In a past life, I spent my summers doing landscape maintenance and construction. While much of the work was fairly routine—pushing lawnmowers and trimming hedges—I developed a keen eye for working with greenspaces in my community.
Now that I work for a company that specializes in outdoor site furnishings, my attention has grown to include hardscape layouts as well—particularly related to traffic and vehicle control. I look at how ground materials and grading can affect installations and how effective site planning can affect usability.
In this post, we'll take a step back to look at the broader principles of landscape design—as well as some key strategies in developing great designs suitable for any urban or greenspace environment.
1. Effective landscape design improves user experience
Repetition of color and texture helps create harmony
Planning and organization make a property easier to read and navigate—helping increase comfort and familiarity.
When planning any landscape, it's important to know how it will be used. Once you know how you want people to see and use a space, every design decision should stem from this idea. Will it be an active space or one made for leisure? Are you looking to attract visitors or guide them to another location?
Planning should take into account the full space available, including both hardscapes (paved areas, patios, fences, posts and other non-organic structures) and softscapes (gardens, trees, lawns and other plant materials).
It's also important to take into account existing site conditions in the final design of a project. Things like slopes, drainage, utilities and existing structures—as well as climate and other environmental considerations—can have a significant impact on planning and design. Physical characteristics affect the construction and performance of hardscapes, while climate and drainage may limit the type of plants that can be used.
As we survey different design principles, keep in mind that Reliance Foundry offers a range of decorative bollards that can reinforce many of the strategies discussed in this article.
2. Create unity through consistency and repetition
Once we know how we want users to interact with a landscape, we need to develop a conceptual focus.
To learn more about how professional site designers plan their projects, I consulted local Commercial and Residential Designer, Sarah d'Artois of Greenspace Design & Décor. Greenspace specializes in artificial landscape installations for both interiors and exteriors. They do both residential and commercial projects, and their work can be seen at the Vancouver Airport, the Vancouver Aquarium and the Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver.
When it comes to planning a new project, "Unity and cohesion are key principles of design, which are always a major consideration in the initial process of a project," says d'Artois. "Without harmony, a space will lack completeness, which users sense intuitively whether they know it or not. We select certain elements to focus on, such as line, texture and shape, and combine those with selected principles—repetition, for example. Repeating a certain texture or shape throughout the landscape will help create unity."
Dominant characteristics—or attention-grabbing focal points—are key to establishing strong patterns. Unique tree species or decorative architectural features, for example, are ideal for building entrances, pathways, leisure spaces or other places of interest.
Read more about how site furnishings can improve community spaces.
3. Strong lines make for strong designs
Curved lines encourage movement at Ritsurin Garden, Japan
Lines influence how visitors interpret and navigate a landscape. They tie elements together, achieving unity through interconnection or distinguishing unique elements.
D'Artois offers some perspective on how she uses lines in her work: "Lines are an integral element of design and will evoke different effects. Horizontal lines create a sense of ease and relaxation, where vertical lines suggest a more dynamic sense of expansion. Analyzing a client's style and ensuring unity with the rest of the property is the first thing to consider in any new project."
"If the property is intended for relaxation, such as in a spa, we'll use horizontal lines," says d'Artois. "When designing an interactive exterior landscape, we'll incorporate dynamic and curved lines to encourage people to explore."
Site walkability is not just a goal, but a requirement for many designers. Learn more about how active design can help encourage more active lifestyles.
4. Use straight lines for order, curved lines for movement
Form and shape create balance and symmetry
Straight and curved lines can be used to reinforce order and encourage movement.
Ordered, straight-line landscapes are common in urban settings, such as busy downtown environments, where vehicles and pedestrians need to move around as quick and efficient as possible. Straight-line landscapes also complement the basic rectangular shapes of traditional office building architecture—though, with more modern building styles, curved lines are also common. Straight-line configurations with lots of plant material can be labor-intensive to maintain, as plants require significant attention and pruning to keep their intended forms.
Curved-line landscapes emphasize more natural forms and asymmetric compositions. We can look to traditional Japanese gardens for examples of free-form, natural landscapes that embrace asymmetrical compositions. As d'Artois mentions above, these types of spaces encourage more intuitive or fanciful wandering and exploration.
Curved lines can also be used to create focal points for attention. Curves naturally embrace radial movements and imply a central point. Curved lines are common around water elements, reinforcing natural waterlines or drawing attention to fountains or ponds.
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5. Keep balance and symmetry in mind
Horizontal lines create calming environments
Landscapes should be designed with balance in mind. Balance can be achieved both formally and informally by mirroring like materials and forms.
"Balance and symmetry are integral to design," says d'Artois. "It's impossible to ignore a picture frame that hangs crooked on a wall, or a lone tree that appears out of place in a garden. Landscape design should flow naturally—however, key principles should still be followed. Designers can create focal points by emphasizing certain areas, but the focal points must have some unifying factor within the overall space."
6. Direct attention with form and shape
Vertical columns direct attention and create scale
All design elements have a certain degree of form—whether it be in the shape of an elaborate building, a picnic table or a vapid expanse of pavement. Form describes the shape of an object, as well as the relation between objects. We can also look at both positive and negative space.
Trees offer a huge range of shapes to work with. Conical- and column-shaped trees direct attention upwards, which can reinforce open areas or guide attention to tall buildings. Willows and other trees with draping branches attract attention and emphasize their immediate surroundings—making excellent compositional elements for water features and leisure areas.
Trees with high trunks can create shade-giving canopies for benches or other features. When set in a line, trees and shrubs can create barriers and direct people and traffic.
7. Play with scale to make people feel large or small
When we look at scale we compare relationships between objects. The most useful comparison is how an environment measures up to an ordinary person.
"Playing with scale in landscape design can tremendously affect the feeling of an area, and it must be executed carefully to maintain balance," says d'Artois. "Large boulders next to tiny flowers are an obvious misuse of scale. However, intentional misuse of scale lends well to playground designs, where it allows kids to feel taller in their environment."
D'Artois says, "Successful use of scale takes into account the total square footage of architectural components onsite, as well as the area to be landscaped. A variety of heights, materials and plants can then be selected to reflect the qualities the designer wants to enhance, or distract away from."
8. Inspire emotional context with texture and color
Texture and form work together
Texture and color create more subtle emotional and psychological impacts. Plant materials feature a range of textures—broad and short leaves, long limbs and dense foliage. Broad leaves are the most attention-grabbing, as they often shimmer and rustle in the wind. Compact shrubs with small leaves, when kept trimmed, can appear almost smooth from a distance.
Other surfaces can complement or contrast surrounding greenery. Concrete and paving stones can reflect the design and texture of rockwork throughout a site, and different types of wood features can complement surrounding trees.
Color can also be a very dynamic and overt means to drawing attention. Bright colors make a place feel more energetic and alive, while neutral and subdued colors have a more calming effect. When designing buildings and other structural elements, natural earth colors—greys, blacks, deep browns and greens, as well as woodgrain tints—complement natural landscape elements such as garden soil, grass lawns, water features, and rock and concrete structures. On the other hand, bright synthetic colors—reds, oranges, yellows, pinks and purples—stand out and may even clash with surrounding greenspaces.
9. Design for people
Universal design enhances user experience and minimizes wasted space
It's important to remember that landscape design is for the benefit of people. High-traffic urban locations typically require more hardscape materials and areas for social interaction. Places like plazas, college campuses, retail centers and transit stations need to accommodate both pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Parks, decorative courtyards and country clubs, on the other hand, typically benefit from more natural greenspaces.
D'Artois also emphasizes the importance of universal access in ensuring effective design. "If a user is unable to access certain areas, these spaces become irrelevant and wasted. Universal design is the principle of designing for all users, regardless of age or ability. Landscape design is intended to enhance the quality of the user's experience outdoors. This would include patio and pathway circulation, ground-cover transitions and lighting to ensure safety for all ages."
Great landscape design embraces strong architectural patterns. It also requires that we work within the scope and forms available to us. When developing new landscape designs, or re-visioning existing ones, consider the landscapes and locations you enjoy. Using the design elements that we've looked at, look for neighborhoods and communities that integrate elements that you'd like to achieve—or that deal with similar urban or climatic constraints.
These basic principles are intended to guide the development of personal style and taste, while encouraging new ideas. With a better sense of the right tools and strategies, we learn the means to better analyze, plan and implement great landscape design.
- "8 Principles of Landscape Design." Weekend Gardener. WM Media.
- Boulden, Steve. "The Basic Principles Of Landscape Design." The Landscape Design Site.
- Colorado Master Gardener Program. "Water Wise Landscaping: Principles of Landscape Design." GardenNotes. Colorado State University.
- Colorado Master Gardener Program. "Water Wise Landscape Design." GardenNotes. Colorado State University.
- Crisman, Phoebe. "Form." Whole Building Design Guide.
- The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "Basic Principles of Landscape Design." University of Florida.
- Great landscape design focuses on user experience: La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Repetition of color and texture helps create harmony: William Murphy, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Curved lines encourage movement at Ritsurin Garden, Japan: Public domain, via WikiCommons
- Form and shape create balance and symmetry: William Cho, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Horizontal lines create calming environments: La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Vertical columns direct attention and create scale: Jim G, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr
- Texture and form work together: William Murphy, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Universal design enhances user experience and minimizes wasted space: La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr