Principles Of Design

The Principles Of Design

In this article we examine some of the design principles you might think about using when planning your garden, it should give you some food for thought!

landscape plan of garden

Intro: The fact that a design looks attractive is usually not a matter of chance. Visually pleasing compositions are usually a result of a well thought out, disciplined effort partially based on a set of Design Principles. These principles apply to all types of design, regardless of materials or scale. They are not hard and fast rules that must be followed to guarantee success. They are, however, suggested thoughts to keep in mind as helpful guidelines.

Diagram showing order or lack of in a garden


Order can be defined as the overall organization and structure of the design; i.e. the skeleton of the design.

Without order, a design becomes fragmented into unrelated parts that results in a disjointed, uncoordinated appearance.

The design should create a theme which carries on throughout the composition. Garden styles are often used to create order throughout a design.

Example of lack of unity

Example of disorder.

There are far too many materials used in such a
small space. This creates an untidy feel.

Try to use a maximum of 3 hardscape materials in your design.



Unity can be defined as the harmonious relationship among all elements and characteristics of a design.

A composition lacking unity can be described as being haphazard, chaotic and disorderly. In addition to the overall design, unity can be spoken of in terms of form, material, colour and texture. Unity is a visual quality that may not always be consciously perceived, but is always sensed.

The easiest way to establish unity is to limit the complexity and number to one. Most compositions require the use of more than one element.

diagram showing disunity of 2

Dis-unity of 2:

Combinations of two similar elements tend to destroy unity because competition between the two is established.

Your eye can become unsettled because your attention is taken from one element to another without settling on either. It’s a little like watching a tennis match!

Diagram of unity of 3

Unity of 3:

Three elements of the same type balance and equalize one another. The eye does not settle on one element but relates to the cluster as a whole.

That is why plant groupings are usually in threes or other odd numbers. This avoids the competition of two.

Example of lack of unity

Unity and order go hand in hand, and too many various materials and shapes create disharmony/

Example of lack of order in a garden

Back to the same picture again!

Not only is there a lack of order but also a lack of unity in the materials used.

diagram of different types of unity

Maintain unity with shape and texture, create interest by varying size.

Another way to provide unity is to simplify the diversity or differences among the elements.

Too much similarity can be boring. Variety can be created by altering some, but not all of the potential variables.

In this example the colour of the units has stayed the same, but interest has been added by changing their sizes.

Example of interest with unity

In this example the stone wall has the same colour, but interest is added with the varied sizes of the stone.

In the back ground there is a wall with identically sized blocks, and it is not nearly as interesting.

Picture of random stone path

This is part of an Edna Walling garden in Northern Victoria that Clive renovated.

The pavers are the same type, creating unity, whilst the variety creates interest. Another wonderful factor of gardening comes in here, and that is time.

The pavers all have spring flowering plants planted between them. So over time the picture changes dramatically. The next photo shows the same garden in spring.

Picture of same garden in spring

This is the same garden in spring.

Example of diversity with unity

You can also have the same size, but crate interest by varying other elements.

Picture of tulips in Holland

This is a garden in Holland, and whilst the size and shape of the flowers

are very similar, interest is created through the different flower colours

Diagram of unity using dominant item


Very similar to the unity of one. Due to the dominant element’s size, shape, tone, texture or location, all other elements are subordinate to it.

The eye is continually drawn back to the dominant element. This dominant element is usually known as the focal point.

Picture of flax as dominant element

What is the dominant element? You will probably noticed the Phormium tenax (Flax) as the most dominant element in this composition.

This can also be classed with major contrast where one element is so strikingly different that the other elements become subordinate.

Architectural plants tend to have this effect.

Picture showing sculpture as dominant element

There are two dominant elements in this composition. The first is the sculpture in the foreground. It dominates the smaller elements around it.

The conifer in the background is the dominant element there because it has more visual weight.

Picture showing how to frame a view

The pergola in this slide was constructed with wider posts near the house and narrower ones near the lake. This creates perspective and leads the eye to the bridge in the background.

This is also known as “framing the view” where you deliberately plant or construct something to lead the eye where you want it to go.

Picture of yellow tulips as dominant colour element

The yellow tulips surrounded by the dark shadow draw the eye.

It is here that we again can see the importance of visual weight. This is not measured in terms of size or mass, but rather how the object draws our visual attention.

That’s the end of part one, maybe time to have a break and think about

some of the things talked about? We carry with the page

Principles of Design Part 2

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