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What Is a Designer?

By Paolo Benedetti

12-7 benedetti picWhen people talk about pools these days and have something ambitious in mind, many of the conversations focus on vanishing edges, perimeter overflows, infinity edges, knife edges, wet decks, disappearing edges and whatever other terms one might use in describing water-in-transit effects.

In lots of these cases, if not most, these discussions are misdirected: Just because a view overlooks water, a canyon or some other presentable feature does not automatically mean that the aquatic design should include a special effect. In many instances, that would be exactly the wrong way to go.

Part of the problem here is that the pool industry is overpopulated with self-proclaimed “designers,” very few of whom possess the actual ability to design. And if you have any doubts about that, ask yourself this question: When you see photographs of swimming pools, how often is the residence or the essence of the surrounding environment included in the frame?

Points of View

That’s not a trick question. In fact, I would argue that when the buildings and surroundings are shown in such images, you quickly sense that something is amiss and that the total scene just doesn’t look right. Most people will never be able to identify exactly what is wrong with these scenes, but they get a sense of uneasiness just the same.

The plain fact is that anything can be built anywhere, but that a talented designer will be the one who makes everything work together and every detail of a project seem as though it belongs.

And this isn’t only about education. Just having a degree in architecture, landscape architecture or some another design field does not instantly qualify anyone as a designer. Indeed, I’ve encountered people in those fields who are utterly devoid of creativity and design ability. Yes, they’ve been to school and have an academic understanding of color, line, contrast, texture and spatial relationships, but that still doesn’t automatically entitle them to call themselves designers.

So the situation is this: While there are hundreds of thousands of people who design our products, buildings and landscapes, only a handful of them are true masters of their craft who possess a manifest ability to design. And this is as much the case in the watershaping trades as it is in the general design population: Although there are many who sell, draw or build swimming pools, there are very few who possess the actual ability to design.

Shades of Distinction

These days, anyone can use tracing templates or computer software to create a layout for a backyard or site. But those who do so are limited by the collection of templates or the software, and nobody who uses such an approach considers all of the points that go into developing a good, effective design.

>> The design should, for example, consider how long the clients are likely to own the property and how their lifestyles may change or evolve during that period. This is a separate topic unto itself; suffice it to say here that even though this isn’t an aesthetic factor, it is a critical driver of an appropriate, satisfying design.

>> The design should take clients’ initial desires with grains of salt. Just because they might want a particular feature (such as a big rock waterfall), that may not be right for the site, and a good designer will be able to carry the conversation on to more appropriate solutions.

>> The design should be suited to the architecture of the house. I often wince when encountering Polynesian lagoons outside Cape Cod-style residences; amorphic freeform pools next to Modernist, rectilinear houses; and angular, multilevel Contemporary pools in the yards of Ranch-style haciendas. These contrasts are jarring even if you lack the vocabulary to describe the problem!

>> The design should position the pool where it belongs in the setting. If you need to provide access to certain views, or by contrast, to block them, that must be taken into account. If privacy from the uphill neighbor is an issue, that must be considered. And if there are prevailing winds or excessive sun exposures that come into play, those must be dealt with as well — along with a host of other positioning-related factors, many of them unrelated to aesthetics.

As a true designer rolls through these issues, he or she is instinctively aware that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. Sure, you can place fire features on a pool’s edge, but that doesn’t make it right. And just because you can include a waterfall as part of the project doesn’t mean you should. The same goes for vanishing edges, perimeter overflows, leaping jets and a thousand other options: Everything has to work together or the design falls apart.

Bottom Lines

Ultimately, good design isn’t about what is right for the builder’s wallet. Nor will it always be about what clients initially want, because so many times they are unaware of their options.

Instead, design is all about what works for the site, given parameters negotiated with the clients. And on that latter point, the designer must recognize that there are always creative solutions that deal with a property owner’s questionable taste: The professional who is confident in his or her design ability will be strong enough to offer creative solutions and counter undisciplined ideas.

As a final note, I would argue that to design something, the designer must also know, perhaps intimately, how to build and bring ideas to fruition. If you lack that skill and experience, your only choice is to park your ego and hire someone who can consult with you to pull it all together. In other words, to conceive it, you first must know how to build it right.

In design, as with so many other things in life, it would be wonderful if everyone knew, accepted and played by a defined set of rules that outlined functions and ensured performance. Unfortunately, that’s not the way life is in the world of watershaping, so all we can do is find ways to get positive messages about the process of design and construction across to property owners and hope they sink in.
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Paolo Benedetti is principal at Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa, a design/build firm based in Morgan Hill, Calif. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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