DesignPlanning Your Design Journey: Four Lessons from LOTR

Planning Your Design Journey: Four Lessons from LOTR

Image above from the The Nature Conservancy’s Sheep Bridge Nature Preserve, an Io collaborative trailhead project currently in progress.

At Io LandArch we believe that the landscape + architecture planning and design process is a journey through thought and time to create sustainable and vibrant places, communities, and landscapes. It is an expedition often lined with challenging obstacles and critical decisions, but also a process filled with anticipation, magic, and finally a hero-worthy reward in the completion of a successful project.


What better quest archetype to look to for lessons in undertaking an epic design quest than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien? Tolkien’s novels are rich with symbolism representing the struggle between industrialization and nature. This series follows the central character, Frodo Baggins, in his quest to save his home the Shire (representing peace, nature, community, and sustainability), and all of Middle Earth from the forces of Mordor (representing greed, industrialization, war, and the degradation of nature). So, before you embark on your design quest, here are 5 critical lessons learned from Frodo and LOTR that are extremely relevant to your upcoming design process:

1. Know your destination.

“You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”― J.R.R. Tolkien.


Many of our clients have some idea of what they would like to achieve through the planning and design process, but the vision can be a little hazy, and the outcomes unclear.  Before you embark on your design journey it is absolutely critical to gain clarity on your objectives, and to identify the potential challenges and opportunities – so that you end up at the right destination with the desired outcome!

Rendering from our submission to the On the River’s Edge Competition.

2. Find a map.

“One does simply not walk into Mordor” – Boromir


One does not simply wish a project into existence – there is a process that you must follow, and that process might vary depending on the type and scale of the work which you are undertaking. For most Landscape+Architectural projects, this is a traditional design-bid-build sequence. For our projects we’ve added a project planning preceding this to help you gain perspective and plan (timing, phasing, budgeting) for the journey ahead. And then of course design plans are actual iterations of the future map of your project itself, which communicates your design vision to the contractor.

Image from the Logan Arts Master Plan, featuring community members at a public event providing input on what they’d like to see on a district map.

3. You are only as good as your fellowship.

In order to navigate your design journey you’ll need a whole team of capable professionals to help advise you, advocate for you, and guide your project forward – imagine when you are in the process of selecting your various consultants, that you are really selecting your fellowship, only instead of Sam, Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas you need a whole team of designers, engineers, and contractors who are not only capable of completing the task ahead, but who are genuinely aligned with your values, vision, and goals.

4. Know your enemy.

The forces of Mordor on the global scale are challenges we all share: climate change, inequitable communities, blight, and sprawl. In terms of your own planning-design-implementation journey you’ll have to navigate the dangerous terrain with traps of delay, budget, and sometimes legal/logistical hurdles. And along the way there are plenty of trolls masquerading as quick and easy solutions: Disneyfication, fake places, and the lure of maintenance-free landscapes. Your quest will likely face some of these directly or indirectly. Having an advisor that is armed with specific strategies to face some of these major challenges head-on is critical.

5. Find the magic.

“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early; he arrives precisely when he means to.”

— Gandalf


The most important lesson, however, is to make sure that you find your Gandalf. Having a great designer/planner by your side is critical to the successful outcome of your design quest. This person/team will not only help you conjure your big vision, draw you the map, and serve as your guide and advisor throughout your journey.

The Healy House’s historic garden in bloom.

At Io we believe in the importance of creating beautiful and sustainable places. Creating awe-inspiring ideas, and helping our clients on their journey to make these visions a reality is our design magic. The LOTR post should have a link back to one of our website pages.  

If you are ready to start your design quest, click here for community design or here for residential design.

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