Applying Lean Design Thinking to Landscape Architecture Practice

The Story

Community planning consultants Happyland Collective, based in the Netherlands, conducted research in 2012-13 to find alignment between “lean startup” principles and “design thinking” principles (a new framework called “lean design thinking” developed by Muller & Thoring in 2012) and the landscape architecture design process. By combining a landscape architect’s competencies with these entrepreneurial thinking frameworks, design is no longer a product but a process for solving problems and discovering new opportunities.

The only limit of Muller & Thoring’s research is that it does not specifically describe how to apply the framework in practice. Happyland’s goal is to evolve Lean Design Thinking by defining its gaps and more clearly describing the skills required for a landscape architect to implement the framework.


Lean” is a term coined in the 1980s to describe Toyota’s manufacturing process. The core concept is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Although most commonly related to manufacturing, “lean” can be applied to any business or process.

Like “lean”, “design thinking” is also a customer focused approach. Based on principles familiar to designers who work in multidisciplinary teams, the design consultant IDEO created this methodology in the late 1990s. “Design thinking” makes use of extensive primary market research, feedback loops, and iteration/revision cycles.

“Lean design thinking” combines the efficiencies gained from “lean” thinking with the iterative process of “design thinking” while maintaining a customer-value driven focus. Happyland identified a list of entrepreneurial and social skills landscape architects need to develop to implement “lean design thinking.” These include: formulating, representing, moving, bringing problems & solutions together, evaluating, reflecting, and more.


Why would you try to implement one or all of these methods in your landscape architecture practice? Being as “lean” as possible is important in the AEC industry as competition remains fierce and the race to the bottom for fees is still happening. The only way to maintain or improve margins is to evaluate your business model and processes, eliminate the ones that do not add customer-value or are redundant, and refine processes/services that add customer-value.

“Design thinking” is just solid, iterative design process that most landscape architects apply in one way or another, increase the value of the design process, and therefore improve the end product. Looking critically at your process with this framework allows the firm to increase profits by broadening their scope on existing projects, identify more profitable, niche revenue streams, and validate the processes that are already effective.

So how do we navigate an iterative design process as efficiently as possible while maintaining our customer-value focus? Let’s think of processes that landscape architects waste resources (time) on:

  • Manual takeoffs
  • Hunting for design resources
  • Re-creating details from scratch
  • Poor file structure
  • Drawing revisions

How can we improve or fix these processes:

  • Improved organizational documentation
  • Organized design resources
  • Unified detail libraries
  • Use technology to automate processes where possible

In a nutshell, there is no reason that a landscape architect who bills at $100 per hour should be spending six hours counting, and recounting, plants or eight hours drawing a detail that already existed in another project when software exists to accomplish those tasks. Once you have those eight hours back you can then decide on how to spend it: adding value (better design) for your client OR finding the next project (business development).


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