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Powers of Observation

10-year logoBy Stephanie Rose

‘Science tells us that the human eye can see about seven million colors and that our minds instinctively perceive depth and dimension.  This visual capacity,’ noted Stephanie Rose at the outset of her Natural Companions column in April 2006, ‘enables most of us to move around without bumping into things, some of us to swing at and somehow hit a golf ball and, in the case of a beautiful garden (we can hope), all of us sense pleasure and maybe a bit of serenity.

‘In contrast to these casual observers, we as designers must understand the nature of visual observation in a more sophisticated and deliberate way.’  She continued:

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‘Through the years, clients and friends have asked me how I developed my design skills.  I usually start by admitting that I have a great memory for the botanical names of plants and how they look and work in gardens and mention that I have reasonably strong drawing skills, all of which they understand immediately.  They also get the fact that, as with any set of skills or form of professional acumen, years of practice simply make some things start to come naturally.’

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‘What hasn’t come naturally . . . has been my ability to see things in a particular way that enables me to dissect various portions of a visual plane, for example, or take any number of selections from a large palette of plants or hardscape elements and assemble them as visually balanced designs that appeal both to me and my clients.  These skills, I explain, are learned over time and are constantly challenged and honed by looking at environments through a trained designer’s eyes.’  

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‘[L]andscapes are incredibly dynamic canvases:  They constantly change with the time of day and year, so a garden in summer that is awash with color, flowers, insects and other creatures will settle into dormancy, lose its vibrant colors and surrender much of its visual appeal during the winter.  The following summer, that same garden will be different than it was the year before – perhaps a plant will have died over the winter, or maybe something was added in the spring or grew to change the overall visual plane and our perception of the space.’

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‘For their part, most people outside the exterior design professions (including most of our clients, unfortunately) will tend to see a garden the same way every year.  As designers, we don’t have that luxury of allowing ourselves to relax and simply live with any landscape:  Instead, it’s our job to observe and anticipate changes and respond to them either by incorporating what we see into our design work or, in the case of a completed garden, by helping a client to understand what they need to do to maintain the visual balance we originally defined.’

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‘The most important thing to understand here is that to develop the observational skills needed to see things in this deliberate way, we need to get down to basics and begin by looking differently at simple objects.’  

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‘[T]raining your eyes to see things in this deliberate way won’t lead you immediately to churning out incredible, never-yet-imagined designs, [but] by changing your thought patterns in these perceptual areas you will begin to incorporate your new observational skills into your everyday life and understand how it begins to train your eye as a designer.’

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‘For watershapers, these same skills can be applied to the surface of the water, the structures that contain it and its immediate surroundings.  They can guide you in placing watershapes in landscapes by helping you see shadows and light in new ways and will inform your decisions about whether to go with shadow-rich cantilevered coping instead of shadow-defeating perimeter-overflow approaches.  It really doesn’t matter what type of design we’re talking about:  These skills translate to just about everything we do or can do.’

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‘Clients all want to know that you’re a good designer, but more than that, they want to see it in practice and feel confident during the design process that they’ve made the right choice.  It boosts your credibility to demonstrate your observational skills in the way you describe design elements and how they will harmonize and balance better in the landscape; it also helps to be able to show directly how these ideas have been put to work in a nearby setting.’

‘Ultimately,’ Stephanie concluded, ‘it’s part of being a designer rather than just saying or thinking you’re one.’

How do you look at yourself as a designer?  Is it a matter of aptitude and talent, or are there elements of hard work, deliberate exploration, education and years of practice involved?  Please shed light on your own sense of the ‘making of a designer’ by sharing your thoughts below!

 

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine.  She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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