When you experience a well-designed outdoor space, you notice immediately. Whether it be an intricately designed garden or a master planned community, good design can tell a story, evoke emotion, provide direction, and enhance user experience. But where does good design come from? How do you get there? As landscape architects, our process for design always begins with project theming. Depending on the scope of the project, theming can range from developing a simple plant palette to a comprehensive design package including signage, planting, materials, amenities, and more. To begin the theming process, I find it is helpful to get back to basics with my own version of the Five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

WHO are we designing for?
Understanding who is going to visit, experience, or inhabit the project is a great first step. For example, designing a playground for children is going to require a different approach than designing a residential community for active adults. But it is important to go beyond just the demographic; what about these particular end users is unique? What do they care about? What does good design mean to them?

WHAT is the purpose of the space?
Next we need to understand the programmatic requirements of the space. What is intended to take place there? When designing a site, it is important to understand not only the active spaces, but also the passive and ancillary spaces that help support the intended use.

WHEN did something notable happen here?
Research can often be a designer’s greatest weapon. Discovering the history of a site can be fascinating, inspiring, and educational for everyone involved. Oftentimes our goal as designers is to infuse our projects with character that feels genuine, natural, and yet unique at the same time. A modern interpretation of the site’s history can be a great foundation for achieving this goal.

WHERE are we?
Similar to understanding the site’s history is the consideration of its context. What is the character and history of the surrounding community? What changes are on the horizon that might impact future use for the site? What plant materials are regionally appropriate? All of these considerations and more help shape a project that will be contextually appropriate for its surroundings.

WHY will people want to come here?
It is one thing to build a space that meets programmatic requirements; it is another to design a space that is well-utilized and loved by the community it serves. As designers, the intangible “enjoyment factor” begins with understanding the way we want the project to feel to the end user. By identifying “feeling words” for the space – such as energetic, calming, bright, shaded, welcoming, exclusive, inspiring, educational – we can gain inspiration for the subtle design elements that take an outdoor space from good to great.