Studio Calcinai

The Discovery Garden

Client: Wellington Botanic Garden, Wellington City Council
Design: James Calcinai with Johannes Bay

We were asked to help visitors navigate and understand the ideas presented by new ‘living classroom’ at Wellington Botanic Garden. City life provides few opportunities to connect with nature. To address this, Wellington Botanic Garden created a new garden to help children aged 4–12 and their families better understand how plants support us with food, fibre, medicine and construction materials. These ‘four pillars’ influenced the design of the garden and form the basis of its education programme. Our task was to use the spatial design developed by Isthmus to create environmental graphics that would bring the garden to life for visitors.

Initially, the client expressed a desire for extensive interpretive content. With fresh eyes on the project, we were able to see it was vital to allow the garden  to grow and evolve before introducing more elements than were necessary. To refocus the project on how the garden would benefit visitors, we suggested changing the name to The Discovery Garden. This ethos shaped our methodology, and gave us and the client permission to try, test and learn together. Its Māori name, Te Kaapuia o Te Waoku, was chosen after working with local iwi.

Our challenge was to help visitors confidently navigate the space, engage with it physically, and learn through both their own exploration and the information we provided – without detracting from the stars of the garden: the plants themselves. Applying a wayfinding system to the existing architecture would allow us to enhance the visitor experience without unnecessarily adding to or interrupting the design of the garden. Large text, bold colours, pared-back illustration and plain language could define the four ‘zones’ in an appealing way for the target audience, some of whom would be non-readers. Carefully placed interactive elements would encourage visitors to engage with the garden and make their own discoveries. Bilingual text would introduce another layer of information to discover, and acknowledge the connection mana whenua have with the area. By user-testing designs we could avoid creating signs that weren’t appealing or clear to the intended audience. 

To the architectural surfaces we applied large-scale type in bold colours. These signs will weather along with the materials they are painted on, further embedding them in the environment. Super-sized ‘garden pegs’ were designed to welcome visitors to the garden. With peek holes and a maze-like configuration, these signs create an interactive space, reinforce the four key colours used for wayfinding, and feature the illustrated characters developed with a partner studio. The final designs for these characters was informed by feedback from local school children. We worked closely with a writer to develop humorous poems and curiosity-sparking text about each topic, which were also tested with the target audience. Gamified information boards were created to further engage visitors with content. These can be switched out periodically to reflect changes in the garden. Donors were recognised with a wall of ‘donor pegs’, with the colour and size of each peg reflecting the contribution made by each person or organisation.