Landscape Design is Experience Design

I’ve recently had cause to explain to more than a few people why I decided to study landscape architecture. Most people have no clue what landscape architecture actually is, (is that, like, landscaping? Like backyards and stuff?) and what you actually do with it.

What We Learn
In school I learned about plants and planting design, but the smallest scale I ever worked at was a small urban park in my first semester–and then we never looked back. I learned how to do large-scale mapping and visualization, including using GIS (a ridiculously powerful spatial mapping and analysis program,) learned 3D design and rendering programs, and even a few programming-like tools such as Grasshopper, a ” graphical algorithm editor” that integrates with 3D modeling. (Yes, it will blow your mind.) I learned about some of the complex technical details that allow us to create ecological and infrastructural systems in our environments–from constructed wetlands that can clean toxins, to the newfangled engineered soil mixes that help urban street trees survive in the ‘wild wild west’ of our hyper-engineered cities.

And….Not in the Curriculum
I was lucky to be at Harvard for my masters, because I made sure to wander out of the design school and check out the offerings of the other schools. I found my way to a class that was incredibly formative for me, taught by Dr. Beth Altringer who is part of the innovation effort within Harvard’s engineering school.

In her classes I was introduced to the concept of “human-centered” design. HCD is a bundle of design methodologies that include user-centered observation and ethnography as a source of design insight, and an iterative, rapid prototyping process. (For a great resource on HCD look at IDEO’s HCD toolkit.) While qualitative interviewing is usually a cornerstone of HCD research, researchers will often observe users using a certain product or having a certain experience that the designers are trying to improve on, getting a sense of the larger context of that product and experience.

Landscapes as Systems
I chose landscape architecture because I was attracted to its focus on systems thinking–while a product or building can be viewed as an object or a system, it’s much harder to think of a landscape as a discrete object. And because it’s hard to see where a landscape starts and where it leaves off, there are major limits to ‘full control’ of your system–seeing your work as part of its context is unavoidable.

That context is also not just spatial, but temporal. A landscape is a sequence of moments a user experiences. You don’t have full control over the order, but you do have control over the adjacencies.

Walden Pond: Cultural, Spatial, Ecological System
In my last year of school I was in a studio on Walden Pond–my favorite studio of my my whole program. The mandate of the studio was so very cool: To use Walden and Thoreau’s writings to investigate changing notions of the concept of ‘nature.’ On that theme, we were to propose a landscape design for a capped landfill, as our ‘Parallel Walden’ just across the street from the famous pond.

Immersed in my introduction to human-centered design at the time, I started my design process with interviews with people–from friends to randoms off the street–about what ‘nature’ meant to them. When I came into studio with interview takeaways, my studio critic didn’t seem too pleased, perhaps it wasn’t an ‘artistic’ enough start, but hey, process isn’t always pretty, and the exercise focused my attention on the classic American experience of camping.

Walden Filmstrip
Click image to view larger.

One of my core project drawings–a 24 hour ‘filmstrip’ view of a potential user’s trip to Walden was a a new drawing type for me. Inspired by a friend’s suggestion and my exposure to the HCD process, I decided to frame my project, which was a uniquely ecologically managed campsite, as a new part of the classic Walden visit.

This drawing became one of the core arguments of my project: Normally a visit to Walden means a jaunt around the pond, with the requisite stop to the Thoreau cabin replica and a gift shop visit. This drawing argued for an expanded experience, including images of the campsite topography which facilitated other forms of outdoor recreation, the nighttime campsite experience, and the outdoor shower I was proposing in my design.

Bookending my proposal was the full experience of the visitor–from deciding to get on the road to Walden, to savoring the memories of the trip. I was thinking about a Walden visitor’s experience in its larger logistical and cultural context.

What I really created was a storyboard. Storyboards are used by writers and film producers, but they are also used by user experience designers. They are used by some spatial designers (see Northeastern’s healthcare studio research) but they should be used by them more often.

I chose landscape architecture because I was attracted to systems, not objects. Those systems are not just physical, they’re also psychological and cultural. A visitor comes to your space not only through its spatial context, but with cultural context and expectations. That system you’re designing is not just in space, but it is part of the system of someone’s life, of their existing perceptions and frameworks. You have very limited control over that system… but you know what? That’s part of what makes it beautiful.

Want to view the rest of my Walden Pond project? Click here.

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