Musings of a landscape designer: does design matter?

All good design matters. It is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it can become difficult to pin it down, but let’s have a go at being more objective about it.

Humans are designed to change their environment. It is written in our DNA. People do not have large, scary teeth and claws, imposing physical stature, poison jaws, intrinsic camouflage ability, and are not particularly fleet of foot. These are all attributes that assist a species from being on the menu for some other creature higher up the food chain. Instead, we have flexible brains, complex language, and opposable thumbs – which we employ on an individual or collective basis to bring order and control over wild nature, to keep us safe and to prevent us becoming ‘dinner’.


We are also intrinsically geared to respond to rhythm. Repeated rhythm makes patterns. Thus we are aware of the rhythm of the seasons, easily adapt to a daily routine, and in fact, thrive when there is a measure of predictable order and control in our lives. We scan the environment to subconsciously collect data that fits into our known world view but have difficulty placing data that does not fit. Sometimes the consequent psychological dissonance is so bad we reject the data before we reject our world view!  Known boundaries, rhythm and patterns make it easier for us to assess the risks and reduce the number of choices that have to be made. Psychologists will tell you that choosing, especially when the outcome is unknowable, is stressful, so reducing the number of choices that one has to make in a fast-paced modern world can be beneficial, even restful. Pattern breeds coherence. Lack of coherence creates chaos.


Pattern is not only about rhythms in time, but the daily life of individuals in a society, located in a physical environment. Daily life also automatically weaves new patterns around time, colour, taste, textures and smells. They take on a nuanced cultural identity. You will notice that the skylines of Middle Eastern communities are dominated by curvilinear minarets and domes of mosques. This informs a design motif, or pattern, that we place as Persian in context, the roots of which are deeply embedded in the Islamic faith. European rooves, in contrast, are often steeply pitched to shed snow. People who grow up in these regions are more comfortable with angles and sharp geometry and this translates into a design language generally favoured by people from more liberal cultures. However, unrelieved pattern, like unrelenting routine, dulls the senses into complacency. It seems we need a measure of danger, an occasional squirt of adrenaline, to keep us mentally alert. In a pattern, we recognise this as a change in rhythm or order, not enough to create chaos, but enough to keep us stimulated. It’s like going on holiday – a change of scenery, or a change in the routine, makes it all the more delightful. 

Good Design

Good design is purposeful. It marries function with coherence and offers a refreshing break from the pedestrian. Visually, it also recognises ‘cultural design’ surrounding individuals with the ‘patterns’ that have a sense of familiarity. In doing so, it creates a less stressful and more comforting environment. Yes, good design matters, because it makes us feel better. It engages our senses, keeps us alert and comfortable in equal measure. These are the hallmarks that keep people at their most productive. That is why it matters. That is why good design has value.

What does all of this have to do with landscape designers?

Gardeners are very special people. Blessed with green fingers and an abundance of patience, with time and energy they can transform a site into their Eden, experimenting and changing as the mood moves them. This is their ‘bliss’, and in satisfying it they do their small bit to take care of the planet whilst bringing a measure of order and control to their environment. Not all people have green fingers, design expertise, or heaps of patience to work at a slow transformation. Some people don’t even know where to start. Without these qualities, it can in fact become a frustrating exercise. Expensive mistakes get made, such as buying plants that turn out to be uncooperative and refuse to thrive, pavers that are heavy and cumbersome to place in the first instance, and then end up being badly placed because ‘need’ was considered without design coherence. And still, the property that one has already invested in heavily does not satisfy. One looks around and is frustrated that the effort and expense already spent is not translating into the quiet satisfaction that any well-designed space provides. It rubs at the edges of our mind because we are subconsciously geared to respond to rhythm and pattern and coherence. Nor does it draw one out to enjoy the full extent of the property.  

Having a well-designed plan, undertaken by professional designers, who are keenly aware of uniquely South African elements that impact the landscape, such as our strong light, our local flavour and colour, and use it to advantage, cuts through all the wasted time and expense used in ‘making it up as you go’.  It focuses energy, budgets and roll-out. In the end, it saves time and sets one up for successful execution. 

That is why it matters, that is why it has value; and that is why it’s worth partnering with professionals for what one might arguably consider to be your most valuable asset: your property. 

Illustrations by Luc van der Walt at  |


Contours Design Studio is giving away a landscape design plan valued at R20 000. Enter the competition at the official competition page.

Lucy Schnell is a Landscape Designer and blogger for Contours Design Studio.
N.D. Landscape Technology SACLAP registered Pr LM

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