‘Those Light Bulb Moments’ – a GDRT Round Table Post!

| January 25, 2011 | 12 Comments


As UK members of the Garden Designers Round Table… 

we volunteered to take part in a group garden design exercise…. 

for real clients based in the North East US. 

Our American colleagues diligently surveyed and photographed the site, described the client profile and sent us the data. 

We looked at the data…. 

and looked…. 

and looked….  

and concluded that our approach to garden design wouldn’t really work with this project. 

‘That’s a copout!’ you may be thinking. 

Well, maybe in a sense it is, but in such a communications-led business, our approach to garden design focuses heavily on building  strong interpersonal relationships with clients right from the word ‘go’  so that they  often end up becoming our friends. 

Hopefully it is not (no it never is!) the tense and difficult process below… 


 …where, in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, teacher Annie Sullivan tries to get through to the deafblind and initially semi-feral Helen Keller! We are actually wanting those ‘light bulb’ moments, such as here where Annie turns ‘the water feature’ on Helen and gets across the word w.a.t.e.r


In our business we want not one, but heaps of those light bulb moments. A whole chandelier-full in fact

For us the light bulb process begins before we meet. We have phone chats to answer immediate questions and discuss arrangements to visit of course. 

We begin to perceive each other. 

But as we approach the client’s property, their location ( its flora, rock, soil, microclimate and housing stock ) is already speaking to us. 

In an initial ice breaking walk round the garden we get to see the site for the first time and we get to see how they see their garden

Once inside their house we further perceive their visual tastes

We show our laptop presentation or full scale portfolio of past work. They begin to see what we can do and we see what they like of what we have done

We also explain the design process in greater detail than on the phone. We may go on to take instructions directly or may return to do so. Either way, by now we have established rapport and trust. 

The taking of the brief enables some further interplay of thoughts, qualifications of thoughts, discussions of merits and demerits, possibilities and impossibilities. Not too many of the last we hope! 

As often in communication it is the subtleties and the not saids, the smiles and frowns which also begin to assemble the future of the project. If it is a couple the extent to which there is any difference of opinion can be guaged and absorbed. 

The brief taken, the survey of the garden follows. A minimum of half a day, more usually a day,  taking the measurements, the levels, testing the soil and formally assessing the site also enables us to live, however temporarily, in the space and feel it as the clients do. Of course we drench it with photos and make copious notes, but the site talks to us.  Perhaps it is like looking at a famous painting rather than photos of it. We are seeking that eureka moment when we have a concept in our minds as a result of all the foregoing. It may be a distant view, something the client said, the shape of the space – all of these and more which turns on the light

Frequently while we do all this the client looks at a pile of glossy design books we have brought with us and maybe a wallet of random images that further pinpoint their tastes. They mark likes and as importantly dislikes. We may well discuss these before leaving. The clients’ willingness to expand on likes and dislikes contributres hugely to this stage. 

Once back in the studio there is some gritty hammering out of the facts, the ideas, a weighing up of the various requirements. As a partnership we mostly achieve this jointly or occasionally singly, but then we always comment on each other’s work and adjust as we agree. This modification of each other’s thoughts is a key facet of our business. 

Sheets of trace paper litter the floor as we accept, reject and modify various ways of achieving the client their objective: their own bespoke garden which fulfils a vision that they did or didn’t have. Although we have CAD expertise and do use it for some aspects of our work, we certainly feel that pencil work makes you design with more feeling  and design more space – consciously. So rather luddite – like that is our preference.  

What emerges from this process is certainly one ‘grand design’, and more usually more than one option. We once offered six but only where we knew we had a very decisive client! 

We revisit the client with a tidy pencil version of the projected design/design options. We may use books to illustrate the design. Sometimes even a very rough axonometric drawing. 

This is again an ‘interplay meeting’, a modification opportunity for the client. But our nirvana is of course the client choosing our preferred option unchanged. They usually do. This is a sign that we have correctly assessed site, client and brief. And added the indefinable spark which is US! 

Only then does the fully inked and rendered design follow – almost as a comforting known – for a final approval meeting with the client. 


Other designers will of course have different and equally valid ways of working. 

But the personal and professional dialogue we have missed out on with both customer and site is why we offer here: 

 ‘how we achieve a design’ 

rather than a design itself! 

L and R

Now tap into the design thoughts of our fellow knights of the Garden Design Round Table:

Carolyn Gail Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Ivette Soler, Los Angeles, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

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  1. […] Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK […]

  2. Ivette Soler says:

    RIGHT ON, R & L – I’m down with your process. I am the same way – I can’t even begin a design without knowing my clients and sussing out what they want. AND I also consider myself an educator as well – sometimes what they want isn’t appropriate and I have to do some gentle changing of minds. It isn’t a cop-out ( I hope not … I did the same thing

  3. Robert says:

    There’s safety in numbers!
    Actually reading between the lines I think that there were more than us.
    Best Wishes

  4. Robert & Lesley, Thanks for peeling back the curtain and letting us peek inside your process. It’s helpful for people to see how much work and thought goes into landscape design. BTW, I loved the way you interspered the images from the movie in your post – glad to know there’s no kicking and screaming during the process!

  5. Robert says:

    Dear Debbie,
    Thanks for your comments.
    Yes I am sure we all put a lot into these things and it is good for the clients to realize the process and care involved and also the light bulbs!
    Glad you liked the photos. They were not meant to be too darK. And somehow illustrated that need to really connect in order that your answer is not just a formulaic response, like postioning a sofa in the corner of the living room!
    I was interested that Ivette’s response was so similar.
    Very grateful to you guys for assembling the data.
    I know we didn’t do the design, but writing our process down was useful!
    Best Wishes

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert Webber, Robert Webber. Robert Webber said: New HWP blog post, 'Those Light Bulb Moments' – a GDRT Round Table Post! – http://tinyurl.com/62ybdc3 […]

  7. Pam/Digging says:

    L & R, I know exactly how you feel! As I just commented on Ivette’s post, I pored over the pictures, trying to figure out how I would design for a mystery client in a far distant region (not an ocean away, true, but still thousands of miles and with an entirely different plant palette and regional aesthetic than central Texas). I just couldn’t do it. Rather than spend more precious time on it, I bowed out in order to focus on my real and present clients and properties that I’ve visited with them.

    Knowing my own limitations on this exercise, I’m beyond impressed by those on the Roundtable who made it work and designed beautiful spaces from afar.

  8. Robert says:

    Dear Pam,
    Yes, i don’t know whther there is a precedent for garden design bucking the economic trend, but we are busy, busy, busy!
    We did think it was important tho to say why we weren’t doing a design and Scott indicated that ‘how we design’ was a useful approach and hence that was the one we chose – we always do what Scot says!!!!
    Yes I was also impressed, so well done to all I say!
    Thanks for your comment

  9. carolyngail says:

    Enjoyed your post on the design process, L & R . It wasn’t easy for me either because my specialty is small urban gardens and I’m suddenly faced with this huge property in New England. Being the middle child, part English and a Steel Magnolia, god knows I love a challenge :-)

  10. Robert says:

    Hi, thanks for your comment.
    You sure rose to the challenge, or should I say Magnolia’d to it?!!
    Best Wishes

  11. debsgarden says:

    Your design process sounds exactly as it should be. I am sure your clients appreciate the care and thought you put into your projects.

  12. Robert says:

    Dear Deborah,
    It is always a nice feeling when people think you are doing the right thing.
    Thanks very much for your comment!
    Read your Florida post a few day’s ago – it was envy making!
    Thw whiteness of the sand was quite extraordinary.
    Hope you feel refreshed by the break.
    Best Wishes