A number of basic design principles give the designer aesthetic guidance during pre­liminary design. Just as functional diagrams help to provide the functional organiza­tion for a residential design project, the design principles aid in establishing the visual and aesthetic organization of a design. Different sources and authorities of design the­ory often identify slightly different terminology and cataloguing of the various design principles. Yet they are similar in contending that certain fundamental approaches to design contribute to a pleasing composition. This book suggests that the three pri­mary design principles are order, unity, and rhythm.

The design principles of order, unity, and rhythm are guidelines for the design composition of forms, materials, and material patterns of the spaces and elements. When the design principles are not used, the design is apt to be unpleasant to the eye (Figure 9—2). Such a design is described as being uncoordinated, chaotic, and visually disturbing. On the other hand, when the design principles are sensitively applied, the design is apt to be visually attractive (Figure 9—3).

The design principles are fundamental concepts of composition that have evolved through time and experience and are applied in a range of design fields including land­scape architecture, architecture, interior design, industrial design, graphic design, and photography. The design principles are extremely useful for beginning designers because they aid in making decisions about selection and composition of forms and materials. However, these principles are not formulas. Their application does not ensure that a de­sign solution will automatically be visually pleasing. As you have learned throughout this book, a successful design depends on numerous factors. The design principles do help make a good design more possible, and neglecting them will almost certainly result in a less than adequate design. Like other design guidelines, the design principles are not absolute rules that must always be followed. A skilled designer may in fact contradict se­lected design principles and still create a visually successful design.


Order is defined as the “big picture” or overall framework of a design. It is the under­lying visual structure of a design. In trees, order is evident in the trunk and branch structure (as seen without leaves in the winter). It is the trunk and branches that de­termine the overall form of the tree. The leaves merely reinforce this structure. Similarly, the skeleton of any animal also establishes order. The height, width, and shape of the animal all depend on the skeleton. In man-made objects, we see the es­tablishment of order in buildings in the structural frame that is constructed before the walls and roof are installed. Walls, roofs, doors, windows, and other architectural ele­ments are then added over the underlying framework.

Figure 9-4

A consistent visual theme establishes order in a design.

During the preliminary design, visual order is created by establishing a coordi­nated composition of forms and materials. As suggested previously, form composi­tion establishes a theme or style that in turn furnishes a strong sense of visual order. Figure 9—4 illustrates the difference between a plan that lacks a consistent theme and one that has a strong coordination of the forms. The plan on the right side of Figure 9—4 possesses a sense of order due to a consistency of forms. So as you read Chapter 10 on form composition, keep in mind that one of the underlying objectives of this step is to give a sense of visual order to a design.

Within the context of a design theme or style, there are three ways order can be established in a design composition: symmetry, asymmetry, and mass collection.

Symmetry There are two distinctly different ways of organizing the elements of a design composition to achieve order: symmetry and asymmetry. Both approaches cre­ate an overall feeling of balance in the design, but in different ways. Balance is the per­ception that the various portions of the design are in equilibrium with each other (Figure 9—5). In the left example, balance is lacking; too many of the design’s elements have been located on one side of the property, making this area seem “weighted.” The other side of the site looks very “light.” In the right example, the elements of the de­sign have been placed so the visual weight is evenly distributed. Each element and area of the design balances the others.

Symmetry establishes balance in a design composition by arranging the ele­ments of the design equally around one or more axes. Typically, what occurs on one side of the axis is repeated by a mirror image on the other side of the axis (Figure 9—6). This automatically produces balance because both sides of the axis are equal. Symmetry is relatively easy to achieve. When used in a design, symmetry pro­vides a formal character. Many historical gardens were designed on a symmetrical basis to demonstrate people’s ability to control nature. Even in contemporary set­tings, symmetry has its place where the designer wishes to create a formal character. Any axis of a symmetrical layout also has the ability to direct views to an end point or terminus in the landscape. When done correctly, this can produce a very powerful design theme.

Asymmetry The other primary way balance can be treated in a design composition is by asymmetry. With this approach, balance is produced more by feel than by equa­tion, as in symmetry. A good way to understand the principle of asymmetry is to think of a teeter-totter at the playground. Symmetrical balance is created when two children of the same size balance each other by sitting the same distance from the fulcrum (left side of Figure 9—7). However, when the children are not the same size, they must sit an unequal distance from the fulcrum, thus establishing asymmetrical balance (right side of Figure 9—7). Balance has been created with unequal parts by means of placement.

Compared to symmetry, a design balanced by asymmetry tends to feel more ca­sual and informal (Figure 9—8). In addition, an asymmetrical design layout does not have only one or two major vantage points as a symmetrical design does. Instead, there are numerous points to view the design, each with a different perspective.

Consequently, an asymmetrical design tends to invite movement through it to dis­cover other areas and points of interest.

Mass Collection Within the framework of either symmetry or asymmetry, mass collec­tion is another method for establishing order in a design composition. Mass collection is the technique of grouping elements of a design together. Anytime the design elements are massed together in identifiable groups, a fundamental sense of order is created.

In residential site design all elements, such as pavement surfaces, walls, fences, plant materials, and so on, should also be massed together in the composition to establish order (right side of Figure 9—9). These elements should not be scattered (left side of Figure 9—9). This creates a chaotic and busy feeling in the composition. Although this principle applies to all elements of a design, it has particular relevance in the arrangement of plant materials. One of the most important guidelines of plant­ing design is to organize plant materials in masses (Figure 9—10). Additional sugges­tions for planting design are given in Chapter 11.

Figure 9-9

Order is created in the landscape when design elements are massed together.

One approach to mass collection that furnishes an especially strong perception of order is to establish groups of similar elements within the masses of the composi­tion. In planting design, plants of the same species would be grouped within the same mass (Figure 9-11).

As the designer begins to organize the layout of a design, it is important to con­sider how order (the overall structure) is going to be provided in the composition. It is advisable to establish a consistent theme or style along with mass collection and either symmetry or asymmetry to achieve this. The earlier the principle of order is taken into account in the design process, the better the results are apt to be.

Figure 9-11

Similar plants should be massed together.