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My Design Process, Part 1

I thought I would share some brief insights as to what goes through my mind when I am creating a design proposal for a client, and the mental framework I use to arrive at a finished design. I should clarify that in sharing my thoughts, I am not saying that my method is the "right one." Its simply what I have found to work for me.


Step 1- Start by being boring

In other words, begin the design by addressing the practical constraints, as practically as you can. This may seem obvious, but as a new designer I often started a project by thinking "this is my chance to knock their socks off/make a name for myself/ make something truly special." And I would design something that was out of their budget and/or not actually possible to build. Ironically, I think my designs were also less exciting and cohesive when I intentionally tried to make them exciting and different.


The term "form follows function" took on a new meaning for me once I internalized this. It is an oft-repeated phrase in the engineering and design world. If I were to rephrase it in my language, I would say "be as practical and boring as you can be, and the creative solutions will come to you naturally after you have accounted for all the project constraints." That might sound strange, but for me it is true. Creativity thrives the most under restrictions.


For example, a client with an oddly-shaped lot was concerned about the limitations it presented. It was a long, skinny triangle with most of the yard to the side of the house and tall rock walls dominating what little space she had in the backyard. I assured her that this would in fact create opportunities to design unique spaces because of the unique constraints.


As a designer, your job is first and foremost to solve problems. That is what separates a traditional artist from a designer (nothing against artists, I'm just creating a distinction.) You could pay an artist to create a beautiful rendering of a landscape for you, but will you actually be able to build it? And will it give you the things you are looking for in the price range you can afford?


Budget, lot shape and topography, available materials, desired features, maintenance level, location, engineering, family size and interests and other factors are all constraints that shape a landscape design. Not properly addressing any one of these constraints can turn a landscape project into a real nightmare, with costly fixes, frustrated crews, and an end product that you didn't sign up for. That is what you pay for when you hire a proper landscape designer and not just someone who will make a pretty 3D model for you. You're paying for someone who will consider and solve for all these factors while making it look good. Ideally, your designer will have experience working closely with the contractors who are actually installing their landscape designs. Or someone who has experience installing or managing crews themselves. That real-world experience of knowing how things are actually installed and what is feasible can be very helpful.


When I first walk through a client's yard with them, I really don't offer a lot of ideas. I'm actually pretty quiet during the initial consultation. I mostly ask questions and listen, gathering as much information as I can about the project constraints. I try to especially get a feel for the things that seem "non-negotiable" for my client. Those things that are most important to them. Maybe they want a specific feature in a specific place in the yard. And if I can tell that's really important to them, I will consider it a hard point in the design and now its my job to make that work and look good.


As we're walking around the lot, I'm taking notes of all the basic features they want and if there are specific places they want to put them. If they mention a certain plant or material they like, I make sure to include that in my notes and incorporate it at the start of my design palette. Usually by the time I've laid out the most logical places for all the different features and incorporated any other little details they mentioned, the rest of the design flows pretty naturally as you strive to bring it together in the most logical way. This is the part where the creative solutions seem to just start flowing for me. The color palette, materials, basic style and all those little unique touches just seem to flow out of your mind naturally once you've accounted for all the basics.


The opposite to this approach would be ignoring your clients wish list and constraints and creating your own vision, then trying to fit your client's constraints into that vision afterwards. I've tried this and it doesn't work. Sometimes, as a creative, you think you know what is best for your client's yard. You have your own vision and ideas that you are excited about. But if you can put that away for a moment and really listen to them, that is when the magic happens. Put their needs first and let your vision be subservient to those needs, not the other way around.


In a nutshell, focus first on solving all their problems with what seems to be the most obvious solutions. If you listened to them well, a creative, beautiful and unique design is an inevitable end product, because each client's needs and constraints are totally unique.


If you listen closely enough, the design is in the constraints.


-Cameron Jaster

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