The Landscape Guide

Twelve things to try if you get stuck with a design

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Getting stuck is a very common experience for the designer. It can be distressing, frustrating and depressing too. When it happens, the worst course of action is to sit worrying at the same sheet of ever-messier paper. Here are a few alternative courses of action:

1. Turn the plan upside down, pin it to the wall and look at it from the back of the room. This famous technique helps you to see the design in abstract terms. You might also apply bright colours, and convert the plan to a poster, for the same purpose.
2. Switch to a different drawing. If you have been worrying a 1:500 marker pen plan, the different drawing could be: neater; messier; more coloured; more diagrammatic; at a different scale; a cross-section; an axonometric; a perspective; a word plan; a painting; a soft-pencil drawing; a hard-pencil drawing; a computer drawing; an image sheet. Alternating between drawing types (e.g. soft pencil and hard pencil) is very productive. Soft pencils are more liberating than hard pencils; graphite sticks and graphite lumps set you freer still.
3. Use light upon dark. If you want a really fresh approach, draw with light on dark: white chalk on black paper or yellow ochre on brown paper. Draw the spaces you wish to create before thinking about the enclosing elements. As space is void, it is better represented by light on dark. On a white background, the water-colourist needs to decide where the highlights go first; the oil-colourist puts the highlights in last; spatial design is more like water-colour painting. Wax-resist can also be used to draw highlights onto white paper.
4. Use process instead of product. Natural landscapes are created by interactions between the forces of nature. These processes can be simulated with smoke, sand, water, bubbles, frost and such like. Take photographs of the simulations. Put them to work.
5. Start from a different base. Most of us design on a published map base. These maps were always made for a special purpose, not a general purpose. If your site is vegetated, try designing on a landscape ecology map, showing habitat patterns, soil patterns, hydrology patterns and relief patterns. Or design on aerial photographs, instead of plans. Computers have the potential to churn out different base maps for different purposes.
6. Stop drawing and make a model. It needs to be a design model, of course, rather than a presentation model, but models can release you from the stultifying constraints of the "design-by-drawing' procedure. Computer models can be the stuff of dreams.
7. Take Repton's advice. He advised that "The plan should be made not only to fit the spot, it ought actually to be made upon the spot'. This is splendid advice. Obtain an A4 version of your base plan, take it to the site and stay there until you have good ideas. If you had some ideas before reaching the site, try pacing them out on the ground. If you arrived with a plan but no sketches, do sketches on site. In the best Reptonian tradition, you should overlay a sketch of the existing site with a "flap' showing your proposals (Figure 12). The studio equivalent of this procedure is designing on tracing paper over elevational photographs, or on a photograph that has been scanned into a computer.
8. Take Jellicoe's advice. When having difficulty with a design, he often sat thinking about it while looking through books of paintings, or even when watching television. Visual images help in making unexpected connections. Amongst Jellicoe's favourites are Klee, Kandinsky and Nicholson. They need not be your choice.
9. Take Mies van der Rohe's advice. He observed that "God is in the details'. To find your scheme's God, set the plan to one side and switch to working on the details. Plant one good detail, as you would a seed. Help it to grow into a full-blown design.
10. Postcarding. A full-size design plan takes so long to draw that one can easily lose sight of the principles. Try working at postcard size instead (Figure 13). This helps you to be conceptual and diagrammatic. When a design problem has been reduced to its fundamentals, you can produce twelve alternatives in no time at all. Then use the following method to help in choosing between them.
11. Assemble a brainstorming group. Invite some friends; sit them round a table; invite quick-fire comments; record what is said; think about it later. As landscape design is a public art, it is of extreme importance to obtain other people's opinions on your ideas. This will not compromise the originality of your proposals. It is just that people can assist in viewing your scheme from different points of view. If you are working on drawings, opinions will probably have to come from people who can understand drawings. If you are working with a model, ask anyone and everyone. Molière used to read his plays to his cleaning lady. Anything she could not understand, he changed.
12. Soothe the mind by soothing the body. Go for a walk, take a bath, go to bed at noon, go for a train journey, swim, do yoga, lie on the floor, or whatever, while encouraging your mind to keep spinning away at the problem in hand. Design depends on thought. Blank screens, and sheets of paper, are sworn enemies of the imagination. The biographies of creative artists, it has to be admitted, show limited evidence of their hunt for the muse having been assisted by an occasional bottle of wine.