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A Path to Enlightenment
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A Path to Enlightenment

While readily acknowledging that digital-design technology has forever changed his working life, Greg Smith also knows that the software is just one of several tools he uses to communicate the value and extent of what he wants to achieve in his clients' backyards.

While readily acknowledging that digital-design technology has forever changed his working life, Greg Smith also knows that the software is just one of several tools he uses to communicate the value and extent of what he wants to achieve in his clients' backyards.

I started out on the construction side of the pool industry nearly 20 years ago. Back then, I probably experienced the building process a good 500 times, picking up insights into what determined the level of success of each project.

As time passed, I found myself being drawn to the design side: I saw it as a way to put all of those insights to good use; more important, I knew it was where I could do the most good for homeowners.

In making the transition, I discovered that I could draw, sort of. That is, I could trace around the templates that were available back then and add or amend details according to my vision. I drew hundreds of pools, gradually getting better and reaching a stage where I was able to present reasonably sophisticated drawings on 11-by-17-inch sheets gridded at eighth-inch scale.

I copied, noted, colored and staggered my way to professional success, eventually differentiating myself from my competition via The Swimming Man, a company I started in Austin, Texas, in 2008. Of course the process involved revisions, and I ended up erasing and restarting parts of my original sketches – in some cases over and over again so many times that I wore right through the paper.


These hand drawings took me hours to complete, and revisions were a consistently painful necessity. Through it all, however, my advantage was the fact that I always held onto my general vision of the completed space – that, plus the fact that I was a bundle of raw determination. My competitors were all in the same general ink-and-paper boat with me, but I separated myself by being quicker and more thorough than they were.

Then along came Pool Studio, the design-software system from Structure Studios of Henderson, Nev.: My world changed overnight. Right away, I found I could transfer my ideas to the computer and make quicker adjustments. More important professionally, the system immediately helped me distance myself even more from nearby watershapers: Clients were stunned by the visuals, and my closing percentage went way up.

The speediness was great, but I had another advantage in the fact that I was applying this new technology atop a good set of fundamental sales and design skills. I have always been a careful listener, not to mention wide-eyed and observant when I meet prospective clients and see their homes for the first time. For these introductory sessions, I’ve always worked with a checklist I developed long ago. As a result, by the time a first conversation is complete, I typically have all the information I need to move directly to the design phase.


I wasn’t kidding when I wrote about starting my digital-design process with pencil sketches and interview notes. In this case, the backyard was truly a blank slate – no more than an open space with a bit of a slope falling away from the house. By the time I completed my interview with the clients and my initial site survey, I knew where I was headed: With a bit of time at my workstation, I’d be ready to share those thoughts with my clients.

Before, that meant transferring site measurements to the grid, thinking about existing or envisioned grade changes and sidling up to the process. Now, at my digital workstation, I start with a Google Earth image of the site, transfer it to the design software and work with the spatial layout exactly as it is in rapid order.

But I’m a creature of old habit: I still start with pencil sketches and then scan them into the system. Then, once I step over into the digital realm, everything in my hybrid system quickly comes to life, with the technology giving me accurate elevations as well as panoramic views from all four quadrants of the area in which I’m working.

As I dug deeper and deeper into Pool Studio, however, I began to recognize that I could use some help in advancing my basic watershaping skills.


This is when I started taking classes offered by Genesis 3 – and it was in those sessions that I began connecting with members of what I considered to be my philosophical tribe. Through the courses I took, I discovered that I was already applying some great techniques, but I also came to see that I didn’t know quite as much as I thought I did. I even signed up for a class in perspective drawing to see if it might offer a better path, but all it did was convince me of the value of my own hybrid ways.

Even so, the classes were great and I enjoyed the camaraderie. I moved along, reasonably convinced that I knew what I was doing and thinking my coursework was mostly about filling small gaps in my education and skill set. But then I attended a Genesis 3 course that was specifically about using Pool Studio: It completely blew my mind.

This was an intense 16-hour class, and from start to finish I was like a sponge, learning all I could from the instructor and my fellow students. It was all happening at such a pace that what was supposedly an entry-level course turned into a master class as everyone started sharing what they knew and the discussion moved to the remarkable ways some of my colleagues were using the software.


Two key documents that emerge from the design process are shown here: a common two-dimensional plan with dimensions and instructions for construction crews; and a very uncommon spreadsheet that outlines the budget for the clients. (This is just a sampling: The actual spreadsheet for this project runs to four pages.)

When one of these watershapers would mention that he or she wanted the program to perform in a certain way but couldn’t figure out how to make it work, there was inevitably someone in the room who’d had the same thought and had pushed past the system’s limitations to make it happen. I was amazed by these “go arounds” and felt honored by the degree to which everyone was willing to be so open about their knowledge and techniques.

I had arrived at the course as someone who poked around within the system’s limits. Once I found all of these people who were willing and able to push the envelope, I began to see just how limitless the software’s potential could be – and recognized that I wanted to be part of those expansive explorations in the best possible way.

Back home, I practiced bringing my art alive within the program, spending the time required to upgrade my approach and dig more deeply into thoughtful details. Specifically, I went after what I call the “emotional elements” – that is, working with the sounds of water, the movements of water, the play of light and fire, day moods, night moods.

Along the way, I discovered that Pool Studio allows thoughtful designers to create digital environments that encourage prospective clients to place themselves within the design – and I can do so with animation that lets it happen under full-sun conditions, as the sun sets, at night, with music, with the sound of water. All very cool.


I look back on my career and ask: Is there any way I could have done this with just a pencil?

With the advent of Pool Studio’s “movie” feature, I can now set up a link to YouTube so that the client can see the design in animated form at any time, day or night. I’ve heard from these clients that they find it hard to resist sharing these videos with friends and neighbors, and I know for a fact that I’ve picked up new design clients as a result of this generosity.

The surprising thing about Pool Studio is that, although one might assume that it would level the playing field and chip away to anyone’s competitive edge, the truth of it is that I am still learning, still able to differentiate my position in the marketplace and still putting distance between myself and others in my area who use the software. In that respect, it’s like any other creative tool: Some people are better at using it, whether it’s through native skill or plain hard work.

These days, in other words, lots of designers use Pool Studio, and I often find that prospective clients have already seen designs presented digitally. To that point, however, they haven’t seen one from me.


The three-dimensional drawings that emerge from the design process make up the heart of my client presentations. I make them as detailed as I can, always striving to establish an emotional connection that will capture their imaginations and sustain them through the construction process. And when I complete the package with a fly-through (click here), I know I’ve set myself apart and begun the process of creating long-term satisfaction.

But I never rest on my laurels or let a sense of my digital design skills get in the way. As I see it, my talent with this particular design tool is one of many arrows in my quiver – and I know how important it is to be so good at what I do that I can keep lots of arrows at the ready. The upshot of all of this – and I believe this sincerely – is that digital design skills are a foundation for what I look at as my personal Philosophy of Design.

I believe in charging for designs, for example, because I value my time and want prospective clients to know it. By making this financial commitment to me at the earliest stage of the process, they convince me that they are worthy of the gifts I’m offering them. As I see it, this is part of what distinguishes me as a design artist and puts me several notches beyond a production-oriented designer who works from sales commission to sales commission.

Deep down, clients know who is there to sell them and who is there to guide them, honestly and with skill, to creation of spaces their families will enjoy for years to come. I practice this art of giving, and I’ve found that using a digital design system frees me to guide my clients more easily along pathways to good decisions.


It also makes it easy for me to do something many of my fellow watershapers see as being slightly insane.

Look at all of this from the clients’ perspective. Very often, their decision-making is all about trust, and at the end of the day they go with the designer who meets what can best be described as a basic emotional need. I work with that yearning for trust in an admittedly unusual way – that is, by making my projects financially transparent.

In fact, I share with all my clients a spreadsheet outlining all costs, overhead and profit. Universally, I’ve seen that they sincerely appreciate my candor – but much more so the knowledge my openness gives them of what things cost and the consequences of their decisions. In this way, I set the expectation that we’re moving forward as a team, working to strike a balance between the vision we’ve developed and the budget they’ve defined.


As these photographs of the completed project show, my digital design process is so thorough, so detailed that there are relatively few differences to be found between concept and execution. Clients love this – and even find ways to enjoy the disruptive processes that bring the project through to completion.

For me, a combination of that vision, a very cool Pool Studio presentation and financial transparency are the three main arrows among many others in my quiver. They help me, each and every day, reconcile my personal philosophy with the realities of the business I’m in; each and every day, they keep me pushing to refine and advance my design skills.

Daily, I ask myself: Why am I here? What do I have to give? How will I be remembered? The answers change all the time, of course, but I am certain that my use of digital-design technology has helped me be more positive in my sense that I’m on my own right path and that, on a very real and practical level, I’m of value to my clients, my community and my industry.

Not bad for someone who still can’t give up his pencils.

Greg Smith is owner, designer and construction manager for The Swimming Man, a business he founded in 2008 in Austin, Texas. He began his working life in the geophysical industry, where he specialized in remote locations and difficult terrain, including the eastern slope of the Andes and the Amazon Basin. Returning to Austin in 1997 and joining the watershaping industry, he built some 500 pools before moving to the design side. He has been a member of the Society of Watershape Designers since 2010 and can be reached at [email protected]

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