Our Five Laws of Design

Before we can delve into to the details of plants and planting, you’ll need to understand some basic principles of design.  In this section, we’re going to train you to think like a designer by introducing you to our five simple laws of design.  This will get you thinking about the space you live in in a very different (and interesting) way.


In my business as a landscape designer, I’m constantly confronted by a major problem with my customers.   Most of them have no idea how their homes and outdoor spaces effect their lives.    They have been fully indoctrinated into the “culture of resale”.

This brings us to my first law of landscape design (and this applies to both indoor and outdoor design).

The way your property is designed has major effect on the way you live in it.

This may sound obvious when you read it on paper, but very few people understand how much their lifestyle is affected by the space they live in.    I recently made a bet with one of my best friends.  He had asked me to help him redesign his yard.  Of course he had the typical ideas of “sprucing up” and “improving” his yard, but really hadn’t given much thought to how he wanted to live in his yard.  I got the usual eye roll when I told him that a new design could have a major impact on the lifestyle of his family.    After trying to explain this concept without success, we finally came to an agreement.  I offered my design services free of charge if I couldn’t make a significant change in their lives with a new yard design.

After having several discussions with his family on their lifestyles and daily activities, I set to work on the design.  The family was feeling cramped in their house, but they liked to entertain.  There were also big problems with foot traffic from the driveway to the front door.  My friend’s wife had always wanted a flower garden but didn’t think she had the time to maintain one.

The resulting design included a large gathering space with a fire pit for neighborhood parties and a surrounding low-maintenance garden.  The gathering space also acted as a traffic route from the driveway to the front door,

Within a year, I had won my bet!  My friend was blown away by how much the new design had changed his home life.  His family now entertained frequently and never felt cramped because the parties were now outside.  People love being in their outdoor space.  The kids love using the fire pit and it has become the gathering place for their friends.  My friend’s wife is thrilled to have a garden and is surprised how little maintenance it requires.

This is a great example of the design process.  The most important step of the process was to understand how the family wanted to live in their space.

This concept of design is really the cornerstone of the entire process.  If you can understand this, there is nothing stopping you from creating a great design for your own property.


Now that we understand that landscaping is not just for selling your home, but actually living in it, we can talk about how to start the design process.  Our second law is closely related to the first:

Design your landscape from the inside out

This means simply that your landscape should be designed to serve you, not your neighbors or people driving by in a car.  You should start the design process from your perspective.  Since you live in your house and not out on the curb, you’ll need to visualize your design starting from inside your house.  A major part of your design will be connecting the landscape to your home.

When thinking of your dream yard, visualize yourself inside the landscape, walking through it, not looking at it from a distance.  Visualize yourself using the space.  This is how good design evolves.  Some aspect of your design may include improving the way your home looks from the street, but this should be a secondary concern.  You’ll find that “curb appeal” will happen naturally if you design from the inside out.


Now you’re starting to think like a designer!  Getting your head in the right place is half the battle.  You can see that good design is much more than making a property “look good”.  When done well, it should help us to live better. Simply put, the design of your property has the power to improve your life.  So then, how do we tailor the design process to harness that power?   Our Third Law shows us how:

Every aspect of your design should serve a specific goal

This also reflects the great design credo “form follows function”.  When applied to landscape design, this means, the finished landscape should be designed to serve a specific function.  This function could be anything from providing an area for outside dining, to creating a meditative retreat.

Designing a beautiful garden just for the sake of it is not designing for function.  However, designing a beautiful garden to help a homeowner relax daily after returning from a stressful workday is designing for function.

So, to create a great space, we need to have a set of detailed goals.  The design then serves those goals.  Detailing these goals is the cornerstone of the design process.

But what is a design goal?  How does it translate into a plan?

A design goal must relate directly to a change in the lifestyle of those who live in the property.  It should answer the question of how you want to change the way you live. So, “I want to make an awesome garden” is not a design goal statement.  It doesn’t say anything about how the design will affect your lifestyle.

I always start my design process by interviewing my clients.  Sometimes they’re surprised that I spend so much time getting to know them and their routine.  It can take some time to get to the root of the problem homeowners are trying to solve with landscaping.  I always start with the big question:  Why?  Why do you want to change your property?  Why do you think you need a garden?  Why do you want a walkway there?  It’s all about the why!  Whether it’s for yourself or a client, you need to keep digging to find the reasons that you’re designing for.

Most people approach the idea of improving their yard without ever thinking about why.  We think “doesn’t everyone want a beautiful space?”.  The answer to that is not as straightforward as you might think.  People see beauty and “improvement” in very different ways.  You really need to ask yourself why you want to design a new yard or even just “improve” an existing design.  Do you want to impress your neighbors?  Do you want to entertain at home?  Do you want a private retreat just for you and your family?  Do you need your yard to help you relax?  Somewhere, there is a problem you are trying to solve with landscaping.  Find out what it is and solving it will be come your design goal!

We’ll get into more detail on this in our step by step guide, but in the meantime start thinking about how you want to improve your life with your new design.


Another way homeowners get themselves into trouble is by buying attractive plants in the nursery, then trying to work them into their landscape.  This is almost always a disaster!  As we’ve learned in the previous sections, we must always be designing to a goal.  The plants we buy need to serve that goal.  This brings us to the Fourth Law:

Design first!  Plants and hardscapes second!

Simply put, this means that we always create a design and then buy plants that fit the needs of the design.  Buying plants or even creating a plant list before designing will always lead to trouble.  So many homeowners make this mistake!  This can also be true with hardscapes like statues, stones, ponds, etc.  We should not be designing to accommodate things we’ve already purchased.  Sometimes this can’t be avoided if large stones or structures already exist on the property.  In these cases, a design may need to be compromised to include the existing features.  However, the design process works best when all the components are added to serve the design.


In the early 1900’s Frank Lloyd Wright was creating amazing homes for the Midwestern landscape.  These houses were typically called “Prairie Houses” because they incorporated low pitched roofs and horizontal lines that reflected the flat treeless Midwestern prairies they sat on. These homes were designed to blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.

Frank Lloyd Wright. A home in harmony with its landscape.

These days, most houses are designed without taking into account the land they sit on.   This means that houses generally do not blend in well with their land.  Houses often look as if they’ve been “plunked” down onto a lot and have no sense of harmony with their surroundings.  This brings us to our Fifth Law:

Your outdoor design should tie your house into the landscape.

Because your house was likely designed in a vacuum without consideration of the surrounding property, you will need to change the landscape to tie your home into its land.  This is key to creating an aesthetically pleasing home as well one that is easy to live in.  This should always be one of your design goals when designing your landscape (unless you are lucky enough to have a home that is already in harmony with its land).

When done right, a landscape design can make a house seem part of the land.


Our five laws of landscape design should have you really thinking in terms of goal-oriented design.  Keep these five laws in mind whenever you’re designing.  It’s always good to start by reviewing them with each new project.

Here’s what we learned:

  • The First Law of Landscape Design shows us that the way a property is designed has a major affect on the way it is lived in.
  • Good design can improve your life!
  • The Second Law of Landscape Design tells us to design from the inside out.
  • Spaces should be designed from the perspective of the user, not from the perspective of passersby.
  • The Third Law of Landscape Design tells us that every aspect of our design should serve a specific goal.
  • As a designer you need to find the roots of problems and create goals to solve them.
  • Above all, good design is always geared to improve the way a property is lived in.
  • The Fourth Law of Landscape Design tells us to design first and add plants and hardscapes to serve the design.
  • Never start your landscaping process by buying plants or other objects first!
  • The Fifth Law of Landscape Design tells us to tie our house into the landscape.
  • A house looks and feels best when it is in harmony with the land it sits on.

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