Principles of Design

December 31st, 2010


When designing, it is important to understanding the Principles of Design. They are formal set of rules and guidelines which form the foundation of good design. Here, they are adapted for designing gardens.

Genius loci

Genius loci is the atmosphere or character of a site, from which design inspirations can be drawn. The contributing factors are surrounding views, buildings, location and climate. It is also an emotional response and thus subject to personal interpretation.

I am based in Chiswick, an old suburb in London. I am not far from the river Thames; the houses here were mostly built in Victorian times, some are even older. So there is an old tradional feel to the area. The climate here is warm and temperate.


Principles of Design

Principles of Design - Unity (by David Powell)

Unity is described as making strong links between the design elements of ideas, style, detail and surroundings. These elements work together to provide direction and purpose.

Unity of Ideas – Ideas or themes form the basis of a design; from which other elements can be readily derived. Examples of ideas are formal Italianate, Japanese and Mediterranean gardens. I have a New Zealand garden, quite a popular theme as it is also low maintenance.

Unity of Style – Style is the arrangement of geometric shapes in the design and is categorised as formal, asymmetrical and informal.

  • In formal designs, rectangular and circular shapes are arranged in lines of symmetry; this arrangement is orderly and predictable, it creates rest and calm feelings.
  • Asymmetrical style has shapes arranged in an erratic or irregular way. They can be overlapping or arranged at an angle. This gives the feeling of movement and is ideal for small town gardens.
  • Informal garden style is based on curves of varying radii. This gives the feeling of free flowing and invites the visitor to explore. An example of an informal garden is a Japanese garden.

Unity of Detail – Detail is the linkage between the garden and the architecture. This can be achieved by the careful use of materials, colour and plants.

Unity with Surroundings – Surrounding is the linkage between the garden and the neighbourhood. Whether this an urban or rural area etc.


Simplicity means not having too many elements or ideas in a design; this can also be achieved by limiting the number of different materials and garden features to give a calm, uncluttered feeling.


Balance is the ratio between mass and voids, heavy and light, large and small etc. They should be of equal proportion. For example a group of closely planted, dense, tall shrubs should be followed by a group of lighter, shorter perennials to balance the solid feel of the shrubs. As a rule choosing plants in tall, medium and short sizes arranged in a triangle will achieve a good balance within a planting group.

Scale and Proportion

Scale and distance used in design are related to the size of a human figure. A more generous scale is needed in gardens than in buildings, creating an open and relaxed feeling. Oversized objects or structures if used sparingly can create energy and excitement.
There is a magic number in proportions referred as the golden mean. A rectangle with its length 1.618 times its width is found to be most pleasing to the eye. Designs often use ‘rule of thirds’ as a satisfactory approximation; for example, a long garden can be split into 1/3 and 2/3.

Rhythm and Repetition

Rhythm is created by repeating shapes and patterns at regular intervals; it gives a tidy design with a sense of purpose. It reduces the elements required and encourages simplicity. My favourite trick to achieve rhythm is the use of planters with identical planting schemes.

Focal Points

Focal points in the gardens are interesting plants, sculptures, structures or building. They are used to create interest and a series of them can be used to lead visitors around a garden. However, only one should be used in a view; if they are placed too close to each other, they will conflict and create unrest. There should always be a focal point at the end of a path.