Pool Designer Insight: Designing with Purpose

EXPERT INSIGHT BY DAVID TISHERMAN

Great projects start with meaningful design decisions


The work of an accomplished designer begins by knowing the reasons behind the choices he or she makes. That sounds simple enough, but homeowners should proceed with care because only a handful of builders truly understand design. On the other hand, many others are more or less content to offer a limited set of features, which may or may not have anything to do with the setting.

Generally speaking, there are three types of pool and spa builders:

The first type is the pool builder who knows the rudimentary rules of design. He or she has no background in art or architecture history, only uses design schemes generated on a computer template, and does not charge for the design process.

Next, there is the landscape architect, a professional who is educated in design. Some landscape architects, however, are not experts in swimming pool construction and need to work with an experienced pool contractor.

Finally, there is the educated pool and spa professional who understands both design principles and construction details. He or she bases the work on the relationship between design and construction as it relates to the site environment, always knowing that each and every element—from the broadest overall concept down to the smallest detail—must be in the design for a reason and must be executed flawlessly.

Design Defined

So how do you know who is an expert pool designer?

The answer starts with knowing that truly qualified designers form their ideas using the architecture of the home, the surrounding setting, and client input. These professionals know that there are times when a site’s requirements demand a type of design that would be totally inappropriate for another venue.

A good analogy would be the type of tires you put on your vehicle. If you live in an area with inclement weather, you would choose a model of tire engineered for those conditions. By contrast, if you live in a place where it’s dry, warm, and sunny most of the time, you would choose an entirely different type of tire. Making the correct choice enhances safety, performance, product-lifespan, and energy efficiency.

The same principle applies to pool and spa design: If you have a Craftsman-style home, you should consider a particular look that fits in neatly with the distinct 1920s to 1930s style. If, on the other hand, you have a contemporary-style home—perhaps in the tradition of Tadao Ando or John Lautner, with lots of glass, concrete, and clean lines—then the choices for the poolscape must match this type of architecture.

Fact is, there is no such thing as one size fits all.  That’s why one of my pet peeves these days is the overuse of certain familiar details, including vanishing-edge and perimeter-overflow systems. Make no mistake, in the right setting, water flowing over an edge can be a wonderful feature, especially in the way it draws the eye into a distant view. But simply using a vanishing edge for the sake of it does not qualify as true design if the conditions are not correct. Designers who have talent, training, and experience will be able to discern the difference and make a decision that best suits the environment.

The main idea is to create a space where all the elements unite to create a feeling of elegance and simplicity. When you walk outside, you should immediately have the feeling that you are in a beautiful place: nothing hits you in the face and nothing is overstated. Yes, the water is a significant part of the composition, but it is only one component and it should exist in balance within the entire setting.

 I often explain the role of water to my clients this way: Water is a colorless, odorless, highly reflective compound that takes on the shape and character of the structures used to contain it and the surrounding environment. And, it is the reflective nature of water that is paramount in its role as a design element.

This is a big part of why human beings are drawn to oceans, rivers, and lakes. If you look at the skyline of New York City at night and hold up your hand blocking the water, you see one setting. The instant you pull your hand away and examine the scene along with the water’s reflection, you have an entirely different experience. The reflections double whatever it is you’re viewing; amplifying its impact and beauty.

In essence, a quality designer will use the reflective nature of water in concert with all of the other elements in the design so that everything is synchronized, proving that the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts.

On Behalf of the Client

As a starting point, homeowners should be wary of any pool and spa professional who does not charge for design. I’m a huge fan of Ernest Hemmingway, who once wrote, “Nothing’s free. Anything that was ever any good, you pay for.”  Nowhere does that time-honored adage apply more firmly than in the world of pools and spas. If the builder is using the design as a marketing tool, this should be a red flag indicating that perhaps he or she does not value design—probably because they do not know anything about it beyond an extremely narrow bandwidth.

By the same token, just because someone does charge for design does not necessarily mean the client will receive quality work. In my practice, I always charge for design, but I also always make sure my clients understand why. I let them know that as a designer and builder it is my job to use my background to imagine on their behalf. I become a psychologist of sorts, extracting my clients’ needs and assembling the various chosen elements in visual harmony.

By and large, people who can afford a luxurious pool and spa have a general idea about what they want. What they need is a professional to take those concepts and guide them in the right direction. Odds are (though not always) the discerning homeowner has traveled and has developed an appreciation of art and architecture. But an expert designer still needs to ask these important questions: Do you entertain? Do you want to be able to cook and dine outside? Are you interested in places to relax and read a book or listen to music? Do you want the tranquility that comes with the sound of moving water? Do you intend to exercise in the pool? Is privacy a big concern? Are there children involved? What are your concerns for safety? Are you interested in energy efficiency?

As a homeowner, if you do not get the impression that your designer is taking all of those questions and more into consideration, then you should be wary that you are not working with someone who truly understands the role of the designer. The design process is all about making the right choices from a world of almost limitless possibilities. That is why great designers are not constrained by a few product choices that they use time and time again or have seen at the latest trade show. In fact, there are situations where the designer becomes an inventor, creating a detail, or even a new product, to solve a particular design challenge.

High-end clients should expect to see quality renderings, material samples and specifics of great detail. The designer should come with beautiful photos of past works, strong client referrals, and confidence in his or her own abilities to create works of enduring beauty. Such designers understand the principles of line, texture, spatial relationships, color, art history, balance, fine materials, and all of the technical construction details needed to take a design from concept to reality.

Again, the point cannot be made strongly enough: everything that goes into the design of wonderful pools, spas, and more importantly, overall exterior environments, has a distinct purpose. Imagination and creativity are wonderful, but without the discipline that comes from purposeful execution of design principles, the process breaks down into a random game of chance.

When you do find and work with an educated and experienced designer, however, you have every reason to believe that the end product will exceed your highest expectations.

Above: This setting is the perfect visual definition of how a poolscape is more than the pool. Every element—from the lounging area with handcrafted fireplace, fully-equipped outdoor kitchen, and opened and closed arbors with space heaters to the daytime pool and spa water effects—blends in harmoniously with the home’s Craftsman style. Even after careful study, the venue appears to have been in place since the day the house was built. inset: The pre-renovation pool shell.

Photo courtesy of ©Costea Photography


David Tisherman has over 30 years of experience in industrial design and construction, both nationally and internationally. He is a popular guest lecturer, and he has numerous degrees, including graduate work at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design in California and at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He founded David Tisherman’s Visuals in California with a satellite office in New Jersey, Liquid Design, LLC. The Robb Report called him the “Most influential designer and builder of the past two decades,” and his work has appeared on the covers of Architectural Digest, The Robb Report, and Luxury Pools.

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