In a number of other posts I have discussed mood boards, concept boards, storyboards, journey boards, etc.  In most of those posts I mentioned PowerPoint and similar graphics programs as excellent tools for creating them.  Last year I became aware on an extremely good online tool that addresses the needs of many different design professionals, sampleboard.com (www.sampleboard.com).First, in addition to creating boards for landscape designers, sampleboard.com can be used by interior designers, graphics and web designers, fashion designers, and wedding planners.  Second, you can use it for free without registering.  By registering though, you are able to save and share your boards.  There are also paid plans with additional features.

To begin, you select your paper size.  Unfortunately, no standard US sizes are available.  Then you pick the type of board you want to create such as landscape design.  On the right of the screen are a number of filters that allow you to pick from the sampleboard.com gallery of images.  Categories include hardscape, softscape, garden decor, and others.  Within these categories are types.  Hardscape types would obviously be different from softscape types.  Below that there are additional filters for Type, Style, and Supplier.  Once you set the filters there are one or more windows of choices for you to review.  Placing your mouse pointer over the thumbnail image choice brings up a larger preview display.  When you find an image that is appropriate for the board you are creating, you simply drag it to the design board.

Once it is on the design board you can size and position it.  As you add components to your board you can switch from category to another.  You might add Hardscape design elements and then move on to Softscape and Garden Decor.

Sampleboard.com also has very good layout, drawing, and editing tools.  You can use the Magic Eraser to pull the background out of an image.  You can move objects forward and backward to layer them.  There are other Photoshop-like tools that you can use to modify the various images you add to your board.  Also, there are tools for adding shapes and text to your board and you can color these as you see fit.  Another plus is you can paste images from other sources.

The graphic below is a sample mood board created on sampleboard.com.

Sample Mood Board Created in SampleBoard

If you would like to see more samples check this post in the sampleboard.com blog, Garden Ideas – Select your Garden Theme or Garden Style.

Sampleboard.com is very useful.  It has a lot of very powerful capabilities built into it.  I find that fact that it is online to be very useful.  If I am working in the field on a tablet computer I can access sampleboard.com and compile ideas.  I don’t need any other software to get started.  Also, any pictures I take with the table can be pasted directly onto by board as part of the ideation process.  I also find it is useful for marking up site pictures for a site analysis.

I suggest checking out sampleboard.com and bookmarking it for future use.

When creating bubble or functional diagrams it becomes important at some point to begin working in rough scale so you can understand proportions and space utilization.  It is very easy if you are using diagramming software to make bubble diagrams or functional diagrams proportional.

Using PowerPoint as an example, you draw a rectangle four by two to represent forty by twenty feet or six hundred square feet (a one inch equals ten feet scale).  When you create the bubble shapes you size them according to the required space.  You can make any shape you want.  You can pick the best shape to represent each area.  You just need to scale it.  In PowerPoint you would right click on the shape, select format shape, and set the size to represent the scale you need.  For example, a circle representing a table that needs sixty three square feet could by a circle with a diameter of nine feet or .9 inches.  If you want to use a square that is proportional you could make a square with sides of 7.95 feet or .795 inches.  A rectangle would be set at .7 inches by .9 inches to represent the size.

The point of this is to emphasize an issue about scaling in bubble or functional diagrams.  Do you use a proportionate size for the object itself or a size for the space the object requires when being used?  A table is a good example.  The table, with the chairs pushed in may be seven feet by nine feet.  However, when guests are at the table sitting in the chairs the space requirement is more likely nine feet by eleven feet at a minimum.  A grill is another good example.  The grill itself may have a footprint of ten square feet.  If you are using the grill during a party or dinner the space may easily double to allow for room to maneuver and to avoid the heat and smoke.

Given the fact that you are working from your adjacency matrix, the proximity or lack of proximity may well be important in how bubbles or functions are placed within the space.  One technique that I use to help with this issue is to create a shape and then duplicate it in a larger size.  The original shape represents the footprint of the space or object.  The second shape represents the required footprint when it is being used.  I then simply center these shapes on top on each other with the usage footprint on the bottom.  For example, the diagram below shows the space for a table and chairs.  The inner shape is the object footprint.  The outer shape is the usage footprint.

Bubble or Functional Shape Adjusted for Usage

Not every object may require extra space.  You may also be able to adjust how the usage footprint relates to the object footprint.  For example, the functional diagram below shows the lounging area has the same usage footprint as the space itself.  The grill foot print extends out to the front and to the left side since the back and right side of the grill are at the edge of the space.

Functional Diagram with Shapes Adjusted for Usage

Showing the buffer area that will be utilized when the space is being used allows you to make adjustments that are needed due to space adjacency requirements.  Also, this is extremely useful in planning traffic flow, overall space utilization, and space allocation.

There is some additional work in going to this level of detail but it is fairly minor.  As long as you establish your scale in the graphic program you are using and work out the areas required for each functional area most graphic programs make it easy to scale the functional objects.  The effort may help you uncover a potential problem long before you ever get to the design stage.

Bubble diagrams are a great tool for ideation, adjacency analysis, and space planning.  In a previous post I stated that I think functional diagrams are a more formal tool to explore how spaces will fit together and get a better sense of potential design layouts and patterns.  Bubble diagrams are the rough tool.  Functional diagrams are a more precise tool.

In making the transition from bubble diagrams and functional diagrams it is useful to have some idea of form composition.  Are you going with a rectangular, diagonal, arc and tangent, etc.?  Having an overlay of the base plan that is marked with the various lines of force that you want to evaluate can be useful for building your functional diagrams.

Consider this example.  The owners have a barren back yard.  They want 600 square feet of outdoor space that accommodates a table for dining, a conversation area with a fire pit, a lounging area, a grill, and a water feature.  The space is open off of a sliding glass door.  There are windows on each side of the sliding door.  Shown below are to base plans with lines of force marked for rectangular and diagonal form compositions.

Rectangular Lines of Force Form Composition

Diagonal Lines of Force Form Composition

In the rectangular form composition there are only lines running out from the back of the house at the door and window openings.  However these three openings suggest a pattern extending from the back of the residence.  The diagonal form composition has twice as many lines since they run in both directions.  My take on this pattern is that the two lines extending from the door opening have the most potential.  My decision is to go with the rectangular form composition because of the three major lines extending from the back of the house.

The bubble diagram I prepared reflects the results of the space adjacency analysis I performed.  The water feature should be visible from the table, conversation area, and lounging area.  The table should be accessible from the grill and the house.  The grill should not be overly close to the house, table, lounging area, or conversation area.

Bubble Diagram of required spaces and adjacency

At this point I am ready to see how the bubble diagram interfaces with my form composition.  I am using PowerPoint in this case, so I simply copy one on top of another:

Bubble Diagram fitted to Lines of Force

Everything seems to line up but this may not be the optimal placement.  That is really the point I am trying to make about the difference between bubble diagrams and functional diagrams.  I want to explore placement of spaces within the form composition to determine my final design layout, spacing, and placement.  The bubble diagram was a rough tool.  It helped me establish adjacency relationships. I need to go a step further and begin placing functions within the space.  The diagram below shows how the functional “bubbles” were generally placed.

Functional Diagram overlaid on Lines of Force

The lounging area is positioned to the right since that area offers the best sun exposure and it is less likely to interfere with the grill.  The table and conversation area were positioned to the right, away from the grill.  The table is closer to the door.  The lounging, conversation, and table areas all have visual contact with the water feature.

The next step is to create the actual design pattern for the space and to physically position the areas more precisely.  This is the final design.  The two side pieces build off the lines of force from the windows and also push the lounging area and conversation areas further away from the house.  The water feature makes a nice focal point and is centered on the lines of force from the door.

Final Design based on build up of form composition, bubble diagrams, and functional diagrams

Using overlays to check patterns and explore ideas is easy.  DynaSCAPE can be used to create the base plan which can be exported to PowerPoint, Photoshop, or a similar program.  Even scanned images can be used.  Use may have to remove the white background color since overlays tend to work better if they are transparent.

Using analytical tools and techniques is all part of the validation process.  The preliminary bubble diagrams were based on adjacency analysis of the required spaces.  These were overlaid on to base plans for form composition analysis.  Finally the selected form was overlaid with a functional diagram to identify the placement and relationship of the spaces.  These preceded the preliminary design and final design.  Going through these steps helped assure that the design was appropriate and met the client’s requirements.

A few final wrap up comments about applying prototyping to landscape design.  These comments and observations are mostly things I have carried over from my prototyping experiences in the systems field.

Getting client requirements is crucial.  Having a design methodology with an approach to gathering requirements is extremely important but probably more important is having a toolkit of methods and approaches you can apply in different circumstances.  One size does not fit all in design methodologies.  The major thing to keep in mind is that you must gather all client requirements, gather them completely, and gather them accurately.  Finding the mix of tools and approaches that will allow you to accomplish this comes with experience and practice.

I would not tell a client I am going to prototype their design or some portion of their design.  However, I would use a prototyping approach if it was appropriate and it would allow me to draw out and/or confirm some of the client’s needs.  If I was doing a physical representation with stakes, cord, boxes, and other materials, I might describe it as a walkthrough or simulation.  The approach is the same; I just am not bogged down in the use of the term prototype.

As I said in an earlier post, almost everything we create to represent the client’s design is a prototype.  These artifacts just have different levels of visual and functional fidelity.  A simple plan view is a prototype.  If I can use that plan view to validate the client’s requirements there is no reason to go further.  However, if the client continues to waver or expresses concerns, I may have to dig into my toolbox and apply a creative approach to representing the design that will communicate the design intent and how it meets the client’s needs.

Some prototyping can be done with either 2D or 3D design software.  Other prototypes may be visually enhanced photos.  Physical models take time and talent but, if you know what you are doing and are good at it, giving the client a scale model can be impressive.  Simulating areas and/or spaces with objects, lines, and other materials is a good way to give the client a sense of space and proportion.  The point is you need to determine what you need to convey, how much fidelity you need, and the best way to convey it.

Having the right tools and knowing which tool to use is important.  In addition to DynaSCAPE, VizTerra, DesignWare, and other landscape design packages I use other tools to augment my design analysis and presentations.  Software such as PowerPoint, Excel, Work, Visio, Photoshop and others allow me to produce analytic materials and client presentation materials.  They can play a role in prototyping if they allow you to create a representation you can use to convey what you need.  I typically use the tool that will work best for what I need to accomplish whether it be analysis, design, or creating a prototype.  However, I always keep in mind how I might be able to leverage that material later in the project.

Making the choice to use physical representations with rope, cord, hose, stakes, boxes, etc. is a little more difficult.  Deciding when to use physical representation is primarily a matter of experience and ability to read what the client needs.  There are clients who just cannot visualize anything.  Even with a plan view, enhanced digital photos, drawings/sketches, and other representations, they just cannot sense or visualize how it will work, how much space will be available, etc.  In some cases, you might decide to use a physical representation in order to convince the client that their ideas will not work or you want to show them an alternative approach.  Whatever the motivation for a physical representation, you need to decide how much effort to put into it to create the level of functional or visual fidelity to meet your needs.

Prototypes do work.  The key is to use the right tool or technique at the right time for the project.

Digital pictures are an important part of the validation process.  They also make great design tools.  You can take pictures of the client site and enhance them to show a proposed new design.  You can pull out specific elements you want to focus on or exclude.  You can also use scanned images of magazine clippings, pictures downloaded from the internet, and stock photos.  There may be elements that you can isolate in an image that may be useful in your design development or for creating a storyboard.  There are many reasons to use, manipulate, and enhance digital photos.

Manipulating digital pictures can be difficult though.  The standard for photo editing and manipulation is probably Photoshop.  Photoshop is expensive and so complex it is hard to learn and hard to remember what to do if you don’t use it all the time.  There are other software tools available.  There is a very large range of capabilities and price.  However, there is an unexpected new tool available that is really worth looking at.

The newest version of PowerPoint, PowerPoint 2010, has been greatly enhanced with photo manipulation tools that are very powerful.  What makes them even more amazing is that they are included in PowerPoint.

The first new tool is the Background Removal tool.  After you insert a digital picture, you can select it and then click on the Background Removal button.  PowerPoint will then analyze the picture and make a recommendation as to what it thinks is the foreground (keep) and background (remove).  Shown below are screen-shots of an original picture and the result of the first scan of the picture.  The areas highlighted in magenta are areas PowerPoint has marked as background.

Original Picture and PowerPoint Background Removal Analysis

Note the box with handles around the image.  Those are the macro controls to select the area you want to keep.  There are other tools included to help you tweak the selection and fine tune what you want to keep and what you want to remove.  When you are done, you finalize the removal.  The result is shown below:

Result of Background Removal

The final image is in PowerPoint, on a slide.  There are several things you can do at this point.  You can save that new image as a file to use in another program.  You cam use PowerPoint’s draw and text tools to make notes on the image to record your ideas.  You can print the image and sketch ideas by hand.  You can also load the saved image file in a digital design tool such as DesignWare to add new elements.

There is a lot of power in this tool and it produces results that are more than satisfactory.  The Background Removal tool is useful for isolating specific images also.  For example, assume you want to use the container in the photo below but just the container.

Background Removal Used to Isolate Container in Picture

The Background Removal tool does a quick job of isolating just the container as shown below.  This isolated image can be imported into other pictures, used in drawings, traced, etc.

Another useful way to use this tool is to isolate portions of a picture.  In most cases, the focus of your picture is in the center.  However, if what you want to keep is off to the side or in a corner, you can simply drag the selection box around the portion you want to keep and let PowerPoint work its magic.  You can fine-tune your selection regardless of where the selection box is located.

There are other useful photo enhancement tools built into this version of PowerPoint.  I will discuss some of them and some new features in Word 2010 in upcoming posts.

This is a third follow-up to a post in January about gathering client and site data [Gathering Data: Challenges, Irony, and Value].  The questions raised in that post were:

  • how much information do you need to collect?
  • how do you record the information so that it is accessible and usable?
  • how do you organize, display, review, combine, correlate, and otherwise manipulate all this material?
  • how do you reduce the data to its essential components?

In February, I did a follow-up to the first question in my post: The Case for Gathering More Information.  Several days ago, I did the second follow-up post:  The Case for Recording Client and Site Data Electronically.  This post will deal with the third and fourth questions:  how do you organize, display, review, combine, correlate, and otherwise manipulate all this material, and how do you reduce the data to its essential components?

This is a hard issue because there are numerous approaches that you could take to start the organization and ideation process.  One of the most basic is to start laying pictures, drawings, etc. out on a large table or posting them on a wall or board.  This is essentially a mind mapping or brainstorming approach.  Seeing all the pieces at one time together can stimulate your thinking and help you make connections.  It may help identify conflicts or interrelated issues.  The value of information or data is usually in the connection to other pieces of information and data.  Knowing a whole bunch of things doesn’t help unless to put them all together and make sense of them.

I tend to find the paper-based methods slow.  If I lay out drawings, plans, pictures, and other visual data I usually want to supplement it with some of my notes and thoughts.  This means writing out things on Post-it notes or note cards and positioning them in the mix of other things.  Having the paper laid out or posted on a wall makes it visible and it is easy to move things around or replace things.  However, the one thing I really find the most limiting is that it is not portable.  I have to be in front of it to see it, work with it, and analyze it.

My preference is to create my project brainstorming or ideation board electronically.  I have used different software tools to do this.  PowerPoint has some advantages as does Photoshop.  You can even use DynaSCAPE albeit with some constraints.  There are probably other software tools to do the same types of things.

I will use PowerPoint as an example since it is more familiar to more people.  The basic process is to create a new PowerPoint file with a single slide.  If you think you want to print it out later on a large format printer then format the slide size to 24×36 or some other large size.  Then simply start inserting your electronically stored content.

Maybe the base plan goes into the center.  Place digital photos around the edges representing their orientation toward the plan.  Everything will need to be sized.  However, just get the elements into rough position.  The nice thing about electronic format is that you can size up and down and drag things into a different position.  If you want to add comments or thoughts from your notes, simply copy them from your electronic notes and paste them into text boxes in PowerPoint.  You can then move them around, size them, and even color-code them.  If there are pictures of ideas or elements that you want to consider, copy and paste them into the slide.  Size and position them where they belong.  If something is important, increase the size, make the font bold, or color the background so it stands out.

I tend to use the outside edges and corners for other things such as the client profile or color swatches.  If the clients give me pictures or clippings of things they like I can sample colors and build a color palette to work from.  I usually put the client profile in a corner so I keep it visible.  Other random ideas may come up and again I place those on the edges so I don’t forget them.  If I see where they fit in later, I simply drag them into position.

Just like using a wall or tabletop, you may run out of room or have to reduce the size of some content just to fit it in.  You can use the drawing tools to make lines, arrows, or other symbols to help you focus on elements.  This isn’t really any different than creating a mood board, concept board, story board, or any other display board.  The only real difference is that it is for your ideation purposes.

Two of the main advantages of the electronic project board are that you can easily update it with new ideas, pictures, or any other content and it is portable.  If I have it on my laptop I can take it with me and work on it whenever I have time.  If I get an idea for some portion of the design, I can simply pull up the file and make the addition.

Where I find real value in the electronic approach is in two techniques; versioning and focusing.  Versioning is essentially an approach where you create an initial project board electronically and then copy it to start modifying it.  Maybe you have a couple of ideas of now you might approach the design.  Make copies of the original project board and modify each copy for a particular design approach.  Each is a version of the original board but with a different design concept.  You can use these to make decisions or bounce ideas off your clients.

Focusing is a variation where you make a copy of the project board but eliminate everything not related to a specific area.  If you are focusing on the entertaining area, eliminate everything else and build on that project board as a separate piece.  You can repeat this for other specific areas.  This also allows you to scale things up since you are dealing with a smaller area.  When you are done you can copy in each of the separate pieces to the overall project board to see how they fit and work together.

The project board is really a tool for you but you can use it to bounce ideas off the client.  This is a form of versioning.  If I want to use my material for a client discussion, I make a duplicate copy of it and then tweak it for client presentation.  I usually have to take it to a print shop to have a large-format copy printed, but this gives me a working document I can use with the client for discussions.

Lastly, material from you project board is a like many other things, a candidate for reuse.  As you move into the project, some of your content may be repurposed for other portions of your design work, analysis, or client presentation.  Working electronically to compile all of your data and information will save you time, leverage your work, and give you more flexibility to explore alternatives.

Analyzing the client site is a much more technical, analytical task than the client analysis.  You are dealing with the physical and tangible.  However, there are often one or more vague elements.  There aren’t any personalities or egos or agendas to deal with.  Site analysis is also much more scalable.  By that, I mean you can adjust what you do to the scope of the potential job.  You don’t need a geological survey for a small job or updating some planting beds.

The real issue comes down to those big jobs that have a huge impact on the property and the client is potentially investing a lot of money.  You also have to watch out for the medium size jobs that have unusual site circumstances.  Site analysis comes down to a drawing a line that will make you comfortable that you know enough about the site for the scope of work and that you can avoid overlooking anything major.  It is also extremely helpful to understand the site well enough to develop some creative ideas.

I really do not like checklists.  They tend to make us think that we have covered everything just because we have gone through them.  In this case, though, I have compiled a comprehensive list of things you might or might not do as part of a site analysis.  The list is broken up into three sections:  Natural features, Man-made features, and Contextual features.

  • Natural features are those things related to the location and ground.  Even if the site was initially graded and landscape previously, the existing terrain, soil, plant materials, climate, etc. are all part of this section.
  • Man-made features are the structures on the site and any infrastructure supporting the site.  This also includes the architectural style and related detail of the structure including ingress and egress.
  • Contextual features are all of the surroundings of the site and now the site fits into those surroundings.

The list is as follows:

Natural features

  • Terrain (rise / fall of land)
  • Topography (record of terrain)
  • Slopes (steepness measurements)
  • Erosion (present / potential)
  • Directions of surface drainage
  • Areas of puddling / drought
  • Geology
  • Soil conditions / qualities
  • Existing softscape
  • Microclimates
  • Climate (regional macro)
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zone
  • Sun / shade angles
  • Prevailing winds
  • Annual rainfall / snowfall
  • Depth of frost line
  • Off-site view

Man-made features

  • Existing buildings
  • Utilities
  • Paved areas
  • Existing hardscape
  • Existing landscape features
  • Building architecture
  • Building details (doors / windows)
  • Lines of force
  • Image / style
  • Access
  • Enclosure (screening)
  • Current storage spaces
  • Adjacent property development

Contextual features

  • Property lines
  • Setback
  • Zoning regulations
  • Deed restrictions
  • Covenants
  • Right-of-ways
  • Easements
  • Zero lot lines
  • Off-site noise / odors / etc.
  • Historical significance
  • Regional / local style

Since the type of data we are gathering for the site analysis is less subjective than client data, it lends itself to being recordable in a graphic or visual format.  Most of the data can be graphed, drawn, sketched, plotted, or recorded in some type of visual format.  If we can record the data in a central place such as over a base plan, we have the ability to summarize and consolidate the various types of data we collect.  I have two ways of managing the data and making it easy to manipulate.

The first is to use DynaSCAPE and take advantage of its layers feature.  I import the base plan as a graphic and redraw the elements I need.  This becomes my base plan layer.  After that, I work from my notes and transfer different types of data over my base plan using a different DynaSCAPE layer for each.  For example, anything dealing with terrain, slope, or topography goes on one layer.  I may use another layer for microclimate data.  The number of layers and the way I group or merge data will depend on how much data I have and how finite I want to break it down.  When I am done, I can use DynaSCAPE to select various layers in combination to see how they impact or interact with each other.  For example, I might look at how the lines of force overlay the topography.  The base plan layer is always selected to give a reference point to the view.  However, mixing up and combining different layers of data allow you to see how site elements influences one another.

The second method is to use Microsoft PowerPoint.  I insert a graphic of the base plan onto an initial slide.  I then duplicate that slide for the number of times that I want to create separate overlays.  Then I follow the same process as above.  I use PowerPoint drawing tools to layout various site elements one slide at a time.  Mixing and matching gets a little more tricky with PowerPoint.  If I want to combine two elements, I will duplicate the slide for one of them and then add the overlay graphics for the second set of elements to the new slide.  Working this way with PowerPoint is doable and in some cases can be easier but you have to be a little more careful and manage your individual slides so you know what you have.

Both of these methods work.  They both can be tedious.  However, the real power of analysis is the ability to combine different kinds of data and information.  The results can be well worth the effort.  You may not always know which layers of data to combine.  It sometimes comes down to looking at the individual components and giving some serious thought to how that might affect one another.  You might have an area with drainage issues that you need to deal with but easements could constrain how you address those issues.  There may be opportunities to use the existing structures and lines of force to create a compelling space layout but the pattern of sun and shade in the space may preclude that solution.  You have to think about the information and go through the analysis.  That is really the point.

One other advantage to the DynaSCAPE method is that when I get to preliminary design I can pull some of my analysis layers to the preliminary design to see the impact.  For example, I may look at how prevailing wind or sun / shade angles to make sure they are fitting into my design correctly.

My last point is to not forget reusability.  Any graphic or visual you create for one client can be copied over the base plan for another client.  Don’t recreate the wheel.  Save your time for the in-depth analysis of your data.

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