Rules of Thumb that Guided Landscape Architect Carol Johnson’s Career

The recent death of landscape architect Carol Johnson has generated renewed interest in her extraordinary life and legacy. On Saturday, December 19, 2020, a Zoom memorial for family and close friends was held to honor Johnson. There were many anecdotes and recollections; among them a reading of Johnson’s rules of thumb that guided her career. Her niece Ginna Johnson, also a landscape architect, was kind enough to share them with us so that we could share them with you. 

The Rules of Thumb that Guided Carol’s Career From Her Autobiography A Life in the Landscape:

1. It’s better to do something simply than to over-complicate the design.

2. Never do anything totally arbitrary. Find a general reasoning for every choice of form, material, or course of action. A good design based on good reasoning will be more creative and communicative than one without reason.

3. Never substitute methodology for original thought.

4. Never delay thinking during an information gathering or analysis phase.

5. Search for the details and the grand vision simultaneously.

6. Never assume that using high-quality materials makes a good design.

7. No detail is too small to attend to. “God is in the details.”

8. Be a good listener. Think and evaluate as you listen.

9. Search out and improve lost spaces.

10. Heal the land.

11. Design with an ongoing maintenance plan in mind.

12. Look at all imaginable options, even if at first you don’t like some of them.

13. Always pay attention to the design of the ground form. Sometimes the flattest places are the most difficult.

14. Search out the best collaborators for a design team—artists, architects, engineers, ecologists, biologists, arborists.

15. Work with the community.

16. Maximize the sense of the natural environment and the seasons and cultural landscape at the same time. Emphasize the unique resources of both.