Principals of Design

Recognizing and appreciating good design is something that grows in you as you train your eye to observe using some principles of design. There are seven factors you can attend to in order to observe details in design and to judge whether the design is to your taste.

While you are paying your architect to be the design expert, there are numerous decisions all along in the building process that will be enhanced if you have an eye that can keep design details consistent and restrained.

Seven Principles of Design:

Scale – Scale is relative. In architecture, it is human scale that is important to be considered. This involves measurements that mirror the measurements of the human body. Human scale has spatial grammar that fits with human senses. Buildings scaled to human proportions have effective sightlines from the height of a human, doorways that fit human proportions, step rises that facilitate human movement, and railing that are the right height and dimension to guide human hands while going downstairs.

However, rules are made to be broken and architects may ignore human scale in a design for several reasons. This has to be done with care, training and talent, as buildings that do not reflect human scale can lack a feeling of warmth and fit.

Human scale may be ignored by your architect in order to create a sense of grandeur or importance. Oversized doorways, extra high ceilings, and grand spaces create a sense of grandeur, but would usually be counterbalanced with some areas that have lowered ceilings and smaller dimensions, in which individuals can feel comfortable and cosy to read or relax.

Each piece of trim and ornamentation must be in scale with the overall structure and with its place in the structure. A pair of ten foot columns may be grand on a neoclassic design and yet would be totally overbearing on a ranch style design. With ten foot ceilings you require larger trim than in a room with eight foot ceilings. The height of Arts and Crafts trim over an eight foot wide combination window needs to be higher than Arts and Crafts trim over a three foot wide door.

Line – Line is what directs your eye and creates motion in the design. There needs to be variety and contrast in line, but also a certain degree of consistency.

On the exterior of your building you would likely have some variety in line. For instance, the use of shingles as siding creates horizontal lines and so you may want to create variety by using the vertical lines created by board on board, board and batton, or vertical siding to create a contrast. These differing treatments would be separated by a line of boards called banding. The positioning of the banding can create an illusion of increased building height, such as with the single storey boathouse pictured, which gives the illusion of being a two storey structure because the banding is lowered slightly, making the upper section appear to be tall enough to be a second storey.

Generally, vertical lines emphasize height and horizontal lines emphasize breadth. Curved lines are soft and suggest organic shapes, while straight lines are rigid and suggest order and discipline. Diagonal lines can convey a sense of motion. Diagonal lines were used frequently to suggest speed in boat, car and building design when art deco design was in its heyday. Art deco was a style that played with line to surprise and to suggest speeding into the future.

Balance – Building design composition can be balanced, which is symmetrical, or unbalanced which is asymmetrical.

Classic composition has a line of symmetry down the middle with everything on each side being a mirror image of the other side. Balanced design creates a strong, stable, timeless impression as seen in Georgian designed buildings. People relate easily to buildings with symmetry as it is a dominant organizational concept in life, being reflected in how our own bodies are composed. Symmetrical results appear formal, organized, and orderly, providing a sense of calm, predictability, and security.

In asymmetrical design the objects on either side of the middle line differ, but in combination they still balance one another. Two smaller features on one side would equal in weight one larger feature on the other side, creating balance. A good example would be two small gables on one side of a cottage front balancing a larger off centre entry gable on the other side.

Asymmetrical arrangements are more casual than symmetrical designs. By offering surprise, they create much more exciting design than symmetrical buildings. Art deco buildings frequently utilized asymmetrical design and created visually exciting results.

Balance is important in side to side relationships, and also in top to bottom relationships. Building that are heavier on the bottom appear to be more stable than buildings which are top heavy. If the top is too heavy the structure can feel precarious, rather than a safely sheltering place to live. Sarah Susanka talks about the feeling created by a “sheltering roof”in her book. She suggests that a roof with huge overhangs provide a sense of security in a home or cottage. However, it requires design accomodation on the bottom of the structure to balance this large over hang on the roof, so that the building does not appear to be top heavy.

Because we are used to balance in everything from walking, or carrying things, to riding a bicycle, we each have a keen sense of balance which can be employed to judge the balance in the design of your cottage. Use your eyes and your innate sense of balance to make this judgement when you are evaluating your building design.

Visual Weight – Visually dominant features get noticed more than other features. They are said to have the heaviest “visual weight”. Bigger objects look like they have more weight, and darker shades are heavier than lighter shades. Things that are set back further appear lighter than things that are set closer.

The heaviest things, or the things with the most visual weight, are the focus or centre of interest in a design. The lighter features are the least important in the design.

This plays out in an architectural design in such strategies as a garage being set back from the front of the building, so that it appears lighter and has less importance. Using dominant colours that have visual weight on the front door and a lighter colour, or a colour that matches the body of the building on a service door, emphasizes the relative importance of the front entrance compared to a secondary entrance. Using a large door at the front entrance and a smaller door for the service door also reinforces the relative importance.

Visual weight has to be considered when judging balance in a design.

Rhythm – There is a relationship between the structure of music and the structure of architecture.

Architectural design has a visual rhythm composed by things like repetition and spacing, just like music does. A series of windows can march across a design creating a steady beat while another feature can create a staccato. Spacing serves as pauses between features. Rhythm is the articulated structure of architecture.

Repetition and Variation – When features are repeated in a design they become stronger. Repetition brings unity and harmony to a design. In music there are variations on a theme to bring fresh twists to a familiar pattern. For instance a tuba may repeat a pattern started by a flute.

This also occurs in architectural design. A strong theme or a recurring motif provides continuity, while variety adds an element of surprise. Repeating a familiar shape but changing the size adds variety. Repetition with variety is both interesting and comfortably familiar. Variation can be achieved through changing colour, size, height, or location of the same shape.

Restraint – Know when enough is enough. This can be a matter of taste, however even in the heavily ornamented Victorian designs, some restraint is required.

What is considered to be good design changes over time and we are currently in a space in time when a slightly more minimal creation is most appreciated. Less is usually more and quality is more important than quantity. Restraint makes certain features special.

When building a custom home, you can be overwhelmed by the wide variety of choices available to you. You can get caught up in the desire to make the most of your opportunity and to put one of everything into your new creation. Restraint is required if the final product is to be what you want it to be. It can be a good idea to have a professional with whom you share ideas in order to help you practise the restraint you need.

Thelma Jarvis Sales Representative

Port Carling: (705) 765-6855
Bracebridge: (705) 645 5257
Cell: (705) 644-3554
Fax: (705) 645-1238

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