs, while sitting under a warm comforter on my bed in my pajamas and drinking coffee from my favorite mug. For a woman in her early 30’s, it is a freeing concept to make money whenever and wherever, without having to wear make-up, contacts, or a bra. I do not have to face anyone, look older and mature, or try to wear work attire that is not too tight or low or short to make more money. Best of all is that I do not have to be told what to do within a 9-to-5 timeframe to earn money, I can make money my way and on my terms.

To do this, I had to first take a step out of my comfort zone. In order to live comfortably, I needed to be uncomfortable first. This means deviating from the standard and taking the risk to be different. Consider this analogy: instead of hiking up on the wider, paved trail to the mountain peak of success like everyone else, I decided to take a less traveled, alternate route. It was riskier and steeper and the path may or may not have reached the mountain peak at all. I may have encountered obstacles, slip, or fall. Though, despite all the uncertainties, it was my choice to create my own path and decide where I go next. Even if the path was more difficult to climb and required a bit more work, my path could potentially lead to the peak faster.

For a long time, I was like everyone else. I was not the fastest or slowest person on the conventional path up, but I was going at a decent pace in achieving academic and professional success. I was also following the usual path of a woman in finding the “one”, getting married, and building a family one day. All of my girl friends were doing this, so I was doing the same without missing a beat. I got married last year and my wedding day was truly one of the best days of my life. While the route I was on made me feel stable and secure, I was not fulfilled. My sense of purpose was lacking, even though I did all the right things, stuck to the same path, and was careful not to disturb the status quo along the way.

Career-wise, I was chugging and grinding along like I was supposed to by having a regular job and just getting paid for doing good, honest work. Yet, I found the work unrewarding and felt trapped in a cycle of dead-end responsibilities. For the first time in thirty years, I wanted to quit a job for one that I actually wanted, not because of any life reasons or because it was the only company that gave a job offer. After achieving financial stability, I wanted to choose what I wanted to do and for the salary I wanted. This meant straying from the norm and leaving a four year job that would have made me terribly unhappy if I had stayed for another 30 years. And so, I stepped out from the conventional path and into the bushes.

At first, it was prickly, uncomfortable, and the unfamiliar terrain made me very nervous. Nobody was guiding me forward, I was on my own. I kept going though, treading carefully and purposefully. I negotiated for a higher end salary at my new job that I wanted and successfully got it. I spontaneously traveled to South Korea, a country I have never been, within three weeks of my decision to go. I did a freelance project designing a front yard residential landscape and was involved in the entire construction process, which is now built and enjoyed by the owners. While I have never done any of these before 2018, I was carving my own path.

As a petite Asian woman in her early 30’s, I seemed to be going against every traditional, cultural and social norms. Being different meant being isolated from a social circle of friends and acquaintances who were doing things by conventional standards. While a handful of my friends were having babies, I was pursuing side ventures. While they were focused on planning their baby showers or baby rooms, I was focused on my self-worth. It was a solo journey and it did feel lonely at times to be detached from conversations about family planning aspirations and expensive daycare costs. But I wanted to increase my income, to travel to places I have never been, and to create something I called my own. I did not want conventions to define me, I wanted to define myself.

It is easy to take the conventional road to success because it does lead to some guarantees and promises of financial security by relying on a steady job of 50 years, the safety net of social security and government handouts for retirement. It does not require much thinking or creativity to follow this path, as long as you work hard and long enough to reach the peak. I believe at some point in time this path may have worked in the past, but it will not make anyone a millionaire today. If anything, those who follow this path now would be unhappy, unmotivated, and even in debt. To actually get to the point of making money without a bra or any make-up on, you will need to break away from these conventions and start making money by doing things you like, not what you have to do. In the long run, you will make more money by doing things you are interested in and, once you do, you can make even more money your way.

Investing in myself was probably the most profitable decision I have made in my life. It allowed me to make more money than I ever thought and now I have the ability to make even more by investing. It has been rewarding to do things on my own. It is a new high that I have discovered and the more I do this, the more of this I want. Plus, my side ventures did not feel like work at all because I enjoyed doing them. I also did not need to work ten times harder to get ten times the results. It was true that I worked longer and I needed more brainpower to push through, but I did not work harder. I did what I normally do when doing something new for the first time, which included many hours of researching and reading. I also talked to friends for some guidance and advice who were long-time veterans of these situations, like negotiating for a higher salary. If you are open to continuous learning and gaining new skills, then do not be afraid to ask for help from others who have succeeded in doing so.

Now that you have a steady income flowing and presumably have paid off all debts, the fun part begins: it is time to make more money by investing. In the next Part II post, I will explain techniques on how to earn compound interest, how to conservatively make money from the stock market, and how to maximize your 401(k). Truthfully, if you choose to invest in yourself, all the other parts of your life could be very rewarding – professionally, socially, and financially. All it takes is a first step off the conventional trail.

How to Negotiate Your Salary and Beyond

Market2 copy 2
Mongkok Ladies’ Market / September 2015

My earliest memory of bargaining was when I was 13 years old. I was with my mom at the Mongkok Ladies’ Market in Hong Kong, sweating and sticky under the hot mid-afternoon sun in July. I wanted to buy a couple of souvenirs for my school friends and my mom was determined to get the best deal from an older female shop owner. My mom was firm in the lowered price she wanted to pay, but the owner was reluctant. My mom and I then tactfully walked away, but not too far because the owner later shouted for us to come back and accepted my mom’s price. My mom smiled and we returned to the shop to pay for the souvenirs. We did this several more times at the market. By the end of day, our red plastic bags were full of items my mom happily bargained for.

Bargaining is a cultural norm and a skill kids growing up under a traditional Chinese household learn and try to excel at as much as academics. The ability to convince a complete stranger for the price you want is a concept I learned early in my childhood and one that carried on into my adulthood. I eventually became very good at bargaining in local street markets whenever I was traveling overseas. It felt really good to purchase something for much less than the original price and having the final say was highly rewarding. Jessica Huang from ABC’s Fresh off the Boat series would have been incredibly proud.

Bargaining is daring and thrilling, but negotiating is scary. Perhaps the fact that the word itself starts with the latin neg– meaning no connotes negativity already. Yet, bargaining and negotiating mean pretty much the same thing since both involve discussion and agreement on something. The difference is that bargaining is often associated with price and negotiation applies to more broader terms and guarantees, sometimes not involving price in the first place. 

While I knew how to bargain, I was terrified of negotiation. So much so that in all the miscellaneous jobs I held for the past ten years, I have never once negotiated my salary. I accepted the pay offer as it was and I did the same when there were annual pay increases after yearly performance reviews. I never questioned my previous employers’ decisions because I was always thinking they were getting what they were paying for. This does not mean I was satisfied with the outcome (if anything, it was far from it), but my desire to not disrupt my relationship with my employers or change the status quo outweighed my own happiness, every single time.

And I was not alone in this. I know of a senior technical recruiter who did not ask for a raise after three years with the company, despite a few years of industry experience before this role. I know of a high-level HR manager who did not ask for a raise in five years even after having accumulated job responsibilities over time. I know of a sales marketing engineer who agreed to the same salary at a new employment opportunity even with a couple years of experience, a college degree, and certification in the field. They, including myself, are serial bargain hunters when it comes to shopping, but none of them had the courage to bring up to their supervisor about a raise or salary adjustment in their professional lives.

All of them are successful and smart Asian-American women in their respective fields. Perhaps being raised under a traditional Asian household we all learned to regard money with uncertainty and insecurity. While bargaining was a strategy to get the cheapest deal as possible, it was done so we could save money and maintain a stable nest egg. I myself learned all the aspects of coupon clipping, finding cheap deals, and bargaining whenever possible, so I could remain financially secure. For a long time, I thought money was meant to be preserved and sustained, so I was always so focused on never losing less. I never thought to make more. 

Last year, I had a defining moment to make a change. In my fourth annual performance review with my previous employer, I was given a small pay bump of a $1 increase to my current hourly pay. In the previous three years, I was given either $1.5 or up to $3 increase to my hourly pay every year, so hearing this was a major blow to my ego and self-esteem as a hard-working professional. I was also carrying more responsibilities and workload, but not getting paid substantially for it. It was then I realized they were not getting what they were paying for anymore and, instead, they were getting what they wanted for at a bargained price. I was the older female shop owner at the Ladies’ Market from 18 years ago. 

At the time, I did not challenge the pay increase and just accepted it for the time being because I knew from then on I was going to work harder to get the pay I wanted at another firm. I was thinking about leaving anyway and find a company that better fit with my career goals and project types. I set out a mission to update my portfolio and resume, as well as take freelance work on top of my full-time work to gain outside experience. I was also planning my own wedding too, but my willpower to earn more money and showing my professional skills and potential was equally important, if not more. There was never going to be a better time than at that moment to do so. 

I did a schedule send email on a Monday morning of my application to only one firm, hoped for the best, and did not think to hear back from them for months. I heard back from the HR manager within 2 hours in an email, stating they wanted to schedule an interview with me in the same week. Emotions of surprise, panic, and relief came all at once after reading the email, but it was mostly a sense of reward that I felt. Hard work really does pay off. 

I did well in the interview and was offered a job the day after. The compensation offered was what I put down in my application, which was a bad mistake I later found out. I learned from my recruiter friend to never write down the compensation amount and write either ‘N/A’ or ‘Negotiable’ instead, so there will be some flexibility to actually negotiate the salary once there is a job offer. My initial reasoning to put down a slight salary increase was that so they would be more willing to hire me, but she told me my logic was wrong and leaves no room for negotiation down the road. She explained not indicating a specific salary amount works better in the candidate’s favor and reassured this will not deter a company from hiring someone. Many applicants do this anyway and I should have done the same.

I did not want all my hard work to go to waste for a slight increase in pay. Since this was the only opportunity to negotiate my compensation, I asked for the pay I actually wanted, which was about a 20% increase from my current salary. I briefly explained after reviewing the job description and pairing this with my skills and experience that I believe this new compensation would be fair. I reread my email about 100 times before I sent it. Deep down inside, I was absolutely nervous and afraid of what they would say. Many questions consumed my thoughts. What if they retract the job offer entirely? What do I do if they came back with a counter offer? What if they never get back to me?

None of my concerns actually happened. After a few days, they accepted my new compensation and sent over the revised job offer. It worked! I was mind-blown because it was my first negotiation ever and it was successful beyond my expectation. Of course I have to prove myself at my new job, but this was something I can do, since I have been building skills, experience, and knowledge in the industry for a long time. I was beyond excited to finally get the compensation I wanted with a job position I have been longing for.

Today, I no longer see negotiation as terrifying. I view it as a normal business transaction and actually quite empowering. Even if there was a counter offer or they stuck with my original compensation, I could have also negotiated for things other than salary, such as more paid time-off or mandatory yearly increase in pay. It is not the end of the world if the initial negotiation does not work, just try to negotiate other terms since it is your only opportunity to do so before signing the offer contract. The employer rarely retracts a job offer just because of your willingness to negotiate. 

Now that I feel like a superwoman who can do anything, I am also shifting my focus to find ways to earn more money rather than focusing on trying not to lose less. It is interesting how I, along with my Asian girl friends, grew up to think about money as something that needed to be saved, bargained for, and protected. Our male counterparts often grow up learning otherwise and see money as power, investing, and strength. I find this dichotomy unfair but I understand this is something that is inherited culturally, socially, and historically. While I cannot go back in time to change my past, I have the ability to control my future. This year, I am slowly starting to invest and build my net worth because nothing is sexier than compound interest from savings and having varied investments for a bargain hunter like me.

Ladies, negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Breathe it, chant it, and repeat it. Negotiation is not as scary as you think it is and once you do it, you will be amazed at the new wave of opportunities that come with it and wonder why you did not do this earlier. If your professional experience and potential matches with the salary you would like to negotiate for, then go for it. It does not hurt to ask for more. I know of another Asian girl friend who was able to successfully negotiate a salary compensation of $50,000 more and they accepted her offer! Do not settle for less, settle for more. 

This post is in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Thank you to all the women for their achievements, contributions, and influence. Let’s continue to move forward and bring positive change. We can do it. 

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.