Seasons Garden Design logo

Understanding Design Basics:
Texture and Variety

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

Whether we perceive it with our hands or our eyes, texture is all around us.  When we are first born our instinct is to touch whatever we see.  We learn textures of objects and store them in our memory. Even as adults, our first reaction is to reach out and touch it, like when we buy a new garment (although, I should look at the price tag first.)  We are used to coordinating what we see to what we feel with our hands. 

The word texture comes from the Latin word texere – to weave – which is probably why we so often think of texture relative to fabric.  The broader meaning of texture from Webster’s dictionary is “the visual or tactile surface characteristics and appearance of something”.   We feel and see texture.  How do we perceive textural contrast if we can’t feel it? 

Texture is relatively easy to see when comparing fabrics or the leaves of plant material.  Soft velvet against shiny satin or an expansive banana leaf adjacent to a delicate fern frond are examples of not only tactile but also visual textural contrast.  Not only do we feel the difference in texture we can see it.  We see texture because of varying degrees of detail that create a pattern.  If we want something to be seen without changing color, we can create strong contrast in texture, such as those just mentioned.  The term ‘tone on tone’ describes the use of two degrees of sheen or luster in the same color – often shiny against dull.  This technique is used successfully with paint to create a subtle visual textural pattern on a wall.  If the colors were high contrast (i.e. black on white) the texture would be more forceful. 

Texture and pattern are linked arm-in-arm, like two lovers.  Texture affects pattern and pattern creates visual texture.  Let’s look at a stair railing for example.  The felt texture is the smooth metal of the railing itself.  But the seen texture is the pattern that the balustrade creates.  If we could handle the pattern, would it feel rough or soft?  ‘Rough’ generally translates to ‘bold’ and ‘soft’ to ‘delicate’. Does the railing contrast with an adjacent wall or does it fade into the wall?  If both wall and railing are the same color and we want the railing to have a stronger visual presence, then we would at least need to vary its texture, perhaps the sheen to create a tone-on-tone effect.  As we scan the area surrounding the stair rail, is there adequate contrast to see items we want to see, or do things blend together so well they become indistinct?  Is the textural scale of that wicker basket on the table the same as that of the floral pattern in the tablecloth?  (I’ve discussed scale in a previous article, but scale is another ‘lover’ coupled with texture.)  Varying the scale and texture of either would make them more distinct against each other. 

Speaking of variables, what affect does combining varieties have on good design?  “Variety is the spice of life” the old saying goes.   We don’t want to eat the same food every day – too boring.  Mother Nature helps us out here with a wide variety of edibles.  If we look inside our closet, we might see a fair amount of variety.  But since we can’t wear the whole closet at once, each day we select a few things to wear that work together.  (Mother Nature can’t help my spouse here, so I assist.)  So how do we artfully create variety without ‘wearing the whole closet’?   We need to address the variety of color, pattern, form and scale in addition to texture. 

While the thought process behind a design may be complex, many of the best designs are simple.  How do we simplify an assortment of items to prevent a disorganized appearance?  When is ‘the spice of life’ too much of a good thing?   Like any good recipe, the key is to keep it simple and blend well-matched items.   Simplicity is a degree of organization. But like singing a song with one note, too much simplicity can be uninteresting.  Learning how to edit your design is important to successfully find the right balance of simplicity and variety.  Using visual texture helps the editing process.  For instance, evaluate how many shiny metallic objects, matte wood objects or semi-glossy plastic items you have in a design.  Consider the variety of visual textures and patterns.  Are some delicate and some bold?  Remove all objects and start adding them in one at a time, evaluating each relative to the whole design, keeping only those that work.  Determine the dominate texture used to help all of the others work together.  Savor the process as you would if you were creating an award-winning spicy barbecue sauce – adding just enough variety and texture to make it exceptional.

UDB-Texture and Variety-1Notice that in the black and white version of this photo (as compared to the colored version), the textural contrast is less distinct, and if not for the variation their grey-scale value would merge together as one.

UDB-Texture and Variety-2




Email Vanessa
Back to Articles

UDB-Texture and Variety-3A rusty, recycled-parts, bird is the focal point in this composition of hydrangeas that contrast well with the Carex in front.


UDB-Texture and Variety-4A large-leafed Gunnera contrasts well with the Japanese Blood Grass and leaves of the Spiraea, in addition to the curly-cue art.