Good Design

What makes good design?

Do you have a file of ideas about what makes good design?

Earlier this week, a group of co-workers and I were having lunch and talking about some of our current projects and the progress we were making.

It wasn’t long before we started talking about upcoming projects, and one in particular that is planning to kick off sometime this week.

As we discussed our roles and ideas for the design phase of the project, someone asked, “What makes good design?”

In the midst of the silence that hung heavy in the air for the next few moments, I thought about how I would answer this question.

I’ve written before about my design process, and with the number of years of experience I have as a designer, the design process is somewhat second nature to me. But the question remained, “What makes good design?”

The first thing that came to mind was the old adage, “Form Follows Function,” otherwise known as the “three F’s of design.”

One might argue that this phrase is a bit ambiguous, but when each element is considered individually, I believe one can start to understand the basic principals of design and ultimately what would be considered “good design.”


What is form? Quite simply, form is what something looks like. It is the size, shape, and space that the object in question occupies.

When we study form within the landscape, oftentimes we must evaluate the different levels at which the design elements exist. Form can be found in every aspect of the landscape, from individual elements such as shrubs, trees, and site furnishings to larger groups of elements which, when combined, create their own group form.

An example of this might be a massing of plant material in a planting bed.


Function describes how something works. I also think of function as how things flow.

For example, if I’m designing a pedestrian path through a project site, how would a person utilizing the site move from point A to point B across the site?

Of the two components, I believe function must be given more consideration when determining the ultimate success of the design.

Having said that, when one evaluates the rule, “Form Follows Function,” it becomes apparent that one must first consider the function of the site. Once the flow of the elements of the site have been organized so that they flow smoothly, one can then focus on the form of each of the individual and grouped elements and how they relate to the design.

As we continued our discussion about what makes good design, we all agreed that there is no easy answer to this question.

Collectively, we developed quite a list of possible answers that could be used to create the basic outline for a paper or book.

While we had many different answers, the one thing we all agreed on was that while good design may be difficult to define, we all know good and bad design when we see it.

Do you have any ideas for what you think makes good design? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to leave a comment below, send me a tweet, or even an email. I look forward to hearing from you.

Have a great weekend!

Boyd Coleman is a landscape architect in Phoenix, Arizona. He can be reached on twitter at @CDGLA or email:

Related posts:

  1. Design With Style
  2. Old Friend
  3. When The Fountain Runs Dry
  4. What Makes A Person A Designer?
  5. Making A Place For A Memorial

One comment on “Good Design

  1. Sieglinde Anderson on said:

    In my area I find an incredible amount of bad garden design. I have been asking myself the question “why is it so bad in this area?” The only conclusion I have come to so far is the fact that so-called “designers” (and everybody is a designer, from Master Gardeners to nursery people to “landscape contractors”), who have next to no training, don’t know and don’t understand basic design principles and neither do their clients. Sometimes it seems “who can do it cheapest” rather than who can do it best wins out. One of my guiding rules throughout 30-plus years of garden design has been to apply “is it appropriate” to my design work. It was the favorite question asked by one of my professors at OSU during project presentations. It seems to me that’s another way of saying “form follows function”. I think you are correct in saying that with experience comes the ability to feel when a design is right and with it the conviction to make a good presentation (ie. selling your design to the client).
    I feel really let down by ASLA for not promoting residential design more even though the majority of landscape architects practice residential design.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


HTML tags are not allowed.

  • Columns
  • Departments
  • Issues