Principles of Pool Design

Reflections of a Pool Designer

Principles that inspire breathtaking swimming pools


The principles of design are constant and universal, even though their application to a given problem usually differs. The design elements (rhythm, balance, proportion, scale and others) are the same for architects, landscape designers, interior decorators and, as you might expect, pool designers.

Many designers have biases, and here are two of mine: I like the vessel water levels high, and I like the overall elevations low. When these ideas are violated, swimmers can feel as if they’re swimming in a bucket. This feeling is often compounded by the fact that there may be a vertical elevation, usually a wall, built on an edge of the pool itself. When you’re walking past the pool, looking over an 18-inch high wall, the feeling is incidental. But when you’re in the pool and you critique it from a line-of-sight perspective, it’s the equivalent of looking up at a seven-foot retaining wall. I would feel claustrophobic in that situation, so I avoid it in my designs.


Color Theory

Good designers focus on the fact that a pool owner looks at the pool 90 percent of the time, and is in the pool only for the remaining 10 percent. Therefore, a primary function of the pool is to reflect, a concept that’s been known and used for 3,000 years.

Darker colors reflect more than lighter colors, but dark isn’t always appropriate. In fact, in some applications a bright white is desirable, picking up blue casts only by depth perception. However, if you put that same pool indoors, it could look anemic. In that case, the designer will introduce a color, keeping in mind the gradations that will occur based on water depth.

Many people think they want a blue pool, but in a backyard environment, green typically blends in much better with the surrounding landscape.

Dividends of Training

First-class educational programs in the industry include art, architecture and color theory, and they teach designers how to hand-draw instead of depending on a computer to print out their designs. Relatively few people in the pool industry see value in this type of intellectual increase, but they are the ones who can work well on design teams with architects and landscape architects. Though they may lack formal degrees, they’re the ones who understand principles of design and the use of a color palette to enhance a setting.

The term designer is often applied incorrectly to an individual who cranks out canned programs for a canned space. Luxury Pools customers expect more — lots more. It’s true that some people know design intuitively, including color selection. Without some formal training, however, they are unable to verify that their intuitions are correct. In addition, the formal training often gives them insights that they never even considered.

Water Features and Sound Control

When water features are included in a design, it’s usually best to have the last vertical drop terminate before it gets to the edge of the pool. For example, it might empty into a stream, and the stream would migrate into the pool. The premise is to minimize the surface turbulence in the pool to heighten its reflective qualities. At the same time, the water feature is moved back so the family is not staring into an elevation at the side of the pool.

Sound control is also important. Raising your voice to speak above the sound of the water feature is uncomfortable, and it disrupts the desired sense of tranquility. It’s also worth noting that the volume can be controlled by properly designed hydraulics and the use of variable frequency pumps. I use a decibel meter to be sure that the sound is in the desired range.

Creating a Seamless Effect

When a good designer visits the site for a new client’s pool, he or she will be sensitive to line-of-sight, with emphasis on how the pool will look from the house. The designer will look inside and outside the house to see if there are opportunities to incorporate materials or shapes in the design of the vessel. The designer should strive for a seamless effect, blurring the distinction between the vessel and its surroundings.

Deciding whether the pool should be geometric or freeform is a critical step, and sometimes the answer is both. For example, you can have a geometric design on the house side, picking up some of the geometrics of the house. The pool can then terminate into a more natural or freeform backdrop, making the transition between the geometry of the house and the natural flow of the yard.

Design Criteria

There are three aspects to any pool: structural design, hydraulics or mechanic design and cosmetic design, which includes material, proportion and scale. If a vessel is structurally sound and has proper hydraulics but is unattractive, it’s a failure; if it’s attractive but it cracks, it’s a failure; if it’s structurally sound and attractive, but it dumps 20,000 gallons into the neighbor’s yard due to a mechanical problem, it’s a failure. The answer is obvious: A good design has to score high on all three elements.

More Than Swimming

A writer recently visited me at my home and asked me, “How often do you use your pool?” and I said, “Every day.” It was January at the time. So she asked, “What’s the temperature of the water?” and I replied, “58 degrees F.” She acted surprised and countered, “You go swimming in a 58-degree pool?” and I answered, “You didn’t ask me if I go swimming, you asked me if I use my pool.” You see, my kids and I race boats on the water, we use the spa and I sit by the pool to have a glass of wine with potential clients. I can’t imagine not having this pool, for many more reasons than swimming.

Photo courtesy of Questar Pools and Spas

Skip Phillips is president of the pool design/construction firm Questar Pools and Spas, Escondido, CA. With more than 30 years of experience, he has elevated pool hydraulic design to an art form while setting the standard for vanishing-edge and water-in-transit systems. He has long been the world’s most sought-after instructor on those subjects. Phillips has been named, “Internationally…the most influential pool designer,” twice by The Robb Report as well as the best pool designer in the world by I.Q. Magazine in Germany and the World’s Best in Canada.

Phillips has written numerous articles on hydraulics and vanishing-edge design for both consumer and trade magazines, and his work has been published in many books and periodicals; in addition, Skip has been profiled several times on HGTV. A co-founder of Genesis 3 and one of its main instructors, Phillips has won more than 100 local, national and international design awards and is a past president of the National Spa & Pool Institute (now APSP). He has also served as an expert witness in more than 300 cases for both state and civil litigation in workmanship and standards-compliance cases.

Get Our Email Newsletter

Sign up for our monthly email newsletter to get the latest from featured pool builders and designers who create the ultimate backyard escapes.
Stop dreaming and start planning your backyard retreat.