Design With Style

Recently I was asked to stand up and describe my design style to an attentive, eager group of (very) young professionals. In so doing -- and never being one to shy away from a speaking opportunity -- the first thing out of my mouth was "Oh my!"

What's your design style?

Admittedly, I was a bit stumped.

Standing in front of this group, I had one hand in my front pocket (perhaps subconsciously reaching for a coin to flip) and the other squeezing my forehead as I collected my thoughts.

I had to go back to the days of floppy disk drives to recall the last time that question had been asked of me. I realized then that my design style has been as much evolutionary as it has become adaptive.

We all learned design styles in college, through all those history classes and required textbook readings. Our design styles have also been influenced by professional mentors and projects that have struck a chord (and caused a photograph) with our liking.

OK...back to the original question: What really is my design style?

Personally, I much prefer the free-flowing, curvilinear design approach -- sometimes to a fault. I have been known to force the concept to the point of imposition and distraction. It is then that my able colleagues smack me up side of the head and say: "Come on, Timbo, you can do better than that."

You know, one should never become too old or experienced to not take a rappin' on the noggin every once in a while.

But let's take the academics out of design styles for a brief blog minute.

In a long career, these other "styles" of project design have seen my exercise over the years:

1. "Business Design"

For landscape architects, this can be ornery and restrictive at times. We are often tasked to design on a dime, and with a project deadline wreaking havoc on our professional and personal time management. Design decisions are seemingly based solely on economics, production, and construction efficiencies. That's not to say it is the right way of going about it, nor OK to do so, but it is an unfortunate reality in the impatient world of business and development.

2. "Crisis Design"

This really is self-explanatory to most of us. It is the style that involves last-minute workings of design and construction documents because, don't you know, landscape architects are always the last to get the base files from the architects and engineers. And the project deadlines certainly don't bump a few days for our benefit. Crisis Design can also be that "will this fix it?" request sketch done on-site, on the back of a utility bill envelope, in reaction to an unanticipated surface drainage, exposure, or maintenance design issue...after the fact (construction).

3. "Blue Collar Design"

This "git-er-done" style is often applied when projects have little opportunity to showcase creativity. Perhaps it is the owner's budget, a physical site constraint, or another professional's design reaction to a project need that limits our creative use of bum-wad and markers, two-minute thumbnail perspective sketches, and inspirational site visits when designing the landscape of a project. These projects can also be known as "Code Compliant Design". And it is these projects that challenge our creativity to the max (or not at all).

4. "Engineered Design"

This style can sometimes be synonymous with ""Blue Collar Design". This is a design result when we are given a fixed, non-flexible site plan and told "no changes" and to "design accordingly". Other times this style is applicable are when the operational and functional needs of engineering dictate the landscape design. "Engineered" soils for rain gardens and bio-retention basins come to mind, for example.

5. "Directional Design"

It is this style that has me bummed out lately. It is something being experienced more frequently in the project design environment. The project design is generated without having been included in design team meetings and collective decision-making. Project design direction may be doled out by the project manager via email, phone, meeting minutes, or an "oh-by-the-way" comment when passing each other in the break room. This style does little justice to fully capturing project opportunities or potential.

All these design style scenarios are realized in the design profession's world of tightening fee budgets, decision validity, and effort accountability. Landscape architects need to be as flexible in evaluating, designing, applying, convincing, and performing our services at a moment's notice than ever before.

In so being flexible, you may find that project managers are more pressed to resolve other project issues. They may be reluctant for some reason to give the plant-hugging, people-space seeking, explainer-with-sketches, talker-with-hands landscape architect valuable time in front of those that might just be inquisitive enough, and willing to ask, "Hey, Timbo, what is your design style going to be for this project?"

"Oh, my! You caught me off guard. If I could have just a minute..."

So what's your style? Do you have (a) style?

This should be a wonderful get-yourself-out-of-doors spring weekend to give it some thought. Let me know. And by all means, don't be caught fumbling for pocket change and squeezing your forehead.

Tim May is a professional landscape architect and LEED AP for TNP in Forth Worth, Texas. He can be reached via email at or by twitter at @TMay82