How to Design a Garden or a Product

Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto

In November I visited Japan. What struck me about Japan is the way places are curated and designed. It wasn’t the intentional design of the cities that stood out to me, it was the seemingly overgrown and weathered feeling of the gardens. While I wandered through masses of tourists at Kinkaku-ji (pictured above) I found myself thinking not about the golden pavillion, but about the picturesque nature surrounding it. This “garden” felt less like the Western gardens I am familiar with, and more like a beautiful scene one might stumble across if they were wandering through a fantasy landscape. I did not know the particulars of the art of Japanese garden design, but I found myself thinking intently about what it means to design something with harmony.

When I thought about the landscape of the garden I noticed there were fewer plants in the garden than would grow naturally. Some shrubs sprouted here and there, but certainly not the undergrowth one would expect from such a location.

There is an obvious revelation here: people take care of the garden.

However there are qualities of this pond that are irregular. The edge of the pond is poorly defined, plants and trees hang over the water, rocks jut out, and reeds grow. These qualities occur naturally, but since this garden is taken care of the curators of this space chose to leave in these details.

And that is what so impressed me about Japan’s approach to design: they curate and cultivate what is naturally there.

Rather than fight the forces of the world, they embrace it. To design a garden such as this the designers must select which beautiful elements to preserve. This requires humility: instead of creating a design of one’s own creation a design can be elucidated by finding beauty in something that already contains it.

In the West design is often the process of creating something from nothing. A good Western design is one where time was given to make as many decisions as possible. A Western park or garden may have carefully placed benches, a pond with a well defined edge, and drinking fountains placed periodically. This process can attain beautiful results, but it is rigid.

When a designer has many decisions to make they must consider the interrelationship of their many choices. Reconciling different design decisions is the hard part of design. Should this menu have fewer buttons and look simpler and elegant, or should it have more buttons so that actions are more discoverable and accessible? As more choices are made it becomes increasingly difficult to stay tuned into how the relationship between the many parts creates the feeling of the whole.

In Western parks it is difficult to imagine how gracefully they will age. Will part of the pond bank collapse and ruin the well defined edge? The Japanese garden curates the signs of age that are already there, and the age becomes part of the appeal.

And that is the beauty of the Japanese garden. By selecting what already ‘works’, what is already beautiful, the designer selects qualities which already are part of a sophisticated system of choices made naturally. Instead of creating design from a series of brittle assumptions design becomes a curative process of choosing what works and changing what does not.

When creating a new product one can attempt to look at how the problem is presently solved and imagine a ‘curation’ of that process rather than an entirely new solution altogether. The best systems are an evolution of what already makes sense. They work with what already exists rather than fighting it.

A few examples:

2001 iMac G3. Designed by Jony Ive. Image Credit: Carl Berkeley

When compared to other computers of its time the iMac G3 is beautiful. Desktop computers were boxy shapes with strange curves in seemingly arbitrary places. They fought the form of their components in order to hide them away.

Instead the iMac G3 embraced its bulky cathode ray tube and created a smooth exterior shell that felt like an impressionistic take on the inherent form of its components. Jony Ive’s designs embrace the form of components rather than attempt to mask it behind some other vision. Today as components are increasingly miniturized the connection to what something’s inherent form is becomes more difficult, and you can see this struggle in some of Apple’s modern products.

The Braun SK55 designed by Dieter Rams

Dieter Rams is incredible at embracing the natural beauty of a form. The layout of the components and interface of the SK55 radio and record player create the beauty rather than some attempt to introduce extra curves and frivelous form. This device does not compete for attention unecessarily. The beautiful design of this device is through the alignment of its various parts (the left and right alginment of the speaker grills) and the shared qualities of the materials (the shared black plastic). Looking at the SK55 it is not in conflict with its materials, its environment, or its purpose.

The SK55’s design is still beautiful today because its beauty derives from its relationship to its inherent properties rather than its sculpted form. Elegance and beauty that derive from natural relationships are timeless.

For a closer look at the SK55 Andrew Kim has created a wonderful photo-essay about the product:

When you next find yourself thinking about design consider a curative approach. Look for what works that is already there and embrace it.

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