Sparking Creativity: The Value of Hosting Design Summits - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Sparking Creativity: The Value of Hosting Design Summits

Photo: Mariani Premier Group

It’s typical to host a spring kick-off to get your field team geared up for another season, but do you take the same time to focus on your design team?

Mariani Landscape, based in Lake Bluff, Illinois, has been hosting a design retreat for several years, but this was their first time to host one since the pandemic. Colleen Barkley, Mariani’s director of design, says they moved it to a kick-off retreat to start the year with fresh ideas and goals.

“Our goal was to step outside the studio for a day and spend time discussing a variety of different design topics and styles,” Barkley says. “Some are related to best practices, some are how to improve our process or standards, and some are how to elevate our design.”

All of Mariani Landscape’s design team participated in this event, which featured a model-building competition, landscape trivia and engaging graphic activities.

Barkley says she assigns topics to each designer that have been brought forward over the course of the year based on the team’s feedback.

Photo: Mariani Landscape

“Each designer brings something different to that table,” Barkley says. “They are challenged with how to best present the topic in an engaging presentation, game or creative exercise. Typically, topics are assigned a month ahead of time for the retreat in order to give our designers adequate time to prepare.”

In the case of the model-building competition, project architect Dan Miller led the exercise. Teams had to create a landscape design with a surprise bag of materials to complement an architectural style selected randomly.

During the graphic activities, designers had to apply unconventional materials or colors to a graphic design. They also had a presentation on how to elevate their graphics and client presentation packages.

“It’s a great team-building experience talking about what we love, inspiring each other and just having fun,” Barkley says.

Barkley says the key to their success is letting the team weigh in on the topics and drive the conversation. She advises letting your design team take the time to pause from their everyday tasks and reflect. Exercises that push designers can spark great ideas and make them better.  

Mariani Premier Group Summit

This year also marked the first Mariani Premier Group Design Summit, hosted Berghoff Design Group, based in Phoenix, Arizona. This was a three-day gathering where all MPG companies with design services sent two designers to participate, including Berghoff’s Studio team.

Barkley says the summit had a similar style to Mariani Landscape’s design kick-off but had a broader view across studios discussing systems, processes and best practices.

Photo: Mariani Premier Group

Jeff Berghoff, founder and CEO of Berghoff Design Group, says that while MPG shares a lot of best practices on different things, design is hard to wrap your arms around.

“I think it’s best to do that in person and to see it, touch it, and feel it in a way and so much of design and what we do for our clients, in a way, is emotional,” Berghoff says. “I think we have to inspire our designers.”

He felt the best way to do that was to host the event at their facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they could share best practices and do some design-centric programming just for designers.

“We’re designers; we think with a different side of our brain than most people,” Berghoff says. “Let’s get these creatives together in a way and inspire them creatively and let them go back to these companies and infuse in them a design-driven culture.”

From 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day, MPG designers were discussing ideas and having great conversations.

“There were so many great things and takeaways and nuggets in discussions,” Berghoff says. “We’re all so passionate about what we do. I think everybody at this summit loves and is passionate about design and garden design and landscape architecture that we could share and talk for hours. We had discussions on software and different technologies we’re all using and I think that was very important, very specific things that designers are trying and using.”

The summit featured a variety of events including breakout sessions, a vendor showcase, a napkin sketch exercise, allied professional discussion panels and coffee talks. Attendees also visited three different gardens Berghoff created and toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West.

One of the topics that was discussed was playing a bigger game.

“I think sometimes designers get in this order taking or ticket taking,” Berghoff says. “You go meet with a client and a client is like, ‘Oh, I want to do this and I think the tree needs to go here and I think this should be like this.’ As designers, sometimes you can get into this order-taking process. I think what was discussed and what people came away with was, how do we play a bigger game and have a bigger seat at the table now?”

Berghoff says by having a seat at the table early on, designers can think through the overall issues and what is driving the client’s requests. This can also prevent designs from being so cookie-cutter and more site-specific.

One example of going beyond a client’s surface-level request is when Berghoff had a client come to him who wanted to resurface their pool. However, they ended up redesigning the whole yard and putting a new pool in a different location.

Photo: Mariani Premier Group

“We all fall into this trap of just wanting to please the client but pleasing the client is having a hard conversation with them and playing a bigger game,” Berghoff says.

He says a common challenge discussed was that landscape professionals are the last people in, and by then, their budgets have been whittled away.

“We can value engineer, but the landscape is equally important as other aspects going into the home,” Berghoff says. “We need to always fight to have a decent budget to make the house finish well and to show well.”

One of the panels during the event featured an architect, a builder, an interior designer, a magazine publisher, and a client’s rep all discussing the importance of landscape architecture to the home. He says it was a major light bulb moment for many of the attendees.

While Berghoff says he isn’t fond of trends or being a trendsetter, they did talk about how outdoor kitchens are evolving to become more than just barbecues. He noted that they are also emphasizing using materials that have some soul rather than mass-produced ones.

“How are we adding elements to create this beautiful outdoor lifestyle but have soul, so it doesn’t all seem so shiny new?” Berghoff says.

They also had a curated vendor showcase from furniture lines to outdoor lighting that Berghoff introduced to the group.

“We as landscape architects don’t need to give away the outdoor furniture package to the interior designers or on some of these homes they don’t have an interior designer,” Berghoff says. “We really should be doing that. We are creating outdoor lifestyles and how do we manage that best? Yes, we mow lawns. Yes, we trim trees. Yes, we put in beautiful hardscapes, but really what we’re trying to create is an outdoor lifestyle for our clients.”

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.