By Brian Van Bower
I remember several years ago, back before it was really fashionable to build completely naturalistic pools, that I decided this was exactly what I wanted to do. This was in the very early 80s, when you’d see maybe some rocks on the bond beam or a waterfall on the end of the pool – but that was about as natural as it got back then.
My new idea was to create environments that were completely natural, stem to stern. I tried presenting the concept to a number of potential clients, explaining how we could do things like angle the top of the pool and install rocks all around the edge and create natural formations that looked like benches and incorporate all of this integrated landscaping.
Nobody was buying.
I’m convinced now that the reason I ran into such resistance was because no one was building these pools and none of my potential customers had any frame of reference. They just couldn’t visualize what I was talking about, so I was out of luck – until, that is, I decided to build a model pool in my own backyard (see the photograph below).
I poured all of my energy and ideas into this one pool, bringing in rock guys to build a massive waterfall and a six-foot natural spa overlooking the rest of the pool. I installed a bunch of lush tropical landscaping, too, and built little winding footpaths through it.
By today’s standards, I suppose most of that sounds trite, but at the time in my market it was genuinely cutting-edge stuff. In fact, an old friend of mine from the pool industry saw it and told me, “This is the coolest pool I’ve ever seen.”
At the time, I agreed wholeheartedly with him, and so did a whole bunch of other people. And because I now had this thing in place in my backyard, I could show other people what I meant when I was talking about “naturalistic swimming pools.”
It worked like a charm: Pretty soon – and I really mean within a very short period of time – it seemed that everybody wanted exactly that pool, with no variation. And it worked because my customers were able to step into the environment and immediately visualize themselves in their own pools.
But their vision was limited and they didn’t want to take any chances, so I ended up being asked to replicate the same pool over and over again. In that sense, you might say that my marketing idea had worked a little too well. And being the person I am, I was getting bored doing the same thing over and over again. Heck, if I’d wanted to build the same pool dozens of times, I could’ve gone to work for one of my cookie-cutter competitors.
I’m not really complaining, because I definitely enjoyed building these lush, tropical-looking pools. But for a long time, I was typecast as “the guy who built the tropical, lagoon-style pools.” That was fine for a while, but I no longer saw myself as being on the cutting edge, where I always wanted to be.
At the same time, it was occurring to me that to be on the cutting edge means you have to be able to communicate ideas to customers – ideas they might never have seen or considered before.
Building a pool in your own backyard is a pretty extreme way to communicate a concept to a potential client. (You’d have to move too many times or go through far too many divorces to make that strategy work in more than a limited way.) This meant that I’d have to come up with some other way to bring my ideas across.
Before long, I was thinking about exactly what it is that clients are buying. After mulling it over and listening to what other people had to say about the art of selling, I landed on two specific things: First, clients are buying you, investing in the faith they have that you are a professional and will do what you say you will do. Second, clients buy what they can visualize.
There’s a tremendous amount that can be said on both those fronts. Selling yourself as a professional, as a craftsperson and, indeed, as an artist, is equal parts state of mind and spirit coupled with technical and creative ability – something I’ve discussed in past columns and won’t repeat here. Helping your clients visualize the product means giving them the means to do so – preferably without turning your backyard into a showroom.
Before I get into specific suggestions about visual communication, it’s important to consider just how important this process is to our clients. A watershape, which in my case typically means a custom backyard swimming pool and all the stuff that goes with it, is a place where people spend time and interact with their surroundings.
I am, in effect, selling an experience, one that they will enjoy over and over again in a whole variety of ways.
The process of helping them visualize the experience of standing next to the pool, sitting in the spa, mixing drinks at the swim-up bar or doing yoga next to the waterfall – or whatever else it is that they want to do in their backyard – is the most direct route to stirring their passions.
Architects have known this for a long time, by the way. That’s why they do things like build models and create virtual tours of buildings that don’t yet exist. They go to all this effort because the process helps the client become personally vested in the project: The structures become real, immediate and exciting.
WAYS TO SEE
Drawings are essential in this process of visualization, starting with the most basic plan view or site plan. Whether you’re using a blueprint, brown line or pen and ink, the image you create shows the proposed pool in the existing space. Another way to look at it is that the overhead view depicts an unfamiliar object (the watershape) in a familiar setting. This helps the client relate the design to things already known.
This is why it’s very important to call out specific details on the plan itself (as seen in the illustration below) – or point them out verbally. Either way, you communicate very basic and important bits of information, such as the fact that the waterfall will be five feet to the right of the fence, or the children’s play equipment will be on the side of the yard nearest the house and the pool will be in the far corner – and that a pathway will connect the two areas.
If you know your stuff, you also have the ability to communicate about materials, contrasts between materials, what happens where different materials meet and how surfaces relate to one another. In the hands of someone with talent, a drawing can be a most powerful tool.
I’ve already discussed the need to be a detective in initial client meetings. You can and should use things you’ve learned about their homes, families and lifestyles to create various details on even the most basic drawings. If you know, for instance, that your clients like to barbecue twice every weekend, then show where the barbecue will go. If you know that having the spa just outside the French doors leading from the master bedroom is a big deal, put the spa near the bedroom and point it out on the drawing.
Even these fundamental physical orientations will go a long way in helping clients visualize a new reality, especially if you present it with their experience in mind.
Now, just think about what will happen if you add color and detail. In another column, I talked about learning to draw – a skill I consider very useful in creating watershapes. When you add color to your drawings, the effects you can communicate are truly stunning. You can use stencils to create rocks and trees; you can show texture in the hardscape; you can even show frothing water and indicate depth with shadings of color.
Stepping up a level, there’s little that compares for impact with a three-dimensional rendering: By seeing the job from a primary focal point, clients get an immediate impression of depth and dimension in the design. It all becomes very real as you account for the position of the sun and create shadows and reflective surfaces.
To my mind, in fact, these eye-level perspective drawings in all their detail are far and away the most dramatic and successful with respect to placing clients right into an environment.
I also believe it’s important to include a selection of details on the main drawing or on separate drawings. Clients are not as familiar at looking at details as we are, and it’s not always clear to them how some of these things will look – even something as basic as bullnose coping. You may do a good job of showing it as part of the whole picture, but it isn’t until clients see it up close, perhaps in a cutaway view where they actually see the profile of the coping stones, that they will fully comprehend what bullnose coping is.
Certainly, the better you are at drawing, the more detail you can include and the more effective the images will be in communicating.
For myself, I’ve found that learning to draw is more “scientific” than I had originally thought. It’s not about some artistic muse who anoints one person and ignores the others, although talent certainly helps and I know I’ll never be as good at drawing as other people I know. But when you learn the rules of drafting and how to create three-dimensional images, then the whole “drawing thing” becomes much less mysterious and much more practical and accessible.
Computer-assisted (CAD) drawings have a big role in all of this, too. I personally don’t think they’re as dazzling as hand drawings, but I know people who use CAD systems to create professional-looking images, and if the overall design and the details you include are presented in a way that your clients can understand, then the computer-generated image can be as alive and meaningful as something drawn by hand.
If you get creative, there are a variety of ways that you can capture an image with which to work your magic. You can, for example, take a photograph of the space from a primary focal point and then project that image onto a piece of paper. You can then trace the major contours of the space and create a landscape by hand. Tracing from projections is a technique that’s been used by architects and artists for generations. I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I’m open to giving it a try.
Another tool that’s been used to great effect in architecture is computerized 3D imaging. These days, it’s possible to render a planned environment as a virtual reality setting in which the “visitor” can move through the picture and see the space flow from angle to angle. Imagine the impact of enabling your clients to “walk” through some trees and into a gazebo that’s right next to a waterfall, then turn around and look back down the path to their home and all its architectural details.
Then there are models – another tool that our colleagues in the architecture business have been using for generations. In fact, they create elaborate scale models of everything from college campuses to skyscrapers and amusement park rides in helping their clients “see” large projects.
I’ve seen models of luxury condominium complexes that have included pools, for example, and the effect is impressive. I’d love to see a scale model of a custom vanishing-edge pool with all sorts of landscape and architectural details. Again, I’ve never tried building a model, but given an appropriate situation and the right clients, I’d commission one in a heartbeat.
TELLING A STORY
The one thing that all of these forms of visual presentation have in common is that they tell stories. They convey what it will be like to be in the space you’re designing.
The one thing that every good story needs is a good setup. That’s why I always personally present drawings to my clients: I’ll never just “send one over” without being there to support the presentation with verbal communication. That’s important: No matter what forms of visual aid you use, from a plot plan to a model, you need to be there to add verbal descriptions of what the setting will be like once the work is complete.
Samples at Hand
Among the most compelling visual aids I bring with me to client meetings are samples of materials I’d like to use. It’s so easy that I’m constantly surprised that more people in the watershaping trades don’t do it.
In a recent column, I discussed the range of materials available to us. I’ve had great luck picking a key item or two and bringing them along for the client to see and feel.
Sometimes the samples I bring are fairly substantial: If I’m showing glass tile, for example, I won’t just bring a piece or two. I’ll buy a whole sheet, lay it out on the floor and let the clients really get a feel for it.
Many manufacturers have ready-made samples – of decking materials, interior surface options, edge treatments, pathways stones, even thatch from a chikki hut. It’s just another way to illustrate detail and give the clients a sensory experience that helps them visualize exactly what it is they’re buying.
Using the language, in other words, you can fill in all the blanks and explain the sensory experiences your clients will have, right down to the smell of the flowers or the happy sound of the blender or the smooth feel of the tile beneath their feet at the water’s edge.
You can describe the cooling, evaporative effects of the waterfall, or the spa massaging their shoulders (and explain that, unlike a spouse, the jets never get tired). Or if you know a client is sensitive to sunlight, you can point out that while the kids are playing on the diving rocks, he or she can lounge in the beach entrance beneath the cool shade of an umbrella.
You can conjure social scenes as well, while explaining that by using the advanced control system, the clients can set things up so that just as everyone’s sitting down to dinner by the pool, the lights will come up and the waterfall will come on. You can wow your clients by getting them to imagine the amazement on the faces of their guests as all this happens, unbidden, while you’re pouring the cabernet.
When you have effectively cast these images both verbally and visually, you create value for the product. All of sudden, they’re not thinking about the extra money for the waterfall so much as they’re enjoying the idea of sitting behind it, watching the world through the whimsical distortions of the falling water.
There’s clearly a real power in visualization. If it’s handled with skill and planning, it can generate a heap of real fortune as well.