Successful Scenes: Please Define “Good Design”

By Elinor Bennett Markle

“I don’t know much about landscape design, but I know what I like,” says the client. I hope that his next words will communicate to me his sense of aesthetics, so that I too, may understand what he likes. The client is the cause of the project; it is his program, or goals for the project, his budget and his aesthetic taste that rule the final work. Budgets often wax and wane depending on the amount of satisfaction he anticipates from the final project. As the designer, I am responsible for creating a scene that the client will like, and one that I know is a good design.

What, you might ask, is “a good design”?

A good design creates a plan that is used to implement a landscape that makes sense to us visually. It is the purposeful, not random, arrangement of landscape features and elements to create a space, and view, that holds our interest and appeals to our instinctive sense of proportion and scale. People will be emotionally attracted to, and feel good about, viewing or being in the space. Such a landscape starts with a plan that causes an interaction of all the features within the space to relate functionally and aesthetically to one another.

The designer must have skill for observation of the site’s physical constraints and opportunities, as well as off-site features, such as utilities, adjoining buildings and service areas. He or she must understand the site well with regard to local zoning and construction codes. Further, understanding the importance of site drainage patterns and problems is basic to achieving a functional design, and can help us design aesthetically, too. Observing site constraints such as excessive flatness or slope or too little direct sun before committing design to ground makes it easier to create a functional plan that has longevity.

A good design is also the result of the designer applying his or her understanding of functional requirements for the project area, and understanding the functional requirements of plant and hardscape materials. Plants are incredibly complex in their range of sizes, growth habits, bloom periods, and conflicting root zones, as well as preferred microclimates, soils, and water and sun conditions. We use that knowledge to choose plant combinations that are likely to thrive on the chosen site. A designer should also be able to explain short- and long-term maintenance procedures for plants and hardscapes, to the client.

Hardscapes have their own bag of tricks for use, installation and maintenance, and new products continue to appear on the market for our use. Of all elements within a landscape, pavers, arbors, pergolas, fencing, lighting, retaining walls and water features are the most expensive. They tell the age of a project when trendy materials are used, and client satisfaction with the entire project can decrease over time. On the good side of that, you may get a call to come back ten years down the road to renovate the entire landscape!

A good design will show inclusion of aesthetic principals and skill in combining all these understandings and knowledge. It is usually easier for the client to explain his planned social activities for the space than his taste in aesthetics. Personal taste often seems impossible to learn through conversation. You may have to discuss the client’s home or office surroundings to get a grip on what he likes. In addition, you need to have the patience required to involve the client in an interactive review, possibly resulting in an adjustment of the arrangement of materials, all while maintaining physical function and aesthetic balance, unity, and rhythm in the design.

Achieving balance may be complex. Not all sites or clients lend themselves to using symmetry as a means to create balance in the design, and not all clients prefer it. The masses of plants or hardscape materials we place on the site relate dynamically to the areas of “emptiness,” such as the voids of lawn, walkways, pool and patios. Each mass and void will be seen from limitless vantage points. Does each view show an appealing sense of balance?

Good design strives for continuity or unity. Although variety of materials is valuable in the landscape, too many different plants or types of hardscape in a small area can cause a chaotic and tiresome effect. Use specimens carefully, giving them a definite space within a mass of single species and room to be at center stage, rather than making them serve as one ring of a three-ring circus. Tie the space together with carefully thought out planting bed lines and avoid using shallow, gratuitous curves in bed or wall lines. Repeat plant and hardscape materials throughout the space rather than collecting one of every kind of plant that the client professes to like. For example, use one type of stone for creating retaining walls or one for plant bed edges throughout the design, rather than several, just to create variety.

Rhythm gives us comfort, a predictable pattern that we anticipate and appreciate. A common means of exhibiting rhythm in a landscape design is the use of trees to line a driveway or street. There is a soothing cadence when moving through this space caused by passing the trunks of trees spaced equidistant along the way. Subtle ways of introducing rhythm into a space include methodical spacing of columns in walls, repetition of bands or blocks of contrasting paving materials and repeating the number of risers (steps) in walkways.

Inclusion of these aesthetic tenets makes the magic. Artistic appeal, ever so subtle and indefinable gives emotional satisfaction to the functional objectives established at the beginning of the project. The finished project complements the site and the neighborhood in which it is installed. The whole composition looks “good” and your client says, “I don’t know much about landscape design, but I like it.”


Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at

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