Elements of Design

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

Elements and Principles of Design for the planted aquarium

Design elements and principles are concepts for describing what you use in a visual work and how you use it. You can find a lot of information on elements of design for artwork, web pages and architecture and the same concepts apply to your aquarium. Learning to think about artistic concepts and incorporating them into your aquarium, can help you in creating your personal aquatic masterpiece.

Elements of Design

The elements of design are the specific visual concepts you use to create your masterpiece. Elements of design can include; line, shape and size, color, texture, and movement.


In the aquarium we find lines in many places such as the shape of the tank and in some of the items we may use to decorate our tanks. The right pieces of wood can create a very obvious line in your aquarium and be used to define areas or as a central piece on it's own merit. Lines are also suggested around the edge of the shapes in our aquariums, such as around a group of plants. Horizontal lines indicate calmness, and rest, vertical lines suggest loftiness and diagonal lines suggest direction or movement. Lines aren't always straight, lightly curved lines can suggest softness, while jagged lines can suggest turmoil.

Shape and size

Shape or form is very easy to find in the aquarium. There is the shape suggested by bare or covered areas of gravel, by the different groups of plantings we may have and in the decorations we may use. Size is how much space a shape takes up. Size and shape are intricately tied since if we have a shape it must therefor have a size.

Shapes are often considered to be organic or geometric. Organic usually implies a natural form and is what we most often deal with in our planted aquariums. The shape of our tanks themselves are geometric and sometimes geometric decorations are added. We can also look at positive space and negative space. The positive space are those objects are areas meant to be what you focus on, while the negative space is the background. In some very heavily planted tanks it may be hard to find that negative space. In some more sparsely planted aquariums or those with more a more restrained design very dramatic effects can be achieved with careful use of negative and positive areas.


Color is the combination of hue and value. Hue is the basic color like red, green, or turquoise. The most predominate hue in the planted aquarium is generally our green plants but there are also red and brown plants. Plants of different colors can be used to define areas, or show emphasis. A bright red plant in the center of a lot of green plants will stand out. More color can be brought into the aquarium with gravel, wood, rocks and other decorations.

Value is related to the color, how dark or light the colors are. We can affect this in the aquarium both with plants, decorating material, and the lighting we use. Even though high lighting is often used in planted aquariums the overall effect can still look dark and peaceful like a shady forest, through the use of darker items in the aquarium and the way it's laid out.


Texture is how something feels but we can also imagine the feeling when looking at something and visualize the differences. There are many different textures in the aquarium. For example moss has a fuzzy carpet look while the leaves of an Amazon sword plant are smooth and veined and those of Rotala wallichii or Mayaca fluviatilis are like fury tails. Wood is usually smooth, rocks can be smooth or rough, and gravel can be sharp, smooth or fine, such as sand.


Movement in art and your aquarium can be literal or compositional. Literal movement is just that, things that really move. The wave of the plants in the water current the bubbles coming up the water column and the fish, shrimp and snails that live in your little underwater garden all move and create interest.

Compositional movement refers to how your eyes look at the elements. The visual movement of how someone looks at your aquarium. Careful placement and planing can encourage the direction the eyes follow. A large bright object like a big red Nymphaea species in the front of your tank will probably catch the viewers eyes first. How you arrange items in your aquarium directs the visual flow of the viewer.

Principles of Design

Principles of design are also sometimes called design rules and these are basically the concepts that describe what you can do with your elements. Principles of Design can include; balance, proportion, dominance, unity, and contrast.


There are basically 2 types of balance, symmetrical and asymmetrical. There are several ways to create a symmetrical piece; you can have exactly the same elements on both sides of a central line which is bilateral symmetry, you can do the same thing around a central point, called radial symmetry, or you can use different elements that have the same visual weight which is called approximate symmetry. For a symmetrical layout in the aquarium approximate symmetry is usually used. Styles that have a central plant mountain or a central valley with plants on each side use approximate symmetry.

Asymmetrical balance achieves a since of balance even though the elements are different. Asymmetrical balance is harder to define specifically and more about looking at something and seeing if it feels right. Often in an asymmetrical design there is one large element balanced by several smaller ones. Aquarium designs are much more likely to be asymmetrically balanced. Balance is not only achieved by the size of the elements but also by their colors and position.


Proportion relates to the relative size of the elements in your aquarium. You can use proportion to help you achieve balance in your aquarium. Not only should you consider the proportions of the elements to each other, you should also consider proportion in terms of the size of your aquarium to the elements you include in it. Generally small plants and decorations look better in smaller aquariums, while large aquariums may look empty with only a few small plants and decorations.


Dominance refers to the amounts of emphasis different elements are given. This is also sometimes called emphasis. A dominant element in the planted aquarium could be a beautiful center piece plant, an incredible piece of wood, or a specially planted rock mountain. A sub-dominant element is one of secondary interest while those elements that fade in to the background are called subordinate.


Unity is what brings your overall look together. It's the harmony of how the different elements work together. In the planted aquarium unity is usually first achieved through using all natural or natural looking elements. A glowing pink mini tyrannosaur skeleton just probably wouldn't look right in a fully planted aquarium because it's incongruous with the other elements. Unity is also achieved by using some restraint and control in your aquarium landscaping. Generally keeping the number of elements small and similar will help achieve unity in your aquarium. If you use more than one piece of wood, make sure the different pieces look like they belong together. If you use rocks it's probably best not to use a whole bunch of different types because they won't look like they occurred together naturally.


Contrast or opposition is one of my favorite things to play with in plants in the aquarium. You can use contrast in color, texture or size to bring emphasis to an element. A large piece of wood covered in a thick leaved Anubias nana would contrast wonderfully with a carpet of tiny leaved Glossostigma elatinoides. There are many textures, sizes and colors of plants for the aquarium that will contrast wonderfully with each other and the rocks or driftwood you add to your aquarium. Brightly colored fish can contrast from the rest of the tank and shine like bright lights between your plants. Contrast is a really fun way to work with and define the different elements in your aquarium.

Your Aquarium Artwork

Your planted aquarium is a visual piece often displayed in a prominent place in the home. Regardless of what sort of display you'd like to create or what degree of technology you'd like to use on your aquarium, it should be pleasing for you to look at. If you're naturally artistic you're probably already using these concepts without even thinking about them. You look at your aquarium and determine if it “feels” right. Your mind is taking in these concepts and seeing how well they work together. Even if you don't feel particularly artistic in yourself you can use the elements and properties of design to help you bring out your inner artist. Thinking about your aquatic composition as a work of art and considering in terms of it's elements and properties can help you look at your work in a new way and give you new ideas to create your ultimate aquatic masterpiece.

Welcome to the Jungle | Into The Forest | The Creepy Crawlies | A Clearing in the Thicket | Algae Eaters for the Planted Aquarium
North American Natives | Why things go wrong Pt 1 | Why things go wrong Pt 2 (Algae) | Algae Eating Shrimp | Lo-Tech Tanks
Welcome to the Fish Room | The Stemmed Plants | Mosses | A Livebearer Biotope | Planted Tank Social | The Genus Hygrophila | Cyanobacteria
Easy Plants | What I Did Last Summer | Decorations in the Planted Tank | Botany-An Introduction to Plant Biology | Botany-Anatomy of a plant
Botany-How Plants Work | Easy Rosettes | Going High-Tech | Floating Plants | Dealing with Success | Bringing the Outside In | Vallisneria
Hair Algae | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 1 | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 2 | Liverworts in the Aquarium | Elements of Design
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