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On Collaboration and Creativity

by Todd Johnson

Posted on Spring 2017 Issue

photo by Dave Anderson
Johnson Leads students in a site visit to Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah, the department's major design challenge in 2015-16. After months of work on all aspects of the enterprise, located in one of the state's fastest growing areas, students made recommendations to guide future plans for Thanksgiving Point and surrounding communities

The alumni experience in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning varies from person to person. Beckoned by nostalgia and by a wish to engage in our program, alumni are encouraged to participate as speakers, mentors and contributors. I experienced this in my own pathway as a return speaker, an alumni board member, board chair and now teaching here as a practitioner-in-residence. My observations 30 years ago were critical of where the program was headed. At some point in this journey, it struck me that if I was going to complain about the program then I should be willing to do something about it.


Founded 15 years ago, the LAEP Alumni Board sought to define its mission. I was there for the inaugural event and picture taking. I remember poking around the studios to see the work on the walls and the students milling about, but found little evidence of either. Seeing the vacant studio, I flashed back 25 years when as a first-week sophomore my professor and older brother looked me in the eye and said, “Get your butt (sic) in the studio and keep it there!” The point Craig was trying to make was that we learn from each other and build a studio-learning atmosphere by being there and facing creative challenges with our colleagues.


I faced the same challenges in 40 years of private practice. The quintessential challenge has always been the same: How to stimulate a creative and productive atmosphere among smart and independent colleagues, where critical thinking and discovery are the norm? Not surprisingly, the issues and answers in practice are much the same as they are in the academy. We do not alter our instincts or life-experiences as we step from the academy into professional practice. If we have not been taught how to deepen our investigations in collaborative settings, the work will be superficial. Here are some lessons learned in going from primary education (high school in Minnesota), to the academy (undergraduate student at USU), to practice (Calgary, Alberta), to the academy (graduate student at Harvard), to practice (Denver), to the academy (practitioner-in-residence at USU):

  1. Autocratic teaching methods are the norm in primary and secondary education where learning conforms to a predetermined syllabus and a sequence of fact-based lessons.

  2. Teaching in the creative realms, like landscape architecture, requires a more investigative teaching style. These question-based methods of problem solving are new to our incoming freshmen and sophomores.

  3. Graphics, history and theory of design are typically taught in a conventional manner. Design is the synthesis of these skills and information into new and unique patterns. To learn design requires an open studio where questions can get immediate answers, where trial and error and criticism abounds.

  4. Establishing a “studio culture”, with students competing less and cooperating more, is essential for accelerated design competency.

  5. Occupying a common studio space and interaction among students in various class levels, including graduate students, result in forming the collaborative skills and poise that are essential in professional settings.


Each stage in my career, oscillating from school to practice and back, has highlighted the importance of group learning and discovery-based problem solving. Look at the literature of “studio learning” and you will find that many fields are using these forms of learning to develop complex problem solving skills. The complexity of contemporary global challenges requires that we prepare well-rounded and competent graduates who are ready to collaborate with others on the world’s greatest issues.

About the Author

Todd Johnson is practitioner-in-residence and associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. He was born in Willmar, Minnesota into a family with two older brothers, the oldest of whom taught landscape architecture at USU for 42 years. Johnson received his bachelor’s degree in LAEP in 1976 from USU. He worked in a professional landscape architecture practice and then attended Harvard University, where he received his master’s degree in 1982. He has practiced professionally in landscape architecture since 1976 and been a partner in two successful design practices with national and international reputations. Among his research and teaching interests is helping students develop an awareness of how blending entrepreneurship in business practices with the design process can create powerful design outcomes.