Inspiration & Passion – The Design Process

By Kryssie Maybay
Landscape Architect, Owner Kismet Design LLC

Inspiration and passion drive the creative process in ways that aren’t always tangible or logical. Inspiration can be found in some very strange places sometimes. It sounds completely acceptable to hear about inspiration for landscape design coming from nature, garden tours, nurseries, historical designs, endless hours combing Pinterest (guilty!). What about the unexpected though… the design on the back of a notepad, the way a shadow hits the window, the pattern created after accidentally spilling your coffee (oops). The unexpected inspiration only happens when you are open to it. But how do you open yourself up to it, and when it hits how do you harness it and apply it?

Wood grain on a drift log, Moss imbedded in an old fallen tree, Snowflake on a metal screen

Ever wonder after what your fellow designers creative process looks like?

I am a very process driven person in all aspects of my life. I make lists (and lists of lists), set goals, and my relentless habitual processes are likely a bit annoying to some of my family, but they love me regardless. When it comes to design and feeling creative, I have to create a structure around it to really get into the flow. When everything is loose and undefined, I find it challenging to be productively creative. The restrictions, confinement, rigidity, and process give me the perfect palette to put my problem solving hat on and get creative without getting too distracted. The impervious surface restriction, view corridor that needs to be maintained, steep slopes, wildlife or pets, color and style preference, unique architecture, etc. all add some structure to the mindset of the design. Pairing this mindset with inspiring ideas, colors, patterns, and elements keep the ideas bouncing around like a ping pong ball until it settles on something great.

How I start:

When I’m in the thick of it my desk is a mess of intentionally categorized piles which to an outsider likely looks like sheer chaos, however, I do have a system. But the clutter must be cleared when I sit down to start a design or other creative project. Cleaning my space is a way of clearing my head of distractions so I can really focus on the project at hand. Once I’ve got the space cleared both physically and mentally, I dive into my notes and site photos to put myself in the site again.

Clear the space, light a candle, crank the music, and it’s game on.

The messy middle:

Once I am in the mindset the trace paper starts to fly. I will sketch out multiple thoughts, flows, and views. With initial instincts on paper, I then seek added inspiration through photos, a walk outside, or anything around me that I notice (i.e. patterns, color, texture, intersecting materials). I will draw out connections and views, establish lines of symmetry and balance, play with scale and proportions to explore what ‘feels’ the best. What feels the best is the undefined creative/artistic part of it all. Some of it is learned basic proportions and acceptable sizing standards (I won’t nerd out here, although I am tempted) but not all of it is definable. The feeling is not just innate but also learned through experience and exposure to both what works and what doesn’t. It is experiencing a patio that is too small or a walkway that is too wide, colors that clash, a pergola that is too tall or made with materials that are too small making it feel spindly. In seeing plants that don’t thrive, stay smaller than expected or outgrow expectations. It is knowing what outcomes different materials can achieve and the construction methods to create it all. The considerations are endless, but all add to the development of the design.

Sketch paper and pencil, Concept drawing and architectural scale, Mug of tea over conceptual sketch

Solidifying the design:

As I weed though the ideas it becomes apparent which ideas are the best and fit together. Sometimes combining the ideas is simple, sometimes the act of combining them morphs into something entirely different. The final design starts to take shape and I can then work on the details and better define the finite decisions. There is intention behind every decision whether it is aligning the view corridors with the kitchen window, hiding a vantage point with a specimen tree, creating a visual hierarchy…. Each design decision dominoes and creates a web that ties everything together.

Marking up a plan for revisions, Elevation view sketch of an outdoor grill station


One of both beautiful and maddening things about landscape design is that it is never complete, never finalized. Plants grow, some things thrive while others don’t. The changing of the seasons and each year of growth adds to the beauty of what was initially set in motion by a discussion and some trace paper. Even through the design and installation process the design is in a constant state of evolution. The concepts become a revised layout, then a planting plan and final layout, materials are selected, plants and substitutions are sourced, then the design is interpreted and realized by talented installers, and then cared for and nurtured by gardeners evolving over a lifetime.

Outdoor light fixture selection process, Presentation package of drawings and folder

The design does not belong to the designer though. The designer is simply the conductor or the conduit by which the design is translated, developed, or hatched. Bringing together the experience of past projects with the ideas of the client and pairing that with the ideal installer brings it all to life. The process is fun and energizing but can be mentally taxing.

Creativity cannot be constant; we all need time to rest and achieve balance. I have found that the better my in-between time and my ability to shut it off, the more in-flow I can get and the more inspired I am in the zone. The down time also develops experiences, mental imagery, and feelings that can then be translated into design inspiration when the time comes.

Excavator moving soil, Pruning fern for spring, Paver patio installation in progress

What inspires you? What processes have you developed that give you the perfect structure to be creative or express your talents?