An Interview with Shawn Gallaugher, Landscape Architect and owner of Shawn Gallaugher Design

By Donna Marrin

Tell us about your business and how you got it started?

Growing up helping out with a family business, I always knew I wanted to start my own business. After interning as a landscape architect and building the required experience with various firms, I returned to school to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture. While in school, I started my own landscape design firm, Shawn Gallaugher Design, and had several projects on the go. Starting my business while in school allowed me to apply knowledge to real-life experiences. One of my clients had the greatest confidence in my abilities as a designer and referred me to several other clients. Her help and guidance has been paramount to my business and continues to be. (The garden I designed for her was recently on the cover of the fall 2010 issue of Canadian Gardening Magazine.) At the end of the last term, I was excited for my classmates who were landing employment in prestigious landscape architecture firms, but I resisted what seemed like the easier route and held onto my dream of developing my own business. On one of the last days of school, I received a phone call from a potential client asking me to visit their property and present a design proposal. When I visited the client and project site, I had the realization that this was a great opportunity to establish my business and initiate my first large design project. Again, I was hired on reference from my former client and by holding onto my dream, I was available to take on this work and further establish my business.

What was your early vision for your business, and how has it changed over time?

When in school, my professional practice professor asked, “What is the most important thing to running a design firm?” Naively, I said, “Ethics,” but the answer was ‘Cash Flow.’ With this in mind, when I first started my business full-time after gradation, my goal was just to have enough cash flow to pay my bills and concentrate on the design work at hand. My objective was to put in the extra time and effort to produce a body of work that I would be proud of, and could show as my design portfolio. Being more arts than business minded, I believed that if you are passionate about what you do and try to the best of your abilities, then the finances will take care of themselves. With this, I fully concentrated on one project at a time with the hope another job would follow from work successfully completed. My earliest vision was to promote my business as a company that could provide fresh and creative ideas. To do this, I designed and installed several gardens at Canada Blooms. The gardens received some awards for creativity that helped establish my name as a unique and creative designer.

I have a background in Fine Arts and incorporate my appreciation for art in my business. For instance, I have designed sculpture gardens and site-specific sculpture for gardens. The way I work is art oriented, in that I like to draw when visualizing and presenting design ideas. This is somewhat of a lost art in our age of computer graphics but I do see my work process changing to adapt. Hopefully, I can incorporate the two mediums of hand drawings and computer graphics together to continue my vision for providing creative solutions. In the early stages of my business, I not only designed the gardens but worked on-site during installation to direct the project. I continue to work this way because I feel it allows you, as a designer, to refine site details that would not otherwise be figured out in a plan. For instance, working on-site and placing plants allows you to make decisions that would never have happened otherwise. When I work on a planting, I find it is the same process as if I was working on a painting. Creative and artful solutions happen in the moment when placing plants at the site. By working on-site, I can have my hand on each part of the project and it is truly an expression of my work. Early on, I decided not to promote my business with traditional flyers or media. I thought instead, I would try to make a difference and establish my name and business by volunteering to good causes. Since starting my business, I have one project on my desk at a time that is a community or private volunteer project. After three years of doing business, I am more established and able to donate some money, as well. I feel that volunteering and donating some money is the perfect scenario, because you can move forward ideas to help others. For instance, I facilitate and sponsor a landscape design competition for the Landscape Design Certificate Program at The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University, and the winning student project receives a cash subsidy and the Shawn Gallaugher Design Excellence Award. This promotes my business, but at the same time, gives students the opportunity to pursue design excellence, helps build their confidence, and gives them exposure and recognition that can help them to secure future employment. In the early stages of my business I was working on residential landscape design projects, one project at a time. This has since changed, as I am working on larger and higher end residential projects and handling several projects at a time. As well, the type of work I do has expanded to commercial and public properties. I have designed landscapes for various condominiums and designed several public parks. I feel having an established background in garden design is an important quality, because as I work on larger projects, I feel I have a strong sense of how to incorporate plants into the landscape. In the future, I would like to see myself working in other parts of the country and the world.

Your business is seasonal. How do you handle periods of downtime?

My business is sometimes perceived as seasonal, but the profession of landscape architecture is diverse and there is much planning and design to be done year-round. Landscape architects design residential gardens, commercial and public properties, communities, streetscapes, parks, and also work for municipalities or conservation authorities and teach, as well. Some larger projects take several years to complete and, as a result, there is much work to be done throughout the year. Landscape architecture work is primarily office work; however, I like to get my hands dirty and take a hands-on approach, also working in the field. A large part of my work is residential landscape design, and while the construction and site supervision takes place in certain seasons, the design happens all year, so there is little downtime. However, I also keep a full schedule by complementing my design work with teaching. I am an instructor in the Landscape Design Certificate Program at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University. It is very rewarding to be around young and energetic minds, and I find the work very inspiring.

What has your biggest learning curve been in terms of building your business?

In a perfect design solution, a combination of factors make a project successful. They are the designer, client, site, and budget. My greatest surprise has been how much you learn from your clients. With three years of experience in building my business, I feel I am such a better designer after having had the opportunity to work with the clients I have had. Clients have set high standards and taught me how to listen to their needs and expectations. I strive to make my clients happy because I am hoping to make lifelong relationships through my work.

Describe a day in the life.

I start the day off with meditation. It’s very grounding and gives you some time to focus on what is important. By the end of meditating, you have a plan for the day. I wake up early and work on designs when I am most fresh and can think fast. My work is deadline driven, so I set meetings to move work forward. With this, I am often completing some work for a meeting. In the winter months, I am designing and in the other months I will go out to garden installations and site supervise, meet with clients and contractors, or work out design details on-site. I enjoy walks and exercising in the evening and am often training for the next running marathon. I typically work in the evening in order to catch up and get ready for the next day. Having a business means you wear many hats and take on many responsibilities. These tasks can also be divided up through the day or throughout the week.

How do you find balance between your business life and your home life?

My work is a lifestyle. I have always been highly motivated and choose to work long hours. I work from home when I am not site supervising the installation of gardens or meeting with clients, and I find I have extra time and energy during the day since I am not commuting. Since I work on many cottage landscapes in the Muskoka area, I have the opportunity to stay at our family cottage through the week. It has always been a dream to work up in this area and spend as much time as possible at the cottage. Even though I am working, it is a pleasant environment to be in.

Do you have a favorite business tool or resource?

Tracing paper and thick to medium black Sharpie markers are my favorite business supplies. I never settle for one idea and always try to push the limits by drawing alternate designs. As a result, I go through a lot of tracing paper, laying one over the other and quickly drawing and revising the last sketch. Sometimes I will go through a roll of tracing paper while refining one concept. I feel if you can get all your ideas down on paper, then they can be evaluated and the best scenario found. When I have several preferred solutions, I like to pin them on the wall for review. It allows you to see what features work within individual concepts, or if there is one particular concept that you want to expand upon. I especially like using a medium to thick Sharpie marker for concept development because the dark crisp lines allow you to see the solution faster. The idea becomes more refined when you can clearly see and think.

What is the key to your success?

I strongly believe the key to my success is my creative talent. I can provide unique and creative design solutions. Secondly, I believe I am successful because I am very passionate about my work and pursue design excellence in everything I do.

What is the one piece of advice you would like to give to others thinking about starting a business?

Go for it. The hardest part is having the confidence to make the move to start your own business. You can easily overcome this by developing a business plan and strategizing your path to success.

About Shawn Gallaugher: With a background in Fine Art and a BLA and a MLA, Shawn offers a creative approach in teaching Project Studio and Residential Landscape Design at Ryerson University. As principal of the firm, Shawn Gallaugher Design, Shawn is current in the landscape design field. Shawn is an associate member in the Ontario Association of Landscape Design Architects and a 2008 Feature Garden Award Winner at Canada Blooms, “Outstanding Use of Artistic Elements in Garden.” Shawn fosters individual growth and creativity.

By Adam

March 25, 2011