The Problem with Outdoor Designers

There’s a villain in this tale.  It’s Target.  Yes, that big box store, who actively promotes its designer relationships and products is the bad guy of this story.  What’s worse though, and it still doesn’t absolve them, is that they’ve been unconsciously aided by us.

Take a look at this.

image via ActiveRain

It’s an old story.  A relatively unknown designer outside of design circles with a beautiful and considered product gets ripped off by a corporate giant.  It happens all the time.  Why? Because many designers- especially those who design products for outside and the landscape designers who use those products don’t have the cache that other disciplines do. We’re generally not well known outside of our own design communities.  We don’t have big media profiles. In other words, we are invisible to the public who won’t recognize the complete and total ripoff by Target of ModFire’s fireplace.

The core of the problem is that those of us who actually design for outside are outsiders. We don’t think about establishing ourselves in the media as a goal that will ultimately raise our profiles and expand our businesses.  Designers in other related (and some unrelated) disciplines have product lines (think fabric, furniture, and other garden ornaments) for outside, but few of us do. Fashion designers like Oscar de la Renta and Trina Turk have lines of outdoor furniture and fabric. Interior designers and architects do as well. Why? Because they recognize how much these products can add to their bottom lines and  they brand themselves from the get go as lifestyle tastemakers and we don’t. Why don’t we? Few designed environments add to the quality of life like those outside do.

Very few landscape or garden designers have a goal to be high profile enough to matter to beyond the immediate neighborhoods they work in. They assume that focusing locally is what will make them money and they’re right in the most immediate sense, but many are doing work that deserves wider acclaim, and don’t actively pursue it. We don’t reach out to national consumer media and pitch our best projects.  We don’t court the companies who produce the  products we use by going to events outside of our discipline. How many textile manufacturers or furniture would want to have a booth next to the much pile or tree spade at a landscape show? Not any.

We need to make our best work much more visible and recognizable to the public. Our names should be on products and we should be collecting the percentages paid from licensees instead those from other design fields.  We need to put ourselves out there– and not just as an offshoot of gardening.  We need to reach out to the larger design community and create relationships with other designers as well as with plants people and landscape specific suppliers. We need to be regarded as a design discipline in the same way as interior designers are. We need to foster relationships with the press and promote our work as design worthy–it’s not just about the garden and plants.  It’s about a beautiful and designed lifestyle that those elements are a part of.  We relegate ourselves to the backyard and miss out on so many opportunities with our own short shortsightedness. When we do step out in front there’s not enough recognition or marketing cache attached to our businesses or names because we haven’t set ourselves up that way.  We need to set our own bars higher in this regard.

Shame on Target for knocking off Brandon Williams who has worked and reached out to the larger design community.  They stole his ModFire product design, but even though it makes my blood boil, I’m not all that surprised.

As a side note…the subscribe button should be working now!–sc


13 thoughts on “The Problem with Outdoor Designers

  1. Susan – it is outrageous. Target is the villain. However, everything else you say while perhaps correct, would not alter the situation. The copywrite and patent laws suck. It’s nearly impossible to protect design, whether for inside or out. I have looked into it as a furniture designer.

  2. John-Not only is it outrageous, but large corporations have the means to defend any suit that comes at them. In the 1980s there was a landmark case about a belt buckle design in the fashion industry that dragged on for months and months and resulted in a win for the designer, but at what cost? Maybe we need to change the law.

  3. Perhaps you designers can form a cooperative brand for your outdoor designs. Strength in numbers? A jazzy cachet for recognition. Your individual name would have to be subsumed into the new brand. You can start with a few members and, if successful, grow it.

  4. I wonder if a GROUP of designers could form a collective (if you’ve not already) and together hire lawyers, consultants, etc. to start paving the way toward getting everyone’s intellectual property protected. That way if someone clearly violates ONE person’s work, they will be backed by a posse of smarties who know all about such things, and can make people/corporations accountable. Do you know if there is any such thing?

  5. Thanks for taking the time Dee. You’re right about the bigger problem. It’s a tough nut to fix. It’s one of the things I admire about P. Allen Smith and Martha Stewart. They get the relationship between personality and opportunity.

  6. Great idea! I think there needs to be a collective of that type, but more importantly we have to have the PR machine to connect us to the larger media landscape (no pun intended)

  7. All good food for thought and well presented.
    Both mega large corporations and tiny mom and pop designers have their designs knocked off for resale. It’s par for the course in business.
    That doesn’t make it right but it has been happening since the caveman invented the wheel. ( now where were patent laws then ?, Mr Caveman really missed out on that one )

    Creating a product and bringing it to mass marketing sales , be it for interior or exterior use takes a certain type of business acumen, a good product, financial backing and the desire to enter into a whole new wide world of business.
    Designing the product is just one small cog in the larger wheel of commerce. – Been there, tried to do that and realized I did not have the multi-faceted system nor deep down burning desire to dedicate to that type of business plan.

    I agree with all your points Susan and support your call to arms, but know from experience that after one takes off the minor hat of design that it the full coat of amour that must be donned to enter into the battlefield of business. .. with attorneys, CPA’s , manufacturing facilites, business partners and more as part of your troops.

    Many thanks for another thought provoking essay.

  8. Agreed on all points Michelle. Even with a suit of armor and deep pockets very few of us (I can name a few who do) still don’t have or seek rockstar status in the design communitites. That’s what has to happen first, everything else will follow.

  9. I have a great example of a garden designer who has an outdoor line of furniture, a private showroom, and many more deals on the table – Judy Kameon of Elysian Landscapes whose AWESOME book – Gardens Are For Living – just came out. She has been a juggernaut in the press for years, and to be frank most of her day to day work is about promoting her work. For those of us who actually enjoy designing gardens, becoming the head of a brand means our work changes from making gardens to managing the people who manage the various arenas we are moving in to. I don’t think we HAVE to do this – a good life can be had keeping business small and focused. I’m a little tired of the mega branded personality – I find it tiresome already. Outdoor design is DIFFERENT than other design disciplines, and I don’t think one has to have an inferiority complex about it. The bulk of our work can’t be mass marketed, it is site-specific. When someone designs a product that can be easily and effectively manufactured, one moves into a large, cumbersome process that doesn’t always pay off in the end. Yes, Target ripped off a product design, but they will argue that they changed it enough to make it theirs. This happens ALLL THE TIME in design – even the most iconic designs have been heavily inspired by things that came before. Design is all about inspiration and interpretation and context – anyone who thinks they are making something new and original is drinking their own koolaid.

  10. Ivette– I agree with you on many points, but if you extend the site specific design solution, other disciplines are also in that realm ie. interior design and architecture. I still believe we need designers in our field with rockstar status who are as recognizable to the public as chefs are now. Without that we can enjoy what we do as much as we want, but we will never have the earning power and recognition that we deserve.

  11. If we have a wide following, we are less apt to be taken advantage of by large corporations like Target simply because they will not be able to take another ‘egg on your face’ moment. Makes sense to me.

    Just as interior designers are savvy people with a ‘special sauce’, so, too, are outdoor designers — and we need to create something that withstands weather extremes, too!

    How we are perceived is something that is changeable. I, for one, am doing that. (Just wish I was faster.)

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