Over the summer, I read ‘In Arabian Nights’ by Tahir Shah. He delves deeply into the tradition of storytelling, now somewhat lost in the West, but still very much alive in Arabic and Indian culture. Shah makes the point that stories are the channel through which both culture and information are passed. Often stories have more than one meaning or purpose.
I have always loved stories. As children, which of us has not sat enraptured to listen to a story from a parent, or older person? For some people, this translates into a love of reading which stays with them; for others reading is too much associated with learning. Nonetheless, stories are all around us. Books (in all their forms) of course, but also TV, radio, films and even in music. Hollywood in particular knows the power of a good story. And of course, in garden design [moment’s pause to consider validity of statement]. Actually, I’m serious. Stories are important in business generally, but they are crucially important in our business. If you think I’m wrong, do a little experiment. Try and describe your latest garden design without using metaphorical words and phrases, or words that evoke feelings. Even simple phrases like a sitting area, breakfast terrace, sunny border aim to produce a picture in the listener’s mind. And the more successfully we can do this, the more the listener will see themselves in the completed space. It doesn’t necessarily matter that they are not picturing exactly what you have drawn, it’s how they feel that is important.
We all react to information in three different ways – think, feel and know. We think about insurance policies when shopping around. We compare the details and weigh them up. For some things, we just know what we want. Apple and other big brands (especially cars) play strongly on this. For other things, it is more about how we feel. Holidays fall into this category – hence the endless pictures of white sandy beaches – “Picture yourself here” they say, “Feel the sun on your face.” Gardens also are mostly ‘feel’ decisions, at least at the point when the major commitment is made. ‘Think’ and ‘know’ come into it as well of course, typically over the money if nothing else!
There may be endless stories in the world, but there are surprisingly few story ‘patterns’ or arcs. Most classic myths follow set patterns – fall from grace (riches to rags), rise and fall, fall and rise, and so on. These basic blocks can be put together to form more complex plots – Cinderella for example is a classic rise-fall-rise story. This story arc is surprisingly robust as a way of understanding the journey that our clients take through a project. They start from a low point – a blank or imperfect site. They dream, engage a designer and the climb of expectation begins. They become increasingly excited through the design process, eager to start on the project. Work starts – and so does the fall! The site gets destroyed, carved up, first mud, then concrete and hard landscape abound. But then it starts to come together, finally the plants go in and the project is ‘completed’. They are on the upward trajectory. There are two important lessons here: first, understanding when and how to encourage them (at the dip). Second, to understand that the ‘rise’ continues after we have left, and that we can use this to our advantage.
But there is a deeper truth here. Stories are integral in how we think. My recent piece about design ideas and where they originate touched on this. The non-rational (right-hand) side of the brain plays a critical part in the design process. This non-linear form of thinking is difficult to categorise, but images and emotions play a part in it, particularly for designers. Our ability to connect disparate concepts, or to reapply a concept to a different context is at the centre of idea generation. Imagining and daydreaming are closely related – the right-hand part of the brain ‘freewheeling’. Dreams also play a part in how memories are crystallised as our brain ‘de-frags’ overnight and sifts through the day, discarding what is not important and reinforcing what is. In part, when we are designing, we are imagining a landscape – who doesn’t think in pictures as they design? I love this idea – that we dream landscapes into existence. And it’s our ability to vocalise those dreams that allows us to convince others of the viability of our ideas. Telling tales is at the heart of what we do.
[This piece was originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal in December 2019 as part of the ‘Just Saying’ series]