9 Essential Principles of Floral Design

Understanding the principles of floral design is the first step to creating beautiful arrangements. Each principle adds to your knowledge and, as a whole, will then allow you to expand your designs while still keeping harmony and balance. We take these as rules, but rules that can be broken, but unless you know the rules first, how will you know how to break them? Let’s take a look at these important principles and start playing with flowers with focus and expertise.

The Essential Principles of Floral Design

1) Balance

Most of us will know when something is off balance. Just take a picture that is slighter off-kilter, for example, it will shout to be adjusted back into a straight horizontal and vertical line. 

One can also often feel when a floor is leaning or if something feels unstable and the urge is to always change it or it feels unpleasant. 

This works the same way in floral design. A design that is top-heavy, bottom-heavy, or lopsided has a visual balance problem that will need adjustment for the design to be a success.

Some of the things to look at when contemplating balance are the following:

  • Larger flowers and shapes attract the eye more than smaller ones.
  • Warm colors and brighter colors attract more than cool and dull colors.
  • Round shapes draw the eye more than lines or other shapes.
  • Shinier leaves, flowers, and baubles are more apparent than muted elements.
  • Denser arrangements will be more visual than airy ones.
The Essential Principles of Floral Design
Credit: Petal Republic

The trick to getting balance right is to use the horizontal and vertical lines as a guide. Suppose you take a pencil, for example, and hold it up in front of the arrangement in the center. Are both sides balanced? That is not to say the same elements because that would be boring, but does each side have equal weighting? In other words, does each size give a feeling of equal attention? A side that is perhaps too dominant may need adjusting or the other side adjusted to make it balanced. 

It’s also important to note that containers are also considered as part of the arrangement and it can also be out of balance with the flowers in it.

Top-heavy

To balance a top-heavy arrangement, may need a change in container. The feeling is often – it’s going to fall over. Either reduce the number of materials in the vase, move to a bigger container, narrow the volume, or reduce the volume at the top of the flowers and increase the volume towards to container.

Bottom-heavy

This one is a bit more difficult to sense, but it invariably comes down to the container. In a low container, flowers may be placed too low and just need lifting to make them balanced. Often, it’s the scale that’s important – a container that is too big, too shiny, or too bold may cause a visual weight towards to base. Choose to change the container or make the plant material bolder to match.

Symmetry and Asymmetry

It stands to reason that symmetrical designs are easier to balance – just work with a shape and make sure the visual lines are equal. It is trickier with asymmetry. You will be using different plant materials for the left and the right of the central vertical line, but to make it balanced each side must have some sort of visual weight that is equal. A large flower on one side can easily be balanced by a striking branch on the other. Not often the case but an asymmetrical arrangement can sometimes become balanced by placing it in the proper setting or offsetting on a surface.

2) Creating a Focal Point

A focal point in a design is the piece that forces the eye to a particular area and anchors the design. Often the focal point is just above the edge of the container and will contain dominant material such as a large flower of at least three to six inches in diameter. A focal point can be achieved with material that has color, shape, texture, and size and is well placed towards the center of an arrangement. Large items are not placed on the outside as they unbalance the design. The outside is for more delicate, longer wispy materials. However, placement near the center is not always the case, as long as the design has balance.

Creating a Focal Point in Floral Designs
Credit: Petal Republic

A large flower or group of flowers to create a focal point placed slightly off-center in a design will have movement and will make it more pleasing to the eye. Mimic what happens in nature by grouping material using the odd number principle – three, five, seven, and nine.

Whether placing a large flower like a sunflower vertically or coming forward in the arrangement is of no matter as long as it’s placed in the area of dominance. Different effects are achieved using both. 

Creating a Focal Point With Seasonal Flowers in Floral Design
Credit: Petal Republic

Further, accentuate a focal flower by guiding the eye towards it using greenery as a neutral base around it.

3) Dominance, Accent, or Emphasis

To create a balanced and pleasing arrangement, different parts of the arrangement become more important than others. Just like a movie production will have leading cast members and supporting roles, so does a flower arrangement if it is to be harmonious and balanced. A design where all parts are equal has no unity. One of my favorite floral artists says that there should always be a contradiction in a design – that is what makes it stand out from the others.

Many things make up a flower arrangement and it’s not only the bowl and the flowers – consideration must also be given to the background, the surface the arrangement will be placed against, and any accessories that are playing a role. Most designers will agree that the flowers, leaves, and other plant materials are where the emphasis should be – the arrangement becoming the focus in the setting and further that there should also be the stars and the supporters within the arrangement itself.

Dominance, Accent, or Emphasis displayed in a floral design
Credit: Petal Republic

The stars of the show can be any of the following:

Large Flowers

The easiest way to create a focal point or accent is with large flowers and not too many, or a grouping of smaller flowers that form a large mass.

Shapes

Some shapes are more appealing to the eye than others, which is why the arguable old-fashioned triangle-shaped design had such a long-lasting impact on floral art in the 70s and 80s. Shapes create points that are then interesting to the eye. Round shapes have more impact than others.

Bright Colors

Brighter colors attract the eye more quickly than muted tones. For impact, a dominant color is a great way to create emphasis quickly and easily.

Shiny Textures

Out of all the textures, shiny will have more of an impact than rough, sandpaper textures.

If you really want to make an impact, the star can also be large, rounded, in a bright color, and shiny. But you cannot then forget the supporting roles that need to be included to keep the balance perfect.

Troubleshooting

Dominance in a design must be added with care and thought. If for example, you have two bright large dahlia flowers as the stars, they may compete with each other and become uncomfortable in the design. It would be better to just have one large colorful dahlia and fill in with a supporting cast of more muted tones.

Consider that there could also be competing items like a large shiny vase that takes the focus away from the flowers. In the case of this type of vase, it would be best to include big bold shiny flowers to balance the design. In most circumstances, it would be better to let the flowers stand as the striking bits and use more downplayable mechanics. 

Sometimes a beautiful piece of wood or a rock can be the dominant part of a design with few artfully placed flowers or foliage acting as the supporting cast.

4) Rhythm

Rhythm in floral art may be difficult to see because generally, rhythm is more something we hear in music for example. Consider the movement of a shoal of fish or the flight of a flock of geese and even a group of people dancing. All these things have motion and periods of rest, sequence, and repetition which have a balance of their own. 

For a flower arrangement to have rhythm, it needs to be built up and evolve as you develop the look. Here are some things to consider to create rhythm in a design:

Line

Good framework lines create a way for the eye to move around the design creating the rhythm and the points at the ends of the lines are the periods of rest needed for the design to fully embrace the flow. Large dominating items like a large flower can sometimes drag your eye to it and ignore everything else in a design, thereby stopping the rhythm. Not enough lines will do the same as well as too many lines.

In a line design, two of the same flowers will provide more rhythm than one, but two flowers of different sizes, or one more open than the other, create balance.

Repetition

Repetition is a great way to get the basics right. Repeating shapes in the design and the mechanics can create rhythm. For example, long tall plant materials in a long tall vase have rhythm, and also a curved vase with curved lines and shapes has rhythm. 

Repetition in color is also important. One stark color will stop the eye and keep coming back to it, voiding rhythm whereas a few of the same color throughout the design can create more rhythm and harmony. Just as in dominance, the supporting actors play a vital role in contributing to the whole.

Always use more than one of any type of plant material. You can imagine one piece of ruscus looking very out of place without a second or a third in a different position to create balance and rhythm.

Transition

An example of transition can be seen in a tree. The trunk is broad with the ends of the branches getting smaller as you move up the tree. There are no stark changes in the line of a tree that would cause the eye to stop and lose rhythm.

Transition helps in a flower arrangement as well. We start with the bigger more compact middle and move outwards to the lighter and smaller blooms and twigs and leaves that flow in its transition. 

Color transition is often used to create rhythm by using a bridging color between two colors. For example, using an orange flower between a yellow and a red flower, tones the two down and links them.

In some cases, the opposite of a calming transition will create an arrangement that is bolder and sharper with a more exciting rhythm, so it’s good to remember that a soft, easy transition is not always the answer to good design.

Simplicity

There is such a thing as too much stuff in an arrangement and it’s often the time you can say, that’s enough, that makes a good designer. Too many overlapping leaves, too many overlapping flowers, buds, and branches can muddy the rhythm of a piece and have no way for the eye to move through a design with ease. Some arrangements with very little plant material, often have a stronger rhythm than those packed with plant material.

Radiation

Not always necessary in contemporary design, but very useful in more traditional arrangements, plant material that radiates outwards from the center to points has a rhythm that is pleasing to the eye. A lot of plants in nature follow this rhythm – palm leaves that radiate from the center to points, rosettes of petals radiate from a central point, and tree branches radiate haphazardly outwards to points, as examples.

Radiation
Credit: Petal Republic

Curves

More than any other shape, curves will automatically create more rhythm in being curved. Curved plant material is more playful and evokes a rhythmic dance structure.

5) Contrast

Too many things of equal interest lack the excitement you get from adding contrast. In nature, we see the beauty of spring flowers after a cold wintery season or the burst of a morning after a night of darkness. There is contrast in everything, and as some say, it’s the spice of life.

Using contrast in a flower arrangement can make the monotonous and dull, bright and exciting. One of the easiest ways to add contrast is with colour as can be seen by making use of The Color Wheel. Colors across the color wheel add instant contrast.

Other ways to add contrast is by using shape and texture. The same shape through the design can be a bit boring, but add another shape, and it becomes more interesting. The same can be said for varying textures in an arrangement. 

There is a word of caution, though, when too much contrast will become jarring and not be pleasing to the eye. Link areas of contrast with bridging plant materials or colors, and make sure the areas of contrast relate to each other in some way to smooth out the transitions and make the arrangement more pleasing.

6) Scale

Scale is an easy element in floral design to see in an arrangement – flowers are too big for a small container or flowers are too small for a big container. In nature, we can see this out of scale if you find a large tree in a small garden. Scale, however, is all relative and will only become apparent as being out of scale when seen in comparison to other objects in the room or area where the flowers are displayed. Also, the separate objects used to make up a flower arrangement – flowers, foliage, other plant material, accessories, containers, and the base – need to be in scale with each other.

Scale
Credit: Petal Republic

An example of an arrangement out of scale with its surroundings.

Scale
Credit: Petal Republic

A more balanced scale.

Here are some points to look out for:

  • Each piece of plant material should be in size related to each other or have enough transitional elements to make the journey flow from large to small sizes.
  • The plant material or accessories should be related in size to the container it is in. A large dahlia bloom would look out of place in a small glass.
  • Often a large container does not have enough plant material or height to make it in scale. The same goes for small containers and too big or too many flowers.
  • The position on a base or table should also be in scale. It is often the case that a base like a mirror for instance is too big for the container and the flowers.
  • The whole arrangement should be in scale with its surroundings. A table arrangement needs to fit within the table settings of crockery, cutlery, glassware, and food, while a church may need a big extravagant arrangement to be in scale with its surroundings.

Whether you are designing miniatures, cascading displays on pedestals, or mimicking nature, the scale should always be top of mind with all the elements placed in relation to each other, as one would find in nature.

7) Proportion

Proportion goes together with scale in a lot of ways. In scale, the concerns are sizes relative to each other and surroundings, while the proportion is more about the amounts relative to the each other and surroundings. 

It is all about numbers – the number of leaves in an arrangement, or the number of arrangements in a room. 

If we look at nature again, it’s not often that an equal amount of one element is on display – 5 flowers with 5 leaves and 5 grasses can only ever be done by interfering with nature. Equal amounts of elements or one element overwhelming another are not pleasing to the eye.  At the end of the day your eye will be the best judge of good proportion.

As a general rule and often found in nature are the ratios 2:3 or 3:5. A landscape painter, for example, will rarely use the horizontal horizon line in the middle of the painting, it is often offset using these ratios. The same applies to floral art. The general rule of thumb is that the plant material should dominate the container one and a half times the height and width of the container. This is not set in stone however as some containers ‘look’ heavier or lighter just by the different materials used – think glass compared to bronze – which may have the same proportions and the same weight but will appear different.

Rely on your eye and you should be able to tell easily enough if the proportion is good or not so good.

8) Harmony

We instinctively see harmony in things like plants and trees in nature or in a melodious piece of music. There is also harmony within items and in relation to the whole can also be harmonious. The relationship when things (plant material, objects, and accessories) are brought together can create harmony. Often harmony can be seen in the relationship of objects with each other and there is usually some link that can be found that makes it so. 

Some principles that create harmony include things like repetition, texture or using a shape to form a relationship. Take a vase in one color and bring in tones of that same color in the flowers and foliage. Add to the curve of a piece of driftwood with the curve of a branch of willow. A velvet base could be mimicked in a velvety petalled flower. In basic terms, add an echo of any sort that links spaces and you have harmony.

9) Fragrance

Fragrance is not technically a principle of design, but it also cannot be discounted when building with flowers. Smell is one of the most powerful senses and some flowers may have an overpowering scent and clash with other flowers. What is not within a designer’s toolbox is the ability to know which fragrance will be off-putting to some and glorious to others as the scent of a flower is a very personal thing.

Many of the new hybrids grown today have lost their fragrance in the journey to becoming bigger, better, more disease-resistant, or have straighter, longer stems. The downside to getting all that is the loss of scent. But all is not lost, because flowers often create the illusion of scent by their very existence.

The best way to arrange your flowers is to go with what fragrances you think work together and make sure it’s not overpowering.


Further reading: Essential Floral Design Tools, and Types of Vases, Vessels, and Container Used in Floral Design

Senior Contributing Editor | wendy@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Wendy brings over 20 years of senior leadership experience in gardening magazine publishing. Today, she is the features editor for The Gardener magazine and Grow to Eat magazine. She is also the senior editor for Let’s Braai and Open Gardens of South Africa magazines, published annually by Lonehill Media.

Wendy has been involved in many aspects of the industry, including managing editorial and creative teams, writing and producing expert guides and articles on many gardening subjects, magazine design and photography, and developing recipes for publishing.

Wendy’s interests are very much in the arts – writing, design, cookery, and floral art. She also loves to spend time growing flowers on her small flower farm.

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