Could a CD-ROM be as good as hiring an expert? Or in other words, why hire a landscaper to design your yard when you could get Sierra LandDesigner 3D? (Yes, that Sierra!)
Sierra LandDesigner 3D brings together the information you need to design a garden – and it lets you build the garden yourself using 3D graphics. This is a vision where software could help you plan a complicated, logistically challenging project, something you’d normally need a professional’s skills to create. Imagine you’re a middle-class homeowner in the late 90s who’s gotten comfortable with the computer they’ve now owned for a few years. Could you really go to the electronics store and buy a program that could do the work of a professional planner?
Well, nearly. Although LandDesigner 3D doesn’t take enough advantage of all its gardening knowledge to replace an expert, it does successfully turn 3D design software into a welcoming product.
LandDesigner 3D was among the first titles in Sierra’s line of productivity and lifestyle software called Sierra Home – which, yes, is strange. Sierra is known for their long history of games, not home productivity software. But that was a big competitive market in the 90s, and software companies pounced on it, with studios such as SimCity developer Maxis releasing software like the publishing program Print Artist. Sierra expanded into this market by buying a handful of existing titles and properties,1,2,3 including yanking the rights to Maxis’s Print Artist out from underneath them.1,4
Sierra’s landscaping program, originally developed by Green Thumb Software,5 was bundled with a full software suite called Complete LandDesigner that also featured a deck-designing program and a gardening encyclopedia. They marketed it as a complete package for what they deemed “the fastest growing hobby for millions of baby boomers.”6,7 (That’s an recurring theme with many of these home productivity programs – premium software for an upscale lifestyle.) But really, LandDesigner (or 3D Landscape as it’s called here) is close to complete package all on its own.
LandDesigner 3D wants to walk you end-to-end through the entire landscaping process. It focuses on the importance of advance planning, understanding the full scope of the project and taking the time to “figure out the whole, then build and plant one section at a time as your budget and schedule permit.” First you answer questions about your property, like your climate zone, and plot out the shape of your land and your home, your driveway, your patio, and so on, so that your garden has context. Then you construct the landscape’s layout in 3D. The program filters through the available plants based on the characteristics you want such as size, shape, and color. You can watch how the garden will grow over the years and how the plants cast shadows over the course of a day. It’s thorough.
The program goes to great efforts to make this personable. It tries to be more human than spreadsheet. A friendly voiceover talks you through every step while Weather Channel-y acoustic guitar music plays. The pre-planning questions are called an “interview,” like you’re talking with a person. If you want ideas, you can load sample gardens. And at the end, as one of the coolest features, the program estimates the total cost of your project and prints out a shopping list for you to bring to the supply store. It’s meant to take the pain out of the logistics so you can do the fun stuff.
And building a house and a garden is a heck of a lot of fun. You can go overboard on details, like adjusting the elevation of your lawn, marking power lines or vantage points, and placing individual doors on your house and changing the type of wood they use. Walking around in virtual reality feels awkward, but it’s genuinely cool to see your landscape in rudimentary 3D. (LandDesigner 3D also has a few ridiculous music options for your virtual tour – among others, an edgy baroque “Royal Age” fanfare and “Modern” music that sounds like it came out of a bad 90s sci-fi TV show. They’re overproduced, unnecessary, and dated… and terrific.)
Importantly for a creative design program, you can create weirdass unrealistic yards if you want. Gaze upon my horrible house made out of asphalt with a 30-foot-tall swimming pool:
However, it would take effort to assemble anything accurate. The interface is fiddly, and although it provides measurements for you to match your blueprints to actual your property dimensions, resizing and manipulating objects precisely is labor-intensive. (And why do you have to manually place siding around flower beds? Shouldn’t the program handle that automatically?) I could imagine needing to invest days into a design to get it right. For the target audience, that might be too much.
The program makes it possible for anyone, with patience, to create their own fantasy garden. It could still do better helping you plan it well. LandDesigner 3D spends so much time explaining how it works that, apart from the tutorials introducing a few planning concepts (like “Try to think about zones for different priorities, making each one the right size for one or more activities.”), it doesn’t get to the talk as much about the principles of landscaping. So you learn how to place trees without knowing the importance of different tree shapes.
More of that information is included in the Design Guide, a separate interlinked guidebook that touches on garden design theory, safety, specific measurements for construction, material comparisons and recommendations, and anything else useful for planning. The guide isn’t highly visible, though, pushed away into a dropdown menu as an optional reference, and it sometimes only has a few sentences per topic. You may not notice the guide’s absence because the program feels informative enough. The tutorial voiceover talks a lot – mainly, as it turns out, about how to use the interface rather than about gardening.
This leaves the program in a confusing, misleading place. It’s a useful tool that isn’t quite the interactive, shovel-ready planning guide it asserts to be. In a 1998 review in The New York Times, landscape architect Brian Higley criticized Sierra’s software for “not support[ing] good or even sensible design” like accounting for sun direction.8 LandDesigner 3D does address those sorts of concepts, just not usually incorporated effectively into the rest of the program. That’s a missed opportunity.
It seems to recognize that shortcoming, occasionally quietly recommending that you consult with a local professional gardener. LandDesigner 3D‘s real accomplishment is putting a friendly face on, basically, a 3D architecture program. After all, that’s the goal of software like Sierra Home. Its strength comes from its flexibility, the power for a non-tech-savvy homeowner to sketch up a dream garden with a $50 computer program.6 Hopefully those homeowners had the sense to talk to a landscaper before heading to Lowe’s to build a 30-foot pool.
LandDesigner 3D has some early basic internet functionality, mostly limited to sharing designs and garden walkthroughs. As a sign of the times, in the settings menu, you can select between using Netscape or Internet Explorer.
1. Sierra On-Line acquires leading software developer of home printing products. (1995, May 31). Business Wire. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/447027260?accountid=8285
2. Sierra On-Line acquires the leading developer of cooking software. (1995, September 13). Business Wire. Retrieved from Factiva
3. Sierra On-Line and Collier announce joint venture to develop multimedia encyclopedia. (1995, September 13). Business Wire. Retrieved from Factiva
4. Sierra On-Line Acquires Early Distribution Rights to Print Artist from Maxis. (1995, July 10). Business Wire. Retrieved from Factiva
5. Sierra On-Line Acquires Leading Developer of Home Productivity Software. (1995, July 17). Business Wire. Retrieved from Factiva
6. Sierra On-Line Sprouts New Product! (1996, March 12). Business Wire. Retrieved from Factiva
7. Create and Experience Your New Landscape in 3D with Complete LandDesigner, the Ultimate High-Tech Gardening Tool. (1998, March 9). Business Wire. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/446971671?accountid=8285
8. Grass on a roof? No problem. Just don’t change your mind. (1999, Jan 7). The New York Times. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/110129605?accountid=8285