Please forgive me, but for my first article on the theory of design, I am going to start off on a tangent. I will get to the point eventually, I promise.
One of the basic theories of composition in visual arts is the theory of Hierarchy. In this post I will discuss this in a basic way, but with emphasis on the use of hierarchy in design generally. If you consider a picture, it can look very complicated. By dividing the picture up into the largest shapes you can create a sense of order, while the smaller shapes conform to this order.
That sounds difficult, but it is something you probably do naturally all the time.
Ok you are thirsty... so... what do you do? You make a cup of tea. There are all kinds of things involved in making a cup of tea, but these details are subordinated. Making a cup of tea involves boiling a kettle, filling a cup with water, putting a tea bag into the cup, swirling it with a spoon. And each of those steps involves hundreds of things you don’t need to think about.
Hierarchy in art is simply the requirement that you know what the big picture is... the fact you want to make a cup of tea... and considering that first. It involves ignoring the smallest details.
It is easiest to see in old cartoon and illustration.
Look at this cartoon figure. It is from a book by Preston Blair. You will notice that he draws the big shapes... cubes... spheres and similar first. Then he draws the second subsidiary details next. And finally, there are some very fine details. The biggest things are considered first, and the smaller details conform to the bigger picture.
Or consider this (rather old) advertisement. Your eye is led around it is a specific order. First to the woman, then to the title, and finally to the detail of what she is scrubbing with. By having the title as the most important element of the design, people know what the story is immediately.
As a compositional principal, hierarchy is in almost every human art, and I would say in almost every good garden design too.
Of course, garden design is more complicated than a drawing design. Rather than designing from one viewpoint, you have to design in three dimensions. But the same principal applies to all great gardens.
When designing a garden, you need to consider where people will first see it. For example, will they see it from a seat, or a path? One you know the main viewpoints, you can design shapes almost like it is a two dimensional picture.
Decide what the largest shapes they will see once you plant the garden. Are those shapes oblongs, rectangles, or non-geometric shapes that will suit a herbaceous border? But, if you were partially sighted and couldn’t see anything but a blur... what would be the essence that you see?
Once you have designed these major shapes, break each shape down further.
Consider the other principals of design, such as unity, contrast, in these subdivisions. But, the fundamental requirement in is to know what the most important shapes will be from any viewpoint. What the person has to take away for a glance at the garden design for the garden to be successful, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it.
Once you achieve this big picture view it is much easier to develop the next level of the hierarchy... whether you will use specific colours, or shapes of plant which contrast with each other... because each large shape in your design will be something you can apply further hierarchy to subdivide further.
Make a practice every time you look at a garden to notice the very largest shapes... the structure of the garden... before the details. Try to watch your mind... see what it notices first, then what it notices next. What are the largest shapes.
By understanding what the most important thing is for someone to see first, and then the second most important thing, and the third important thing, you will be able to subordinate the small details to the big pictures.
And this will make your garden better.
I intend to discuss the other principals of visual arts latter on in this blog, and hope that by considering garden design outside of the normal context, it will offer some unusual thoughts that will help you design gardens more effectively.