9 Tips on Designing a Personalized Outdoor Living Space

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated May 12, 2022
Family relaxing by the outdoor fireplace
Photo: zsveta / Moment / Getty Images

There's no reason to keep all your great design ideas pent up indoors

If you're daydreaming about crisp fall evenings around a firepit or sunny afternoons by the pool, it's time to start designing your dream outdoor living space. Mapping out a plan that you love is not a one-size-fits-all project—you'll need to combine your vision with the unique elements of your landscape, your budget, and your local climate. 

Let's walk through nine tips to design an outdoor haven that will have you spending more time outside no matter the season.

1. Envision the Perfect Day

Just for a moment, forget about following trends or designing an outdoor space that will impress your neighbors. How can you, your family, and your guests get the most out of your backyard? Do you need a private area to read a book? A dream entertainment space for cooking and serving food? Or—if you're feeling daring—a giant bocce court?

Keep in mind that a great outdoor living space can be as flexible as it is stylish. Care for a flower garden that doubles as a reading area or install a patio that welcomes both evening cocktails with neighbors and daytime chalk art with the kids.

2. Map Out Your Space

Modern patio with swimming pool and dining area
Photo: Paul Bradbury / OJO Images / Getty Images

Divide your outdoor living space into distinct areas the same way you would with an indoor open floor plan. Much like indoors, it should be clear where you are meant to sit, dine, cook, and play.

You don't need major delineation between the zones, but designating specific areas can give the whole design better cohesion. Hardscape elements like patios, walkways, and retaining walls are a good place to start.

When mapping your yard, consider elements like:

  • Shade and sun throughout the day

  • Privacy from neighbors

  • Uneven ground

  • Current and new garden opportunities

  • Current irrigation setup

  • Access to electrical and gas connections

If you're working with an intimate space, such as by designing a small patio, focus on the flow of the area and balance functional and natural items.

3. Balance Your Budget

Once you write up a wishlist and preliminary plan, construct your outdoor living space budget to go forward with confidence. Remember to start with all necessary installations like landscape regrading or irrigation system updates before moving onto patio furniture and lighting.

To get a sense of common backyard project prices:

Since prices will range based on where you live, your desired design, and even the time of year, be sure to reach out to several contractors for estimates. Pros like local patio contractors and outdoor kitchen specialists near you will help you break down all the unforeseen costs in each project.

4. Bring Your Style Outside

Keep in mind that an outdoor living space should flow seamlessly from your interior to the patio. Do you have a minimalist home with sleek, modern decor? Opt for an equally sleek stainless steel cooking area. Do you live in a 19th-century Victorian? Embrace the countryside aesthetic with cobblestone walkways.

There are also plenty of ways to surround your dining or seating areas with a complementary style of garden. You can also lean toward modern or rustic depending on the style of pavers for your patio, the style of your patio furniture, and all the outdoor decor that ties it together.

5. Balance Nature with Structure

Stylish outdoor furniture on a wooden deck
Photo: KatarzynaBialasiewicz / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

The best outdoor living spaces incorporate the existing beauty of the landscape. Consider your local climate when choosing patio materials, sunny and shady places to rest, and the structure of your lawn. 

Even the direction of your seating area and placement of your pool should show off the surrounding views. An outdoor living room should showcase what's already there, not replace it. And if you don't have a structure built into your home for shade, consider additions like pergolas, arbors, and gazebos.

6. Plot Your Lighting Design

Outdoor lighting can play just as large a role in defining your backyard living space as any of the major installations. Transform a simple patio into a whimsical hosting area with string lights or porch sconces. Highlight trees, shrubs, and flower gardens with landscape lighting. And even choose the temperature of your bulbs to create a fresh, bright look or warm lights for a relaxing ambient energy.

7. Bring in Water and Fire

Water elements and fire pits or fireplaces can transform the purpose and look of an outdoor living space. Not only do they provide season-specific options for getting outside more often, but they add to the impact of your design.

Adding a firepit, for example, typically costs anywhere from $300 to $1,400. Firepits create a natural gathering space for guests, open up the space for use on colder nights, and even increase the value of your home.

Additionally, the opportunities for water elements in your outdoor design are nearly endless. Showcase natural elements like streams and ponds, add a fountain or waterfall for a calming soundscape, or of course, consider adding a poolscape or hot tub.

8. Prioritize Safety

An outdoor space worth falling in love with is also one that is safe to use on a daily basis. This brings us back to proper lighting, well-designed hardscapes, and picking a layout that matches your lifestyle.

If you plan to wander through the garden after dark, be sure to include walkway lighting, particularly around water elements. Take extra care around ponds if you have young children or pets in the house.

Additionally, it's important to work with a local professional landscaper when making any major structural changes to your lawn. Not only will they bring the proper tools and expertise to the job, but they can assist with local laws regarding permits, hardscape changes, or regrading that affects drainage and irrigation patterns.

9. Keep It Personal

At the end of the day, designing the ideal outdoor living space should combine your personal design preferences, your unique landscape, and your daily habits.

Consider long-term care of an outdoor space. Do you need to keep it low maintenance? Consider xeriscaping options or pavers that require minimal upkeep. Are you an avid gardener? Design an outdoor space that showcases your prize-winning roses and eye-catching azaleas. 

The perfect outdoor living space for you should, well, be about you. When you work with a team of landscapers, hardscapers, and general contractors, your poolside and fireside daydreams can quickly become a reality.