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Book Review: Cultivating the Designer’s Mind

Cultivating the Designer’s Mind: Principles and Process for Coherent Landscape Design

Written by Walter Cudnohufsky with Mollie Babize

Self-published by High Meadow Press, March 2019 

Reviewed by Trevor Buckley and Emily Davis

In Cultivating the Designer’s Mind: Principles and Process for Coherent Landscape Design, readers will find a window into the mind of Walter Cudnohufsky, founder of the Conway School of Landscape Design and a visionary educator in design and planning. Accompanied by co-author Mollie Babize, a Conway alum and former administrator of the graduate program, Cudnohufsky presents an ably-written and accessible book that demystifies the sometimes elusive design process and espouses a democratic design ethos. Through the lenses of landscape and ecology, they lay out a vision for applying a deliberative and compassionate mode of design-thinking to our complex and frenetic world.

While ostensibly a design manual, Cudnohufsky draws the reader into what feels like the pages of a design mentor’s notebook, replete with sketches and watercolor landscapes, lists of questions, and ruminations on reading the landscape. The result is equal parts practical reference and inspirational guide. Case studies illuminate Cudnohufsky’s “disciplined analytical process” while reflecting his devotion to and reverence for the practice of connecting people with place, guiding clients to see much more than is readily apparent. Crisp and simple graphics – namely diagrams – illustrate how the discovery of patterns and relationships lead to development of an underlying concept and form the core, the “marrow,” of design.

Cultivating the Designer’s Mind simultaneously elevates and grounds the work of the landscape designer. The authors envision the designer as one who is capable of holding and examining the complexities of a site and reconciling its constraints to meet the needs of a client or community, all the while tying that work to the greater context, including more global and systemic challenges such as climate change. This charge is made with a spirit of persistent hope: “Design needs to rest upon discernable facts, to be tethered to reality. It also needs to embrace a better future, be uplifting, and generate enthusiasm.”

Over simply and well-formatted, visually appealing pages, Cudnohufsky and Babize unfold a replicable and reliable process that leads us towards “coherent landscape design.” A thorough review of interviewing clients and conducting analysis equip the reader with the means. But the book also takes on a spiritual note, appealing to love of our shared earth. We noted and admired the authors’ explicit acknowledgement of the tension between using logic (through adherence to analyses, reconciling goals with constraints) and maintaining openness (to inspiration, to the creative spirit, to new insights). “The designer’s mind is stimulated by both logic and serendipity, by being both rigorous and open,” Cudnohufsky writes. “By employing that uncommonly curious mind, you will discover an organizing idea or an exciting action that creates coherence in design.”

As Conway alumni ourselves, this philosophy is intimately familiar. The design process and its vocabulary and tools are a way of thinking that, learned and put to use over time, permeate the mind. Indeed, one of Cudnohufsky’s concluding observations – and arguments for pursuing such a “disciplined, incremental approach” to design – resonated strongly with us: “…once the process is internalized, once it becomes an inherent method you’ve adopted, it becomes a shortcut.” Even amidst the pressures of deadlines and balancing numerous projects, when slow and deliberate design seems a luxury, the process primes the mind to think in the analytical terms that bring structure to tackling any design challenge.

In its practicality and insights, Cultivating the Designer’s Mind will speak to both the seasoned and budding designer alike in its case for design as its own form of civic activism and as a rewarding way to deeply engage with the world around us. This thoughtfully rendered book leaves us over and over again with clear and simple directions for a better way: “Let your designer’s mind guide the process: remain open, listen deeply, and ask questions.”

About the Reviewers

Trevor Buckley is a landscape planner with Timmons Group, a multidisciplinary engineering and technology firm based in Richmond, Virginia. Emily Davis is a planner with the Windham Regional Commission, a regional planning commission based in Brattleboro, Vermont. Both are 2014 graduates of The Conway School’s Graduate Program in Sustainable Landscape Planning and Design.

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