Extrospective influence by Michael John McGarr

Talking about extrospective influence

by Michael John McGarr

I did a talk to a group of garden design students recently where I spoke about extrospective influence. This is something I truly believe makes me a better designer, and overall, better at the creative process.

So what is extrospective influence?

For me, it’s using any medium of art to gain creative influence, and to spark off a chain of thoughts and ideas, which culminate in a theme or concept, which is then workable into a new client brief.

Although I am passionate about garden and landscape design and ecology, I rarely read garden design or landscape magazines or visit show gardens (unless we’re on-site already, of course). This isn’t because I don’t love seeing other people’s work – I really do love seeing other designers’ work because I appreciate just how much goes into it.

But ultimately, other garden and landscape design work is not where I draw my influence and creativity from. For that I look outside my own industry, and can find inspiration absolutely anywhere.

All artistic disciplines influence each other, and I believe it is the inbreeding of ideas within a specific field that leads to stale creativity and poor thought-leading. Looking introspectively within the garden design industry will not lead to true creativity.

Finding my own creative process

I always try to make time to visit trade shows, architecture, sculpture, musicals and art exhibitions which will all help to cross-pollinate your thought processes. My passions are architecture and sculpture, so I make the time to visit sculpture parks, art galleries and museums and visiting urban areas. These are the kind of places that can set off a chain of thoughts that can influence a whole garden design.

Some of my recent influences have ranged from perfume advertisements to fashion design and sculpture. The key is to get out of the office and to allow yourself be influenced. Sitting in front of a screen can kill original thinking, which is quite tragic and rather ironic in an industry which has its basis in working the land.

A huge influence on the start of my career has been the work of land artists such as Richard Long and Christo. Sculptors like Richard Serra have also been hugely influential on my work, and I love the work of architect Zaha Hadid.

There a great show on Netflix called Abstract – the art of design showing designers from different disciplines and how they approach their work. I would encourage anyone to watch episode 3, in series 1 where stage designer Es Devlin talks through the process of stage design which is directly transferable to landscape and garden design.

Getting away from the screen

I have found it useful to set up an analogue desk / workstation as well as a digital one. The analogue desk must just be paper and mark-making equipment. Although we use Sketch-Up for client presentations, it’s so important to retain and practice drawing skills. There’s something about pencil or ink of paper that really gets the brain working, thinking and developing ideas. One should almost be actively trying to engage with your three-year-old self exploring mark-making and textures. Annotating and scribbling notes is a cathartic process.

On a simpler level, getting away from the studio for a walk in the countryside can be the break needed to formulate a new concept, or think through a challenge. We’re lucky that we have multiple office dogs so I usually get away from the studio in the afternoon to take the dogs out for a walk and give myself a break from the computer screen. A found object in a woodland can be all it takes to conjure emotions than can start great concept for a new landscape.

So, as artists and creatives, we need to keep looking for sources of ideas and they can come for anywhere thick and fast. The key is to be hungry and act like a sponge. If you love design,  act like a sponge, be inquisitive, ask good questions and you will get good answers

Throw away traditional garden industry literature and be extrospective.


Image: Southbank circle, by Richard Long, Tate Liverpool, 1991. Used under Creative Commons Licence.



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