What qualifications must a lighting designer have?

What qualifications must a lighting designer have?

By Mike Gambino

trust-That’s an easy one to answer not one. None, zero, zilch, nada. Anyone can call themselves a lighting designer.

Traditionally, landscape and landscape lighting industry professionals have kept design at somewhat of arm’s distance, meaning ours is an industry that, for the most part, has included designs as a sales strategy in the price of the completed project. That practice, I believe, is one of the defining elements that separates lighting design from other disciplines such as landscape architecture, architecture and interior design, to name a few.

There are some that advocate charging a fee for design work. The message is greeted with varying measures of reluctance, skepticism and cautious acceptance. For many buyers, the concept is foreign and almost unthinkable. Paying design fees are simply not something that they had ever considered.

About 15 years ago I began collecting not a design fee but a design consultation fee. This is in essence a nominal fee that covers my travel costs, eliminates the tire kickers and the insincere as they must at least show some interest by agreeing to pay before I will discuss their lighting and share ideas with them.

Since that time, a higher class of landscape lighters have embraced charging for design consultations with many reporting that doing so has transformed their business and elevated their status with potential clients. Charging a design fee has also helped many discourage those who accept a free design meeting and then buy products themselves or contract with someone else to do the work, leaving the builder with the original creative design ideas out in the cold.

When a builder does generate a design under a separate contract oftentimes that leads to a construction contract, while in other cases, the clients take the design and shop around. Either way, by charging for the design work, the builder has something to show for their effort.

Charging a consultation fee enables one to differentiate themselves from companies that don’t charge for design consultations and it allows them to set time aside to do a better, more complete job on a client’s behalf.

At Gambino landscape lighting we charge for most all of our design consultations and won’t even consider talking to a prospective client if they’re not willing to pay for our time. Going into the process with that understanding sets a tone with the client and supports the idea that they’re paying you for experience and talent.

Gambino landscape lighting has gained a reputation for tremendously creative projects that are uniquely tailored to it’s upscale clientele’s tastes and desires. By charging for design consultations we’re able to eliminate wasting time with those who will never do business with us. It leads to better projects that in turn lead to other great projects. We can’t imagine doing it any other way.

For as good an idea as charging design consultation fees may be, it’s one that also raises a question that continues to challenge the industry: What qualifies someone to demand a design fee? In other words, what does it take to become a bonafide “designer?”

Simply declaring yourself a designer does not mean that you’re qualified. After all, design skill is something that has to be learned somehow. Even for those with a natural aptitude for design work, the process requires disciplines and rigors that are tough to come by outside of a formal educational setting.

In other fields, such as landscape architecture, practitioners can point to their formal education as a credential supporting for-hire design work. The same thing is true of architects and certainly so for engineers. The landscape lighting industry, by contrast, does not have formal education as a bar for entry into the business. Fact is, most people in our industry have learned by doing. There are certainly builders these days who have become self-educated and/or have improved their skills by attending design-oriented programs, but to a large extent, the industry is populated by those who have learned from the proverbial “school of hard knocks.”

That’s why for the most part, the de facto credential most point to is their track record. There’s no doubt that years of practical experience can result in skill sets necessary for design work, but there’s no guarantee that’s the case, so the issue of who is and isn’t qualified to do design work remains hazy at best. And there are those who point out that some people hanging out a design shingle in truth have no business doing so.

It’s also important to note that being paid for design isn’t for everyone. In a perfect world, landscape lighting design will someday be supported by university-level education, and while there have been some inroads to that high-minded goal, the fact is, as it stands, those educational programs for the most part don’t exist. In the meantime, the designation as a “designer” in this industry is one that lacks an academic credential.

On one hand, I believe we should applaud those people who now charge for their creative output, especially those, who have done the hard work of studying and implementing designs. On the other, there remains a cautionary caveat about the legitimacy of those doing the designing.

It’s a problem for which there is no immediate answer.

This landscape lighting blog is published by Mike Gambino of Gambino landscape lighting inc. all rights reserved. Mike is a professional landscape lighting system designer/ builder and has been designing, installing and maintaining landscape lighting systems for more than 20 years. Mike resides in the Los Angeles area with his wife and 2 sons. To visit his website go to www.gambinolighting.com . To inquire about hiring Mike please  click here .

Blog articles may be published with permission on other websites without editing or removing links.



  • Mark Carlson
    Posted at 15:46h, 19 October Reply

    Mike, I love this topic and one that sits close to me and my business. As you know, I have pursued my landscape lighting endeavors to be more known as a specialized lighting designer/consultant. You and I take that same pride and professionalism to what we do and how well we present ourselves.

    You are absolutely correct on this huge problem we face for our trade and the lighting industry in general. There are no set rules or standards for this classification….anyone can call themselves a professional landscape lighting designer. This is sad and it’s wrong, because there is no direct measure for the consumer to determine who is what.

    I charge for my design time, because of what I provide …it is better and much more detailed than most. The consumer much look at the individuals background, accomplishments, education, years performing this skill, etc., in order to determine who is best qualified for this work. It takes years to master this as an art form, as you know.

    Thank you for posting this important issue. I’m so glad we are aligned in our professional efforts, you are one of the few who really understands this industry.

    • Mike Gambino
      Posted at 04:04h, 20 October Reply

      I admire and envy your ability to convey and put on paper your design ideas in a cohesive manor which is understandable to the client. This is of great benefit for the client who absolutely positively needs to see it on paper before proceeding with a job.

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