For too long, garden design has been preoccupied with the designer’s narrative, often neglecting the end user’s experience. In the last decade, this trend, most obviously identified in the RHS Show season, led to a curious neglect in truly considering the people who would inhabit our outdoor spaces. It’s time to shift our perspective and embrace human-centred design principles in garden design, creating more engaging, meaningful experiences. I’ve made no secret to friends and colleagues that I would love to add garden design to my portfolio and bring to it the skills I’ve developed in 25 years of user-centric thinking. So, inspired by examining the work of four of my favourite designers, Annika Zetterman, Dan Pearson Studio, Pollyanna Wilkinson, and Ulf Nordfjell, perhaps I can show you that we can chart a new course in this direction.
First up, Swedish landscape architect Annika Zetterman who designs modern, functional gardens (above) that blend natural elements with contemporary aesthetics. Her work is a prime example of human-centred design, as she focuses on the needs and desires of those who will use the space, demonstrated by her sophisticated integration of functional elements and materiality with a tightly curated palette of planting. Zetterman’s gardens encourage interaction, exploration, and enjoyment, providing accessible pathways, inviting seating areas, and even edible gardens all of which reflect and understand how the landscape and environment evolves with seasonality.
Dan Pearson, a British landscape designer, is celebrated for his complex naturalistic schemes. Yet, the essence of his work lies in its focus on the relationship between people and their environment. Pearson’s gardens promote a deep sense of connection and belonging, as they encourage users to engage with nature. His work, which by the way is mind-boggling complex and exacting the details, is a testament to the importance of working with nature and reflecting a human-centred view of the world, without the need for spurious socio-political narratives.
Pollyanna Wilkinson’s sustainable, wildlife-friendly gardens place the user experience at their heart. Her designs are horticulturally informed, visually stunning while remaining beneficial to the environment and local ecosystems. Wilkinson’s work is in my view to be much admired for its focus on real people’s experiences in domestic settings, sidestepping heavy-handed narratives and catering to and honest, relatable human scale. Her gardens foster intimacy and attentiveness to the people and fauna that interact within the space.
Ulf Nordfjell, another Swedish landscape architect, is renowned for his minimalist, elegant designs. It was Ulf’s work that got me interested in garden design, over and above my previous assumption it was pretty much just ‘picking some plants’. Drawing on Scandinavian traditions, Nordfjell’s work features clean lines, simple geometry, and precisely chosen planting schemes. Despite their often minimalist appearance, his gardens embody human-centred design principles, offering inviting spaces that promote relaxation, contemplation, and connection to the natural world. Nordfjell’s work frequently includes larger structures and perhaps a little more sculpture in them, but in all cases these are complementary rather than incongruous statements.
These four designers, although wildly different in their execution, demonstrate how human-centred design can revitalise contemporary garden design. By shifting the focus from the designer’s story to the end user’s experience, we can create outdoor spaces that are more engaging, functional, and meaningful. As I’ve mentioned in my previous writings on user experience and behavioural psychology, understanding and catering to human motivations and behaviours are crucial in designing spaces that resonate with people.
In the last decade or so, as I see it, too many gardens were designed as showcases for the designer’s ego (ironically Diarmaid has appeared on a podcast talking about HCD so I’ll just about forgive him for the gimmick of his 2016 effort with its solid octagonal folly and a formal terrace of clipped box, that every that every 15 mins rotated and moved around), or as crass art pieces, rather than havens for the people who would actually use them. By embracing the principles of human-centred design, we can shift the paradigm and create gardens that truly enrich the lives of their users. Let’s look to the work of Zetterman, Pearson, Wilkinson, and Nordfjell as inspiration for a new era in garden design, one where the needs and desires of people take centre stage.
As I have written previously on this blog, a human-centred approach can lead to creativity and innovation while avoiding homogenous, derivative, or sterile work. By embracing the plurality of human motivations, behaviours, and the endless variety of the environment and content, the human-centred designer can find infinite opportunities for creativity and innovation. In the end, this is as appealing as any Gold Medal from the RHS.