Stage set designers have an interesting job: they need to create a flexible, life-size diorama in a very limited space, and figure out ways to make it as changeable as possible while still conveying a strong message. This is no easy task, and the best set designers study for years or even decades before they’re able to take charge of a production of their own.

When you think about it, though, a garden is a little like a stage set. It’s a fixed amount of workable space that’s limited but usually quite open; there’s a lot you can do with it, but you also need it to be flexible enough to fit several different purposes and hardy enough to deal with a variety of weather conditions.

There are four basic principles of stage set design—and each of them are applicable to garden design in different ways.

COLOUR: temperature, variation and frequency

Theatre designers work with the lighting techs to use colour to convey meaning, emotion and tone. Humans interpret colour in a wide variety of ways–and the colours you choose for your garden will make a huge difference to the way that garden feels as a space to spend time in. You have two main options when deciding on colours for your garden: you can stick with a few main ones as a ‘theme’, or you can turn the space into a giant mish-mash of every hue imaginable–which is a statement in and of itself!

It’s a good idea for most gardens to pick a general colour temperature–warm colours or cool colours–and to stick to hues largely inside that range. Work in colour wherever you can; there’s less to worry about from clashing outside than there is inside, and unlike with an indoor room the more you’ve got going on the more coherent your space will generally feel.

COMPOSITION: how your garden’s elements are arranged

Most gardens are made up of three basic elements: the patio or deck, the lawn and some flowerbeds. Your task is to arrange those three elements in an interesting and unexpected way. You can layer and interleave them into each other (a lawn that leads back up onto a second deck can be very effective, for example), or you can block them out entirely separately but look to make them into interesting shapes. Curved lines at the borders of different areas is a great idea, as it really adds a feeling of thoughtfulness to the way everything is laid out.

A good set designer can create the entire world (and beyond) out of nothing but flats, cutouts, platforms, wagons, turntables and drops–all theatrical terms describing things that are mostly essentially differently-shaped bits of plywood. Your garden’s elements are a little more complex than that, and they have to convey a lot less–all you need to do is figure out where they’re all going to go.

LINE: the direction in which the eye is drawn

Imagine that you were standing and looking at your garden out of each of your windows in turn. What do you see? Where are you first compelled to look? Switch your point of view to your back door, your decking, the far end of the lawn; what can you see now?

Good design relies on your remembering that the space will look different when viewed from different angles. Theatre designers mostly only have one angle to worry about–but they still need to ensure that the people looking from there have their attention captured and drawn to the correct place.

SHAPE: positive and negative space creating gardens within gardens

Using varying shapes is vital if you want to create any sense of space and variety within a single stage set–or within a single garden. Essentially, you create shape by using line and composition; a curved line of potted plants around a table delineate a little breakfasting area that feels somehow separate from the painted patch of decking squared off by an outdoor toybox and ready for the kids. A curved flowerbed splits lawn from decking and allows you to feel as though you’re stepping down into nature. Working with shape can help you create a sense of variety in even the smallest of gardens!