The Fundamentals of Design

Fundamentals of Design

Introduction: Design is a skill most of us already have available to us.

Whenever I teach design I find that the people in my class are inevitably fearful of putting pen to paper. By the time my students enter the classroom, whatever it was that had sparked them to sign up for a landscape design class, became eclipsed by a story in their heads that they don’t have any design skills. After having purchased this book, you may be feeling the same way. However, we all have innate design skills. It is my intent to show you that you do too.

Consider first that you have taste, a tendency to like certain things and not others. You already know what looks good and what doesn’t. In fact, you know this before even thinking about it. This knowing is more akin to a feeling than a thought. In fact, if I were to ask you why you like one thing and not another, you would have to pause, if only a moment, to formulate words to express what you already feel. This difference between feeling and explaining has to do with the way our brains work.


The cerebral cortex is the rational portion of our brain. The cerebral cortex is divided into two hemispheres connected by a thick band of nerve fibers (called the corpus callosum) which sends messages back and forth between the hemispheres. While brain research confirms that both sides of the brain are involved in nearly every human activity, scientists believe that the left side of the brain is the seat of language and processes things in a logical and sequential order. The right side is more visual and processes intuitively, holistically, and randomly. The right side of our brain is the part that knows what we like and dislike without thinking about it. If we want to express why we feel a certain way, we use the left side of the brain.

Exercise: Look at images in magazines or the internet. Select five images that you like and five that you don’t like. Journal to answer the following questions:

1. Indicate whether you like it or dislike each image.

2. Write out explanation of why you like or dislike a particular image.

3. Continue this practice through your day with the world around you.

Notice how long it took you to determine a like or dislike compared to how it took for you to articulate why you had a preference.

To design anything, we must use both sides of our brain. If we want to express a certain mood or feeling in a garden, we need to articulate how that mood will be expressed. That is essentially what design is all about: drawing, painting or sculpting something in order to express a feeling.

Now consider how you choose the clothes that you wear each day. While some of us are certainly better a choosing an outfit than others, we all have an ability to choose colors we like. We also know when something looks good on us and when it does not. Have you ever heard someone say “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that!” Our feelings about what looks good and what doesn’t are strong. Noticing that this skill is already present is the beginning of recognizing and developing your natural design sense. Designing is a skill. We all have a natural ability to design and we can all develop this natural ability through practice.

I have been designing gardens for thirty years. The longer I design, the more I realize I have more to learn. This process of learning is a source of joy for me and I hope it will be for you as well. Seeing an idea flow from an imagination, to a drawing on paper, to a place where people can relax and have an experience of nature is incredibly fulfilling. You can learn to do this for yourself, as I have. The process will bring you to a more intimate connection with nature, and also with your true self.

My book, Designing the Bungalow Garden: How to Create Gardens and Lives Rooted in Spirit will be published in spring of 2014. Look for in in bookstores and online.