Elements of Design: Color

Color theory talks about three main topics: hue, value, and intensity. Hue and color are sometimes used interchangeably, and they refer to the named colors. Warm colors, like red, orange, and yellow, are considered stimulating; cool colors like blue, green, and purple are seen as calming.

Value is how light or dark a hue is seen as being. As an example, a rich navy blue is a low value blue; a pale, powderpuff blue (think of a ’70s tuxedo) is a high value color.

credit: perfectweddingguide.com

Intensity is the brightness of a hue. Pure colors are the most intense, but they can be dialed back by adding a neighboring color, a contrasting color, white, black, gray, or any combination of all of these. In interior design color theory classes, you spend entire classes mixing pigments to understand how colors affect one another. Cool stuff.

“That’s great, Dave,” you say, “but how does this help me in the garden?” Color can be used as a way to give a built element a lot of visual impact. I love love love vividly painted stucco and concrete walls:

credit: hotgardens.net

Understanding color can also help in selecting foliage and bloom colors. Now, I hold the belief that Mother Nature is awesome and none of her flower colors ever clash. Color-themed gardens can be a lot of fun, though, and it helps to have an understanding of color when deciding what’s a cool color, what’s a warm color, how everything plays together, etc. A color wheel is a fantastic investment of less than ten bucks (3451 9-1/4IN. COLOR WHEEL DIAMETER:9-1/4″, Amazon affiliate link) that will let you get a better sense of what are contrasts, what are complementary, all that jazz.

That’s the final element of design. I hope you found this series useful! Any recommendations for future topics?

Elements of Design: Shape or Form

We often think of shapes as two-dimensional: squares, rectangles, circles, and triangles. This isn’t how we perceive them in the landscape, however. We see them in three dimensions, like cubes, spheres, and cones. Shape (or form) in the landscape can even dictate how a space feels.

This is a backyard I did for a client in Phoenix, Arizona (sorry, pygmy date palms aren’t going to work in your McLean landscape design). As you can see the shapes are all sinuous curves with nary a straight line in sight. This gives the yard a much more casual, relaxed feel.

Here, you see a lot more angularity of design. This house is a very dominating, simple, rectangular shape, so it made sense to carry those lines all the way to the street. In so doing, you can see we also used the principle of unity (part of harmony). It all ties together!

Part of the reason that I think it’s important to discuss shape in the landscape is that I see a lot of folks forgetting that the shape of their home is a dominant part of the design. Everyone wants flowing curves on everything. Well, I wish I could wear a paisley suit jacket, but I’ll never be able to rock that look. Such is life.

Unless your home was designed by Frank Gehry (or you live in an igloo), your home is a box. Or it’s a grouping of a few boxes. Regardless, the dominant form is rectilinear. That doesn’t mean that you’re limited to a simple rectangular patio, for example.

In the photo above, the house is a massive, two and a half story brick edifice. The client initially wanted big sweeping curves on the patio. I tried, but nothing worked. It was as wrong as sticking a trucker cap on the Queen of England’s head. So, we did a stepped edge on the patio to break up the profile and allowed all the plant beds to swoop and curve and blend the landscape design into the woods. The design finally worked, and what’s even better – the client loves it.

Shape’s fun to play with. It’s one of my favorite parts of landscape design.

Next up: Mass!

Elements of Design: Space

Space is a funny concept in design, especially landscape design. Space is an abstract concept that can’t really be described until it’s defined by walls or boundaries. It’s a crucial part of design, as evidenced by the fact that a large part of design is space planning.

When working with space, we’re trying to balance two conflicting human needs. The first is the need to feel enclosed, sheltered, and protected. This is achieved with smaller spaces – think of when you were little and made a fort from blankets and couch cushions. In the landscape we can make a space feel smaller with walls, railings, fences, hedges – any number of visual tricks. However, if we make the space too small it feels confining and constricting.

On the flip side, we also have a need to feel a sense of freedom, to take in the vastness of a space. Think of a deck or patio overlooking the mountains in the northwestern corner of Virginia, where you can survey the entire landscape spread out below you. There still needs to be a means of creating human scale (see how it all relates?), or a huge outdoor space can feel uncomfortable, even a little unsettling.

The photo below is from one of our trips to the Charlottesville area. From the patio, you have views of forever that could feel a little overwhelming. The pergola helps to “lower the sky,” in a sense, and as the shrubs at the edge of the patio grow and fill in they’ll provide a little enclosure.

Designers have a lot of fun playing with space. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used small entry doors and low-ceilinged hallways that open into large, high-ceilinged living spaces to create a sense of excitement, even tension and release. Outside, you could get the same effect with a narrow walkway between tall hedges that opens out into a bigger space. This photo from the Winery at La Grange shows that really well. The patio at the other end feels twice as large as it is, just because of the “compressed” feeling you get coming down the walk:

credit: DCFoodies.com

As you can probably tell, I love playing with space. There’s the functional part of space planning and circulation that I enjoy, but playing with the edges of an abstraction is pretty cool.

Next up: shape and form!

Principles and Elements of Design: a Series

You may have noticed that it’s winter outside, so there’s not a lot of pretty stuff for me to take pictures of right now. It seems to me it’s a great time to talk about design, and what makes for really good design. Over the next several weeks I’ll talk about the principles and elements of design, and show examples so you can better understand them at work in design. It should be a lot of fun, as I remember when I first learned these in interior design class I had a lot of “aha!” moments.

Principles of Design

The principles of design are abstract concepts at play in good design. They are:

  • Scale
  • Proportion
  • Balance
  • Rhythm
  • Emphasis
  • Harmony

Elements of Design

Where the principles of design are abstract concepts, the elements of design are the actual, quantifiable parts of any design. They’re where the rubber hits the road:

  • Space
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Mass
  • Line
  • Texture
  • Pattern
  • Light
  • Color

Each principle, and each element, will have its own post. It all starts Wednesday, so be sure to check back. If you want to be notified when new posts go live, click here to subscribe to this blog via email and you’ll receive alerts in your inbox.