How Simple Is Too Simple?

In a previous post exploring the differences between how dogs and people see the world, I wondered whether seasonal changes in the garden, as well as the opportunity to look at things both near and far, might help keep us visually engaged given how human brains are wired to view a scene.

But I’ve since been pondering why we can find ourselves immensely attracted to some very simple garden spaces, in which little seems to happen over time.

A dip back into one of my favorite books, “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being” by Dr. Esther Sternberg (2009), suggests one explanation.* It turns out that people like looking at complex patterns. In particular, we like looking at fractals, which in essence are patterns that repeat themselves at different scales (so that larger parts of the pattern look very similar to smaller parts of the pattern). Fractals are often found in nature and in art, and they can also be generated mathematically using fractal geometry.

Fern Leaf

For reasons not yet entirely clear, looking at fractal patterns both engages the human mind and helps to calm it.

As Dr. Sternberg reports, the ancient designers of the famous Japanese Zen meditation garden at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto apparently figured this out centuries ago. Using modern mathematics, researchers have shown that the placement of rocks in that deceptively simple space follows very precise fractal arrangements.

Ryoanji Rock Garden

So one lesson learned: seemingly simple but beautifully designed spaces are probably much more visually complex than we realize.

A bit more cruising around the Web then led me to related research, which also has piqued my interest. Apparently, not all fractal patterns are equally pleasing.

It seems we have a bit of a “Goldilocks” attitude when it comes to fractals and stress reduction — we don’t want them to be too smooth and uninvolved but we also don’t them to be overly intricate. If you’re wondering what kind of patterns we prefer, consider that cloud formations, mountain ranges and the outlines of trees all seem have the “right” degree of complexity to soothe the human eye and mind.**

Designers have long understood the visual appeal of fractal patterns generally — and as a landscape and garden designer, it’s easy to incorporate them since they’re everywhere in the natural world. But I’m intrigued by the potential of applying the emerging research on fractal preferences to my design work since I’m particularly interested in creating outdoor spaces that reduce stress and promote well being.

So, for example, I’ll definitely be thinking about how to use appropriately complex fractal patterns even in simple gardens meant to convey serenity and peace. Perhaps those patterns will come in the form of textured materials such as reclaimed wood and weathered Cor-Ten steel. Or, from a planting design perspective, I could work interesting fractal patterns in through the artful massing of perennials, grasses and ferns or the winter silhouettes of trees. I’ll try to avoid designs where the hardscape and planting elements are so smooth and uniform that the eye has little to catch onto and engage the mind.

And I’ve even come up with my own Zen-like motto (with apologies to anyone who actually knows something about Zen): Simplicity can be a good thing – as long as it’s sufficiently complex.

*  See discussion in “Healing Spaces” at pp. 33-5.

** Informative discussions about fractal preferences with helpful illustrations can be found here and here.

photo credit: Group of Trees at Sunset via photopin (license)

photo credit for fern leaf: 2010-03-20 081 via photopin (license)

photo credit: Karesansui garden in Ryoan-ji Temple via photopin (license)


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