The Gardener Designer

The Gardener Designer

When we moved into our house a couple of years ago, I wanted to shape our lawn into something more than just green grass. 

100's of hours of weeding, composting and levelling enabled activities bare soil or paving would not have enabled. We ran up and down on it with our toddler when South Africa was in hard lockdown; we had picnics together; it became a place of solace on days when work towered like a mountain; and it became the new home of worms, birds and all sorts of life.

The Viljoen's lawn before I started to work on it
Our lawn before I started to work on it
The Viljoen's lawn before I started to work on it

I didn't understand what gardening was about until I started to pour myself into shaping a space that would inspire these activities.

I have also been unable to articulate these experiences in our garden until I read this paragraph in Robert Harrison's, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition: 

To become conscious of what one is treading on requires that one delve into the ground's organic underworld so as to appreciate, in an engaged way, the soil's potential for fostering life.

He continues by beautifully framing a gardener like this:

A real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He builds his monument in a heap of compost.

I learned that a real gardener works with soil, and in doing so, develops an appreciation for how it fosters life.

On the surface, the book is nothing about how to tend a garden or create products. But it was only after I read Harrison's poetic expression that I realised how deeply gardening relates to building products.

When we build products, we often get caught up in the mundane - writing project documents, placing buttons, or testing flows. Instinctively, we know our work has meaning because we have all seen how it has changed a customer's life at some point in our career. 

If we dig deep enough, we find the real reason we are doing the things we do. It is often in the digging that we find meaning.

And so, similarly, designers are gardeners, real gardeners. We don't cultivate flowers; we cultivate the soil we build on by delving into the products organic underworld, the people using them, enabling us to create products that foster life.

Now, we often depict technology as something that extracts, removes and depletes our lives instead of enhancing or fostering life.

If that is indeed true, isn't this more reason why, if humankind entrusts its future to anyone, it should be to the kind of designer who, like Harrison explains, embodies the care-dominated nature of human beings?

Without this type of designer, there would be no future, for better or for worst.

It's worth segueing for a brief moment to note how, in many places where the dust has settled after a terrible year, gardens have been our haven, a place to breathe, converse and gain some sense and sanity.

How do we create digital spaces that let people breathe again? More important than ever before, how do we, as gardener designers, continue to breathe while creating these spaces? There's a lot to it, but I think the way Christopher Alexander frames the process of creating products, gives a more hopeful perspective to the daily mundane:

Can you write a computer program on the same level as Fermat's last theorem? Can you write a program which has the enabling power of Dr. Johnson's dictionary? Can you write a program which has the productive power of Watt's steam engine? Can you write a program which overcomes the gulf between the technical culture of our civilisation, and which inserts itself into our human life as deeply as Eliot's poems of the wasteland or Virginia Woolf's The Waves?

Patterns of Software - Tales from the Software Community by Richard Gabriel

I want to believe that the answer is yes.

Arlo joyfully running up and down the lawn
Our lawn after 100's of hours of work
Arlo sitting on the lawnmower while mowing it


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