Often when interviewing people for design positions, I ask how they work, and what processes they go through. Normally, I get a blank look. Yet this is how we make our living. How come we never really think about the process? If you asked a stonemason or a carpenter what they did to make an object, they would be able to take you through the whole process. Even writers have a handle on how they produce their work.
At college, most of us were taught the Survey-Analysis-Design (S-A-D) method. This takes us through a logical process of design generation, and is a rational extension to the modernist principle of form following function. I’m not denying that there is something inherently beautiful about an object perfectly in tune with its function. It’s just that if this was all there was to it, there would only be one design for everything – or in landscape terms, given the same site and parameters, we would all come up with the same solution. Analysing the survey data is important – it just doesn’t, of itself, produce a design.
There is clearly something else going on here. If you look at the work of engineers like Nervi and Calatrava, or artists such as Heatherwick, the objects that they come up with are supremely functional, economical and refined. But they are also beautiful. It is hard to believe that these forms have just come from a cold analysis of the data.
Instead, design inspiration comes from somewhere completely different. Have you ever had a brilliant idea while standing in the shower? There are two things happening here. The first is that your brain essentially ‘de-frags’ overnight, clearing out lots of clutter from the day before. The second thing is that while you are doing something mundane, which occupies the methodical part of your brain, the subconscious part can freewheel and make connections. In my practice, we believe that solutions often come from unexpected sources. The trouble is that it can be a very difficult process to control, let alone instigate, especially if you are working on your own. Ask someone to come up with an idea on the spot and see what happens.
Sometimes the ideas come from collaborative working – discussion between people bounces ideas around and connections are made, so that new concepts can form. Some people find deadlines an effective tool. The pressure of having to come up with something can be magic fuel to the design process. Try to recreate this when you have all day or all week to produce a design, and you will likely fail.
Taming the wild
Where does this leave the S-A-D process? Not defunct, just altered. Often these ideas that pop into our head are fluffy masses that need shaping and tying back to the framework of reality. So when I design, I absorb the client brief, the survey material, visit the site – and then leave it for a couple of weeks. I come back to it later and work quickly, a bit like a glass blower trying to form something before the material hardens. Without having gone through the initial process, however, this would not be possible. We have to go through a certain post-rationalisation process to make the ideas fit with reality.
With practice, we learn ways to curate this process, and to create the right conditions for ideas to germinate. But just as I, still, after all these years, get a thrill when my beans sprout and produce little green shoots, so I always get a buzz when a new idea pops into my head – probably from a seed that has been sitting there for a while.
[This piece was originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal in October 2019 as part of the ‘Just Saying’ series]