Why Good Designers Need To Be Good Problem-Solvers Too

Behind every good garden designer you will find – a problem-solver extraordinaire because no design, whether you’re creating a sculpture, a piece of furniture or a beautiful garden will work unless you crack the challenges the project presents.

As the great 20th Century American landscaper once stated: Function Follows Form which, for the designer, means an alchemy of science, common sense and artistic flair or, if you like, a kind of “magical marriage” that needs to take place.

When we teach garden design, we introduce two entirely polar approaches to designing space which is often a difficult concept for students to grasp. You have a given site, which is a given shape and a building (the house or the office if you are landscaping a different kind of project) and your job, as the designer, is the blend the architecture with biology.

This is no mean feat, especially when dealing with smaller spaces and at the same time you are considering the functional or logical organisation of the space you are also working with the artistic element that will appear to effortlessly blend the building with the land.

The first of our two design approaches is what we call Pattern Analysis Design (PAD). Faced with a site plan, the designer creates an interlocking pattern as they design the garden and then allocate different materials – grass, water, paving, planting for example, to each space. This is the design method favoured by the brilliant British designer, John Brookes OBE, but is sadly often very misunderstood.

The second design approach is Survey Analysis Design (SAD) which, as its acronym implies and without the introduction of Pattern Analysis Design as well, can often lead to, literally, very sad, uninspired designs. With the SAD approach, the designer is looking purely at the functional side of how space is allocated and placing the key elements – the terrace, the garage, the vegetable garden – before considering the overall design of the plot.

The fact is, you need to be able to combine both these approaches to design a space that really resonates with its environment and to do that, you need to understand how people behave in a particular space and keep that in mind as you design.

One of the best examples of this is to think about what people do when they walk up to your front door and ring the bell. They ring the bell and they then step back away from the door. What that means, for the designer, is that the area around the front door is a key space which needs sufficient paving to allow someone to step back but still remain in the door “zone.”

A narrow pathway leading to that front door will force visitors to march along, crocodile style and the person who opens the door will not be able to see everyone who is approaching. Similarly, a path to the bench at the bottom of the garden needs to be at least 1.5m wide to allow two people to walk comfortable alongside each other.

So a huge part of good design requires an understanding and appreciation of ergonomics and the psychology of how people use space. Without this, no design, however impressive on paper, is going to work for the people using that space and without this understanding, no design will work properly.
Introducing The New Student Showcase

When we first had the idea of introducing a new ex-student showcase to our website, we had no idea we would be quite so spoiled for choice with a long list of Oxford College of Garden Design postgraduates who have, often very quickly, gone on to stamp their individual marks on the world of international garden design.

What we realised, as we started to invite our former students to feature in our showcase which goes live later this year, is that we really can boast an amazing and long - 17 years since we first started our postgraduate diploma course in residential landscape architecture - track record of training some of the best-known landscape designers anywhere in the world.

When I started the course, all those years ago, I wanted to do two things; give something back to the world of garden design and share my passion for good design with others but I had no real idea, back then, many of our 300 or so Alumni would be among the next generation of top designers.

Interestingly, the very word Alumni comes from the Latin alere which means to nourish and nourishing raw talent among our students is one of the most exciting aspects of teaching our garden design course which has been described by our industry as probably the most prestigious course of its kind, anywhere in the world.

The new student showcase will launch with the work and urban design philosophy of London-based designer, Charlotte Rowe ( who you will know, if you ever have the pleasure of meeting her, is a one-woman force of nature.

After a long and high profile career in public relations, Charlotte joined our course in September 2003 and within a year was featured in a Channel 4 programme on mid-career switches across a range of different professions. Never one to let the grass grow under her feet, Charlotte capitalised on this exposure and her designs were soon being featured in both the specialist garden press and mainstream magazine supplements.

Today, just 5 years after she walked away with her postgraduate diploma in Residential Landscape Architecture, Charlotte can name her price and pick and choose her projects, both at home and overseas.

Other alumni who have achieved a similar high profile alongside respect from their peers include Sarah Price who studied fine art before joining our course and who, after winning three RHS medals during her rapid rise to the top, has just landed the prestigious honour of designing the Olympic botanical garden for the 2012 games.

I have always maintained that once trained, our students need to work as designers for between three and five years before they finally find their own style and way of interpreting the design ethos we have taught them. Just as a writer must find their own “voice”, a designer needs to find that special something that makes their work unique and it is seeing the early emergence of this magic ingredient in our student designers that gives me a real buzz every time I walk into the classroom at the start of our academic year.