Whether we think of them this way or not, watershape and landscape designs have the ability to create emotional responses among our clients.
In that sense, we’re actually in the business of provoking those feelings. When we do things right, the conjurings are positive and are at their best when we successfully forge links to our clients’ treasured experiences. If we miss the mark by not properly considering our work’s emotional impact, however, the results are discordant and somehow unsettling.
I think I’ve always known all of this on an intuitive level, but I’d never truly organized my thinking along those lines – not until, that is, I picked up a copy of The Inward Garden by Julie Moir Messervy (Little, Brown & Co., 1995). In more than 250 beautifully illustrated pages, Messervy focuses her attention on how we, as designers, can (and deliberately should) do our best to maximize positive emotional impact.
She uses her own projects to illustrate what she means by this, and the first impression I drew is that she’s truly a gifted designer with an amazing range in terms of style and scale. It’s obvious that she’s studied a variety of design traditions and has focused extensively on the nuances of Japanese gardening, which she cites as the primary inspiration for her emotion-generating approach.
It’s no surprise that her process begins with homeowners, with whom she spends quality time figuring out which design elements are most likely to conjure feelings in them. As she points out, this is a complex exercise because you have to begin by understanding that any particular one of the elements with which you yourself are familiar will evoke different feelings in different people. The key, she explains, is to ferret out which pieces of the puzzle have the greatest positive influence with each person. (Now I see why she operates across such a diverse range of styles!)
Centermost, she says, is the need to learn as much as possible about clients’ most inspiring childhood experiences as a foundation for moving on to explore their adult experiences. As she accurately points out, most people have warm, early memories of time spent in nature, and the exterior designer’s job is to capitalize on those points and the sense of excitement, wonder, comfort, safety, risk or tranquility they bring to the surface. Next, you select details in the design that embody those positive associations.
To speed the exploratory process for others, she offers an organizational tool in the form of seven categories of natural settings (sea, cave, harbor, promontory, island, mountain and sky) and then defines design elements that align with each.
These are not literal classifications, of course. In discussing harbors, for example, she describes spaces that provide a view in one direction with a sense of shelter and safety in the opposite direction – something as simple, say, as a bench backed by a planted wall and overlooking some sort of view, be it intimate or vast. A cave, by contrast, is a place that feels completely enclosed, secure and private in all directions.
Messervy is also a masterful watershaper, using water for reflections, sounds and sensations of motion while also exploiting its ability to create and lend interest to destinations.
I found Messervy’s approach to be fascinating, insightful and, ultimately, extremely useful. The text is aimed primarily at homeowners rather than designers, but the methodology she defines is clearly beneficial to both sides and, I think, is particularly valuable on ours. If nothing else, the book can be used as a professional’s guide to the design process – and especially to client discussions.
If you’re looking for a resource that will inspire you to look at the design process with fresh eyes (and, I dare say, a more open heart), this is a great place to start.
Mike Farley is a landscape architect with more than 20 years of experience and is currently a designer/project manager for Claffey Pools in Southlake, Texas. A graduate of Genesis 3’s Level I Design School, he holds a degree in landscape architecture from Texas Tech University and has worked as a watershaper in both California and Texas.