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Patio Design Guide: How to Plan Outdoor Living Spaces

How to Plan Your Outdoor Space

The key to any successful design project is pre-planning. Please don’t skip the planning phase and jump right to shopping for shiny things. If you do your homework now, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches and wasted money later!

Plan Ahead

With any outdoor project there will be variables you can control, like shade, and ones you can’t (my neighbor’s weekend wood-chipping hobby!!?). I strongly urge you to do your homework ahead of time.

I’ve known so many people who’ve put time and money into an outdoor living space, but they never use it because it’s not a comfortable place to relax for a reason that could have been prevented with a bit of careful planning. And if this is you, never fear! Let’s see if we can trouble-shoot the problem and get you back outside enjoying the sunshine!

How Do You Want to Use Your Space?

First things first, we need to determine what you hope to do on your patio or balcony, and how many people you need to accommodate. Here’s a list of questions to ponder:

  • Do you want a dining table? If so, how many people do you need to seat?
  • Do you need a place for a grill?
  • How many people do you normally entertain?
  • Are there children in the mix?
  • Do you want to include a fire pit or fire table?
  • Are you hoping to lounge in the sun?
  • Do you hope to sunbathe or relax with a good book? Chat with friends? Host outdoor movie nights?

Location, Location, Location!

I realize you may already have the perfect spot in mind for your new outdoor living area. And maybe it’s not up for discussion. But the location can make or break your experience in your outdoor space, so it’s pretty important.

  1. Planning Ahead is key! With any project there will be variables you can control, like shade, and ones you can’t (like my neighbor’s weekend wood-chipping hobby. Who does that??!!). I strongly urge you to do your homework ahead of time. I’ve known so many people who’ve put time and money into an outdoor living space, but they never use it because it’s not a comfortable place to relax for a reason that could have been prevented with a bit of careful planning. Here are some factors to consider, and I’ll go over many of them in more detail below:
  2. Sunlight/Shade/Temperature
  3. Wind
  4. Insects
  5. Moisture & Drainage
  6. Eyesores Nearby
  7. Privacy

I’m always telling people to look at the path of the sun across the sky when I’m helping them plan vegetable gardens. And I’m telling you this too. Pay close attention to where the sun hits at different times of day- especially during the summer months (or whenever you plan to use your deck or patio).

I recommend you grab a chair, a good book, perhaps a margarita, and go sit out there for an hour. Is it windy? Too hot? Too cool? Does the sun blare down on that spot all afternoon? Is there a swarm of bees buzzing around your margarita? Is your creepy neighbor peering through the blinds at you?

If anyone asks what you’re doing, just tell them you’re conducting site research.

Sometimes the obvious place to set up (an existing deck or patio perhaps) is not the best one. Other times, you don’t have a variety of spots to choose from, and you need to make the spot you’ve got work. That’s okay! There are many ways to work around potential problems. But if you are starting from scratch, you’ll want to take these into consideration.

What is the Best Location for an Outdoor Dining Area?

patio dining space with a table & chairs, outdoor rug, and glowing string lights

An outdoor dining space will be most convenient if it’s located close to your indoor kitchen, since you’ll likely be carrying food, plates, etc. in and out of the house. Decks and patios right off the back door are usually perfect for this.

What is the Best Location for an Outdoor Seating Area?

An outdoor seating area can be wherever the view and ambiance is best.

Shade & Privacy

Low-Cost Options for Shade

If your budget is tight, you can use a shade sail or patio umbrella. Or make these easy and inexpensive outdoor curtains if the sun isn’t directly overhead when you want to enjoy your space.

outdoor living room with curtains

If you just need shade, consider one of the following:

  • Pergola with either shade fabric woven through or with some kind of climbing plants.
  • Shade sail (probably your least expensive option at around $40)
  • Umbrella- this gives you some nice flexibility

I settled on a gazebo for my own outdoor living room. And by the way, a gazebo doesn’t have to be one of those octagon-shaped white things. A gazebo just has a roof-as opposed to a pergola, which does not. I need that roof because it does rain here in Seattle-even on the occasional August day. Also, it allows us to enjoy the space from May through early October. And it provides great shade.

  • surface
  • Bugs
  • Lighting
  • Furniture
  • Accessories
  • Plants
  • maintenance
  • Wifi/Electricity?

I’ve always admired photos of outdoor living rooms with comfy cushioned furniture and pillows and blankets, but I always thought they would be so impractical for the drippy Pacific Northwest. After all we only get about two and a half months of real summer- that’s when its warm and the sun is actually shining (in case you’re not from around here).

Outdoor Rugs

Do You Need An Outdoor Rug?

The answer to this is almost always an emphatic YES! Why, you ask? Outdoor rugs will make a huge difference in the look and feel of your outdoor spaces. They help to anchor seating groups if you have an outdoor sofa or lounge chairs, add a cozy factor, and prevent a sun-drenched patio from burning your bare feet.

And last but not least, they’re the perfect opportunity to bring color and pattern into your space. Can you tell I’m a super-fan?

What Size Outdoor Rug Do You Need?

Inexpensive retail outdoor rugs generally come in the following sizes, give or take a few inches. The right size of rug will depend on the furniture group you plan to place on top of it. And of course the size of your deck, patio, or balcony. This guide will help you find the perfect-sized rug for your patio.

What’s The Best Material For An Outdoor Rug?

My favorite outdoor rugs under $150 (and I’ve tried a lot of them!) are made of flexible woven plastic straws. The reason I love them is they’re durable, completely waterproof, and you can just hose them off if they happen to get dirty.

Complete Guide to Plastic Outdoor Rugs

They’re perfect around pools and water features, for rainy climates (like Seattle), under outdoor dining tables (especially if you have kids), playhouses, etc. I try to use plastic rugs for any spots not covered by a roof. If you’re in a dry climate it might not matter as much.

I’m really loving this fun black and white tribal rug from Fab Habitat (available on Amazon) that I just got for my Boho patio refresh (below).

Shop My Favorite Patio Furniture & Accessories…

More Outdoor Living Ideas…

The Best Boho Outdoor Pillows for 2023!

collage of colorful Boho outdoor pillows

Boho Outdoor Living Room Ideas for 2023

Boho outdoor living room design board with an outdoor sofa, and colorful pillows

The Easiest DIY Outdoor Curtains!

gazebo with DIY outdoor curtains

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  1. Your tips on how to design an outdoor lounge with things like large rugs and other fixtures were really helpful to read. I can bet that this is the kind of design that my family would love since they can sort of treat it like “another living room” that’s just near our garden. I’ll take this idea into account and use your recommended fixtures once I buy them from a local furniture store.

  2. You made a good point that it’s important to also consider the furniture that will be installed when planning to get a new patio design. I’d like to find a good contractor for that because I’m thinking about improving the exterior of my home. I think that a new patio will help a lot in making my home appear bigger.

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