Shaping your place

  • fatweb
  • Gardens
  • June 30, 2014
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Using the principals of design in your landscape


By Katie Costain and Ben Freeman

The principles of design and composition help create a harmonious object or space. These principles are translatable across many mediums and while some may be more important than others depending on the discipline, they are the fundamentals of all good and robust design.

They are used every day by architects and designers, and can be easily employed by you too if you choose to design your garden yourself. Here are a few of the basics to get you started.

A line is a way of defining the form of an object, creating movement and giving your eye a path to travel across your landscape. In design, straight lines are sharp, powerful and indicate length. By contrast, curves convey a sense of the organic, soft curving lines can reflect the human body and are often pleasing and softening in your landscape.

Angles can create discourse and edginess, but they can also create a sense of structure and strength. Use and take inspiration from the lines of your house, the seasonal lines the sun follows, lines the shadows create. You can also use sight lines from key spaces inside your home, and then again, eye lines from your neighbour’s house. When drawing a plan, find interesting intersections where lines meet and the shapes these lines create.

Shape and form
By using the right shapes, sizes and proportion, you can enhance the organic shapes of plants, creating a beautiful balance and sense of depth. You can also create a strong sense of shape and form with planting alone. Try mixing small leaf shrubs placed behind the striking form of spear shaped leaved plants and flaxes, or larger leaves mixed with grasses or succulents for an exuberant palette of texture and forms in your space.

The relationship of forms in any spatial design is so important. How the forms in your landscape connect and relate with each other determine how you will move around and perceive your landscape.

Creating space is easy; creating a sense of space is difficult. The term ‘form follows function’ should be the moniker of every designer and it is an absolute golden rule when designing your landscape.

First, identify what it is you need the space for. Is it for entertaining? Is it for enjoying breakfast or for enjoying your spa pool? These questions will define the use of the space and then describe the type of space you need. A spa area tells us you may want a more private and therefore intimate space, while an entertaining space is more public and therefore needs to be an open and inviting space.

Positive and negative space
The use of positive and negative space is a great tool in creating composition and organisation in your design. Consider an object as positive space and the space around the object as negative space.

By using more negative space you are increasing the hierarchy of the positive space. For example, the importance of a feature plant is given more hierarchy when it has space around it than if it was planted amongst dense planting. Although do be careful, too much negative space, and the positive object can look a little lonely.

Hierarchy is a term used to describe the importance of elements in a design. It creates a narrative or story for the eye to follow. Consider your landscape and figure out what is the most important element you would like to showcase and give it hierarchy. Try adding height such as a raised terrace. Visually, elevated elements stand above the rest.

The use of light in design is so important, without it we wouldn’t really see much of the design, so use plenty of it! It is also a great tool to establish hierarchy by spotlighting elements in your landscape. When designing your landscape, consider light in your garden, the path the sun takes and the shadows that are cast as a result. Using up-lighting is a fantastic way to create drama and sometimes even prestige in your landscape. In contrast, background lighting creates a sense of depth, whilst still highlighting the garden.

You can create depth in your garden by layering plants. Taller plants belong at the back, medium sized in the middle and ground covers at the front of the garden bed. This not only adds a physical depth, but if done correctly, it can provide depth through colour and texture too.

These are a few of the design principles and composition tools used by designers
to achieve a harmonious, and more importantly, functional design. It may be a little overwhelming when considering creating a plan for your landscape, but these principles will help you establish a well-considered design.


Katie Costain and Ben Freeman are the directors of Billygoat Landscape Architecture (BGLA), based in Canterbury and Wellington. For more information, visit


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