Success by Design: Why Good Landscape Design Doesnt Just Happen

Across these twenty-six years of practicing my craft, I have spent countless hours rescuing clients from disappointing—and sometimes downright atrocious—projects created for them by someone else.  While it is gratifying to play hero and leave the client with a smile, it is also painful, considering the money such a client has already spent on work that ultimately had to be re-done. While some of these botched jobs have involved poor workmanship, all have been cases of poor design, or the lack of design at all.

It’s easy to think of design as simply the act of placing pretty things on the page or in the ground. But it goes far deeper than that. Good design is the act of creating spaces that function for their intended purpose and elevate the mood, well-being, and/or productivity of those who interact within them.  A well-designed site or landscape is carefully planned to result in the optimal well-being and safety of the user or occupant. It’s not something that happens by accident.

In design, the whole is always more important than the parts. Every feature can positively or negatively affect every other, as well as the overall impact of the site. This is why trained and competent landscape architects never simply “place” trees, shrubs, stones, statuary or any other physical elements on a site unless they truly serve a functional purpose or are essential to the creation of the space.  

In landscape design, nothing is arbitrary. In fact, there are immutable elements and principles of design that are universal to the creation of spaces and must be used with knowledge and sensitivity for optimal results. Here is a quick introduction:

Principles Of Landscape Design

  • Unity  - How well do the elements in the landscape work together? Every element in the design should work with all other elements to create a harmonious whole.
  • Contrast - Unity does not necessarily mean uniform. Judicious use of opposite or contrasting elements such as light and dark, cool and warm colors, or smooth and rough textures lend visual interest to the design.
  • Scale - Size does matter. Scale refers to the relationship between two or more objects. Proper scale is hugely important in the landscape. For instance, a small, 2’ diameter water feature might fit perfectly in an intimate backyard setting, but if you tried to make it the focal point of a large commercial plaza it would look ridiculous.
  • Proportion - Proportion refers to the size of parts of an element in relationship to its other parts and/or the whole of itself. Classical architecture uses mathematical concepts such as the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Mean to create pleasing proportions. We often use these  proportions when designing garden beds and landscape structures to being a greater sense of harmony to these structures and to the entire landscape.  
  • Balance - Each element in a design has a certain visual “weight.” For example, a large object is visually “heavier” than a small one; a dark one will typically look “heavier” than a light-colored one. Balance refers to the distribution of this weight. Symmetrically balanced designs tend to look more static and elicit feelings of stability and order. Asymmetry makes a design more dynamic and visually exciting. We like to choose a balance that will support and reflect the purpose of the property. For instance, a firm that wants to project an image of conservative trustworthiness  might be well served by a classical, highly symmetrical landscape design, whereas one that wants to appear innovative and cutting edge might be better served by an asymmetrically balanced landscape.
  • Rhythm - When elements are repeated in a design, it creates patterns within the design that the eye can follow. This keeps the design interesting and can affect mood. For example, large masses of plantings will have a more stabilizing effect, while breaking up a flower bed into little patches of color will energize the landscape.


The Design Principles are our guides, and the heart of every good landscape design. With them in mind we utilize the Elements of design, which are like building blocks:

Elements Of Landscape Design

  • Line (thick or thin, curving or jagged, long or short)
  • Shape (two dimensional)
  • Form (three dimensional)
  • Space (think of the spaces between objects)
  • Texture (both visual and tactile)
  • Light (includes both light and dark hues and the literal use of light, including sunlight and artificial lighting, along with shadow and shade)
  • Color (includes both hue and saturation)

A great project emerges when the landscape architect abides by the Principles to manipulate the Elements into a design that aligns with the purpose of the property and the personalities involved. In contrast, rank amateurs plop things about on the land because they are “pretty,” with little to no thought given to user-friendliness, maintenance, safety, or overall aesthetic appeal.

Great Design For Your Landscape

We would need to write a book to fully discuss how to properly approach designing your outdoor spaces.  There are numerous resources available if you are interested in learning more about landscape design, so feel free to explore and experiment with various layouts.  But be aware that computer programs are tools, not designers. They are not intelligent and will not produce a great design; they only draw what you tell them to.  Oh, and please, please don’t go buy “stuff” until you know where you will put it, and more importantly, why.  

principles of landscape design

Even if you are planning to design your own landscape, getting just a little input from an experienced landscape designer can help take your concepts from good to great—and help you avoid many of the common but costly design pitfalls we are so often called in to correct after the fact.

We would be more than happy to help you avoid having to do your project twice. Just  give us a call at 478-750-7733 (Macon), or 478-272-3878 (East Dublin.) Or, reach out to us online and we’ll be in touch with you soon!

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Topics: Landscape Design