Monday, December 7, 2009

Following Rules .. or not.

There was an interesting article written on the blog ‘Blue Planet Garden' : , about practicing what we preach in regards to garden design rules.

Most of the garden designers who responded to the essay mentioned that they in general have some form of rules or guidelines that they follow.

When thinking of this querry, I replied that I don’t follow any designated set of design rules. In fact I think they are limiting and have the potential to stifle innovation and creativity.

My philosophy and theory on design can be summed up by a quote by Walter Benjamin :
“In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”

I’ll say it a bit cruder than Benjamin that to self sanction our ‘designing’ selves with rules is to stifle the process of discovery.

To my minds eye, in specific regard to art and design, “rules engage constraints , constrainsts can limit our possibilities and the lack of possibilities possess the ability to stifle innovation”.
That is the antithesis of the discipline of design.

That is why , as designers I feel it is more important to keep an open mind and listen rather than to instill a set of static tenents.

If as designers we invoke these self imposed ‘rules’, then there is the potential of unwittingly forcing the rules upon our client that they do not necessarily desire or find important to their lives.

I like how Scott Hokunson of Blue Heron ( ) described his perspective on practising what you preach when he quoted the Pirates Code , “ is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules”

Below is a path design by the firm Suzman and Cole.
If they stayed true to the rule that paths should be a minimum of 4 feet wide do you think we would have such wonderful innovation ?
From New Album 12/7/09 12:51 PM

Or that all gardens should have comfortable seating ?
In these gardens pictured below it isn’t about providing comfortable seating it is more about viewing the garden and or working in the garden

Design by David Feix
From david's garden photos

Design by Topher Delaney
From New Album 9/26/09 8:37 PM


Terri said...

I completely agree. Its interesting to think about - what rules can you be flexible about and what rules are important to follow? Building codes, rules that relate to safety and stability cannot be sacrificed for creativity, while design rules like "tall plants in the back" are so limiting.
I am a "question authority" person at heart - so whenever someone says "do it this way" I always have a instinct to do just the opposite.
A client asked me this summer whether I felt I did my best work with a lot of guidelines from a client or with creative freedom. I do much better work without a client imposing a lot of limitations on what I come up with - although I don't mind that, it is their landscape after all. It just comes out better the more freedom i have. (The client asked because she said her interior designer had said the same thing.)

Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment Terri.
I'm really quite interested in learning what others think about this question of rules.

I spoke about this topic with a friend and they brought up a very interesting point.
He mentioned that perhaps the way we designers think about the rules may have a lot to do with how we were trained, whether it be in a classroom or on the job training.

The first school I attended was a design school that is recognized for its critical thinking and theoretical approach rather than its practical approach.
I am often teased ( endlessly ) about this especially when I'm engaged in a design debate and can't help litter ( his term) my descriptions with 'arch-i-speak.

Food for thought or should I say more litter bugging with words for open discussion.

Susan aka Miss R said...

Thanks for adding to the conversation Michelle. You are right, it's an interesting topic, rules. We are taught them and then learn over time to follow, ignore or adapt as suits our lives and temperments. Sometimes having to live with the rules makes for as much creative thinking as not having any rules can.

Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

Oh Susan,
I am struck by your comment, "Sometimes having to live with the rules makes for as much creative thinking as not having any rules can."

Now that is insightful critical thinking that one can dig deeper into.

Thanks for the thought.


Craig @ Ellis Hollow said...

I like the idea of matching the plant to the site. (For practical purposes.)

Beyond that, *anything* goes.

Christine said...

And Susan beat me to it! I like to have a general idea of what the rules are so I can better know if they should be broken or altered. Similar to the artists at the turn of the (last) century- they typically were highly skilled artists in reproducing an image on paper, but with that platform they skewed perceptions beyond what was accepted as fine art.

Susan Morrison said...

Hi Michelle, I’m happy that our posts on this topic inspired you to write your own.

Although my post was intended to entertain rather than to spark serious debate, I can see it struck a cord with you, so here are my views presented in a more thoughtful way.

I am a strong believer in design guidelines and principles. You speculated that designers’ approaches might be somewhat influenced by their education and that may be true. Prior to becoming a designer I worked in marketing, and during MBA school when I was learning to write business plans, a wise professor told me – “You need a business plan, or otherwise, what are you going to deviate from?” I’ve taken that same philosophy with me into garden design and prefer to start with a structured approach and then modify as required. A landscape architect described garden designers as “scientific artists” and I like the term, as it recognizes that indeed, garden design is both art and craft, and that a truly accomplished designer is more than just a person with good ideas and an artistic vision, but also understands the science of the built environment.

Being able to speak the language of design principles also helps me communicate with clients. For example, referencing the formula 2R + T = 25” to 27” to convince a client that a 15” tread is generally a superior choice to a 12” one not only makes a more compelling argument, but also reinforces that I am an educated professional, important in a profession like ours with no specific educational or licensing requirements. But even this is a starting point, and in fact when I blogged about this rule back in March, I gave examples of times when I have successfully and unsuccessfully deviated from the formula. Again, start with the rules, then modify as required.

I also disagree that beginning with a set of guidelines stifles creativity. I mentioned in my original post that I design lifestyle gardens and that one of my rules is to encourage clients to enjoy their gardens by creating comfortable spaces. By doing this, I would argue that I am absolutely following the philosophy espoused in the quote by Walter Benjamin: traditionally, homeowners have used only a small part of their gardens (both front and back) and instead covered them with lawns. My ‘rules” which focus on useable, personal spaces therefore are “an attempt…to wrest tradition away from…conformism.” In his excellent book,From Yard to Garden, The Domestication of America’s Home Grounds, Chris Grampp postulates that more and more Californians are beginning to want gardens that are a reflection of themselves, their lifestyles and the natural beauty of California rather than simply recreating the landscapes of their youth. I believe that my design guidelines are in line with a new and exciting era in Western garden design that is just now emerging. It may not be as dramatic or exist on as grand and public a scale as the City Beautiful movement, or New Urbanism, but the fact that it is being quietly embraced in everyday gardens makes it all the more rewarding to be a part of.

By the way, most design rules or guidelines (whichever you prefer) are a lot more complex than a simple statement like “Pathways should be at least 4’ wide.” That guideline applies to primary paths, most notably the path to the front door. Even then, it’s subject to revision based on the architectural style and scale of the house. My own house is only 10’ from the curb, and for this reason I chose to vary my path width between 3 – 4’. The scale of secondary garden paths is not determined by the 4’ guideline, but by the intended use and relationship to the garden as a whole. Far from breaking a design rule, the charming path in your photo is most likely a prime example of a design rule in action!

Having said all this, I think you are an amazing designer, so I want to stress that I’m offering my viewpoint as an exchange of ideas, and by no means a criticism of your work.
Best, Susan

Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

Hello Susan,
Thank you , thank you , for engaging in this provocative conversation.

My apologies to you if your post was meant only to entertain but I found it introspective , intelligently written and thought provoking.

I also really enjoyed learning how other designers feel about this particular topic.

I'm in agreement that rules are necessary to the technical constituents in our business for without them safety would be compromised and retaining walls would fail.

It's in the realm of actual design where I think we differ in opinion, yet I do appreciate , understand and accept your points of perspective .

I've enjoyed our shared dialogue and look forward to more when you have the time.
It's conversations like this that enriches the lives of those who are in this profession and or are observers.

Delphine said...

That's why i feel so close to you! I totally agree with you. We have enough rules to follow in our everyday life. Rules are the ennemies of Creativity.
I did understand this 5 years ago and this statement gave me the freedom to do better my job as art director. Once liberated, i feel more efficient !

Tara Dillard said...

Fresh out of college I hated the rules.

25 years later I adore them. Why?

They help me prevent mistakes and allow more freedom & creativity.

It's how & where rules are broken creating the magic. I know going in, Rules Will Be Broken.

Love your post & each of the responses.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

ConsciousGardener said...

I'm all for breaking rules. I do think that path is well within the 4 foot rule though...considering stride. Beautiful usual.

danger garden said...

Great post Michelle, and I love reading the insightful comments!

Phrago said...

Hello, I don't think of sayings like: "planting in drifts of 3-5" or "tall plants should go in back" as rules, but merely suggestions or shared thoughts which have some merit but generally are unnessecary processes which do more to restrict your thinking than to aid in the developement of the plan. Good to know as a beginner, best forgotten afterwards. When I look at a landscape and imagine how it should be developed, I look for the rhythm of the space Which I often embrace. Usually, if I spend enough time with the space, it will reveal itself in a logical way. Sometimes however, I prefer to go against the rhythm and push the envelope. Generally I would say that recreating a landscape against the logic of the space is irrational but can be successful providing I completely commit to the developement of the plan. To do this I find I must believe in the process and not be hung up on the details. The one rule I follow is, "Be true to yourself, Believe in your Vision."
Of course you have to work inside the legal restrictions of the building codes, but let that be the foundation of the plan, not the concept. If you need a retainiung wall, make sure it will pass code and actually do the job, but remember that it doesn't have to always be made out of the same materials.
Something I am thinking about lately: Maybe there needs to be a little danger when navagating the completed space. I am often amused when I look at Japanese garden designs, and realize that the rocks or stepping stones ment for crossing from one area of the garden to the other are much higher than what would be practical, requiring the person walking on them to note their positions and pay attention to their feet. Why should garden paths always be designed for the frequently drunk or bored. Like the path that was picture here, you can easily walk it if you are willing to embrace the cadence of the stones. Not all spaces should be for the handicapped, some should be more challenging than the typical wide flat walks and ramps. Before you get all wacko on me, I have a son in a wheelchair and know the politics. But there are mountains to climp and some restrictions that he just will never get passed. DO we all have to be stay on the flat path? I think not... Patrick

Katie said...

I think rules help. My garden is CHAOS because I won't adhere to any rules. Sometimes I wish it were a little more organized.

ScottHokunson said...


Excellent post. I'm glad you chimed. It has turned out to be be an engaging topic, and have thoroughly enjoyed hearing each perspective. An extremely interesting quote from Benjamin, and I very much like your interpretation of it. I'm looking forward to reading more from your blog.


Dave@TheHomeGarden said...

I definitely don't have many rules where it comes to my garden, but then I don't design gardens for a living. What we do in our garden is for our family to fit our needs and what we like. On another note that pathway idea is pure genius! I'm going to have to bookmark this post for the spring and add something similar in the garden!

Phrago said...

Hey Michelle,
A bit off topic: what is truely fabulous about the picture of the path is actually the retaining wall. Absolutely lovely how the stones are presented on point creating a harlequin like diamond pattern. Great stone masionary... Patrick

Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

I embrace your mantra "Rules are the enemy of creativity".

I've enjoyed the responses too. Such a wide variety of perspectives.

Conscious G.,
I love that design by Suzman + Cole too.

VERY insightful perspectives.
" Be true to yourself and Believe in Yourself " - good stuff !

Yes, rules can help in setting up organization but in the realm of design I still think rules can stifle innovation. Guess we all have our own perspectives.

Thanks for broadening the discussion. Through this dialogue I have discovered your blog. Gotta thank Susan for that and this ongoing discussion.

I think that path is just fantastic too.

Yup, that wall is pure art form.

To all,
Thanks for stopping in and leaving your thoughts.

Chad B said...

Like someone else mentioned, I also had a writing professor tell me that you need to know the rules before you can break them.

That same professor also compared the rules of English to a tennis court. The rules are the lines and the net. They are there to provide the necessary structure but there's nothing that says you can't go over the net or play outside the lines.

I imagine that this would translate to landscape design as well.

Thanks for posting this fascinating blog - and sorry for commenting so long after it was posted.