The possibilities for decorating your aquarium are endless. From bare-bottom minimalist designs to lush forests and barren waste lands. Designing a breathtaking, artistic or calming design, is limited only by your own imagination. While budget does have a final say on how much one would invest into their aquarium. This doesn’t mean that having a low budget will result in a boring looking aquascape.

In this article we will be going over some of the things that you may want to consider when designing your very own  aquarium aquascape.

Getting Started

Before you begin scaping your aquarium, there are a few things that must be considered first. If this is the first time you have set up a tank, please have a look at our beginners guide for a Betta Fish Tank Setup. It covers the process of preparing the tank, substrate and decor for installation. It may also help with choosing a tank if you have yet to acquire one.

Tank Size and Shape

The overall dimensions of your tank can have a deciding factor on the layout you choose to go with. A shallow tank can restrict the height of decorations that need to remain submerged. On the other hand shallow tanks make it easier to have decorations protrude out of the water. Similarly a deep tank allows for decorations to be built up higher while still remaining fully submerged. A long tank will draw the eye in a different manner to a short tank, which can have a more easily defined focal point. If the tank is round, straight line layouts may not look as appealing as a centralized circular design.

Another thing to be mindful of, would be the standing location of the tank. If the tank is to be viewed from one direction and at eye level. Then the appearance of the design, only matters for that one viewing point. If the tank is freestanding and viewable from multiple angles. Then the design needs to take into account all possible viewing points. This can make the design harder to achieve, especially when plants are involved. One cheat method could be to incorporate an obstructing object, such as a large piece of driftwood. If the other side of the object can not be viewed from all directions, then this can make it easier to design around. The same thing can be said for low sitting tanks that are to be viewed from above. When designing your layout, be aware of what is or isn’t going to be viewable from all viewing angles.

Required Equipment and Access

Look into the sort of additional equipment that is going to be needed to maintain a healthy environment for your aquarium. If you are looking to use a large amount of plant life, how hands on are you willing to be? You may want to consider using an automated self-sustaining system that could help to reduce the labor involved with maintaining Co2 and lighting levels. If you are not familiar with how to maintain an aquarium that is healthy for both fish and plants. See our article on Setting Up an Aquatic Plant Environment.

Regardless of how high-tech you make your aquarium. It is best to design the layout around ease of access for both cleaning and maintaining the tank and equipment. If you have to remove half of the decor to access your filter or heater. It is going to ruin the hard work you put into scaping your aquarium. You can still design the layout to hide and conceal equipment, just make sure that it is still easily accessible.


Ask yourself if you are going to be designing your aquarium around your fish, or if you will be getting fish you suit your aquascape design. If you are using a large finned species like a betta fish. You will want to avoid using material that could cause damage to your fish’s fins. You may also need to keep their color in mind, as a poor choice of decoration could cause your fish to blend in and hide out of sight. Try to find a balance between providing your fish with their environmental needs, while allowing them to be easily viewed.

If you are looking to have fish to complement your design. Consider using schooled fish to fill in voids, or fish that have a color pallet that complements your aquascape. Some people prefer to use fish that blend in and function as utility fish, keeping the environment clean and providing nutrients for the plants.

Designing a Layout

When you have most of the elements for the design at hand. It is time to start determining the positioning of your decor. A word of warning, you might find this part of the process to be the most frustrating part of designing your aquascape. Using the K.I.S.S rule (Keep It Simple Stupid) and by following these tips. You’ll find this part of the design process to be over and done with, relatively quickly.

Have Variety


Try to avoid using just one species of plant, or plants that are all the same size, shape and color. By including carpet plants with stem/stalk plants and moss, you are able to create more depth and dynamics.

  • Smaller plants can make the tank look more spacious, while large plants can make it look cramped and cluttered.
  • Combine different sizes and shapes.
  • Use different sized plants in both the foreground and the background.
  • Using red plants in among the green plants, can draw the eye to that area, highlighting that section of the aquarium.

Rocks and driftwood follow a similar process with size and shapes only. River rocks are the exception however, as river rocks are often brought downstream by the current. Most river rocks are usually round and polished, despite their different sizes and colors, or consisting of different material. With this in mind you can convincingly use various colored river stones, pebbles and rocks along side driftwood and roots.

  • Mixing larva rock, shale, honeycomb and elephant skin textured rocks with polished rocks may not look as convincing.
  • Try to use the same textured and colored rocks when designing your layout.
  • A distinctive rock can serve as a feature, if it has been positioned and setup in an alluring manner.
  • Using a material that is vastly different in both color and texture from the rest of the scaping elements can stand out most.
  • Obsidian and Onyx are glossy black materials. Against vibrant green plants or dull gray stones, their darker color can pull focus.

Using the Rule of Thirds


Think of your aquarium as a living canvas or picture. Spacing, positioning, void and composition, all goes towards giving your aquarium that enchanting visage. This method is used by artists, photographers and graphic designers to guide the eyes to where they want people to be looking.

  • Divide the tank into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, giving us nine sections to work with.
  • Avoid using a design that uses the center of the aquarium as the focal point, as it can draw attention away from the rest of the tank.
  • When designing to scape left to right, it is advised to have your design set in the lower two thirds of the aquarium.
  • Try to limit the size of any particular element, be it plant or rock, to within only a third of the aquarium’s overall space.
  • Larger objects such as driftwood, can be used so long as it is longer then half the length of the tank. It’s height will be dependent on its shape as you would want it to blend into the background and not stand out so much to draw attention.

The Golden Ratio


If the size of your tank is not big enough to accommodate the size of your decor elements and the rule of thirds. Try using the golden ratio, as it is a mathematical method for creating focal points in both art and nature. Simply put, the golden ratio is achieved by dividing the length of a space into two uneven sections. When we are able to divide the longest length by the shorter length, and receive the same result as dividing the total length by the longest length. That is where the golden ratio focal point can be found.

The average 10 gallon tank is 20″ long, so the golden ratio for an average 10 gallon tank would be 12.4″ and 7.6″. So the ideal focal point is located 2.4″ off center in either direction other than directly up or down.
(12.4″ / 7.6″ = 1.618″) is the same result as (20″/ 12.4″ = 1.618″). For more information on golden ratios have a look at the wiki page.

Foreground, Middleground and Background

Having a low foreground that allows for a clear line of sight is highly important. Avoid placing elements in a gradient with the smaller items at the front and the largest at the back. By mixing some smaller elements into the background and some larger elements into the middleground. You can achieve a dynamic depth of field and portray the illusion of a dense forest.

Choosing a Layout Using Shapes

Using a shape or patter to help you choose the layout isn’t as far fetched as it may sound. If your decor elements are too big to use the rule of thirds or won’t quite look right using the golden ratio. You can still achieve a very dynamic and appealing design by using shapes to help determine your layout.

Using the U Shape


Sometimes referred to as the V shape when this method is used to create deep divides between the left and right side of the scape. This method is best suitable for designs that are using high stacked plant growth, and large hardscapes like rocks and driftwood.


  • The highest points of the horizon need to be close to level at either end.
  • At the central point, or better yet off center using the Golden Ratio, there is a gentle dip in the horizon for the U shape.
  • A deep V shape could also be used cut the scape into two.

Designing With Triangles


For tanks that are short in length or when using large plants and hardscapes. A natural, relaxing and breath taking visual, can be done by placing the larger decor to one side of the tank, and heavily decorating that section.

  • This can achieve the illusion of looking at a dense forests, or that of depth.
  • It is not simply a matter of having 50% of the tank being densely populated and the other 50% being bare.
  • To successfully use the triangle design, you need to gradually tapper the focus height and density of the decor.
  • This is done by having the aquascaping elements higher on one side of the aquarium, and lower on the other side.
  • From the point where the edge of the tank, meets the peak of the horizon. Trace a diagonal line, down towrards the top edge of the lowest point’s horizon.
  • Most of the scaping elements need to be contained beneath this line.
  • There can be some elements that protrude above this line however.
  • These elements can be placed on either side of the aquarium, but kept away from the edge of the tank, so as to avoid changing the height of the horizons peak at the edge of the tank, throwing off the angle of the line.

Islands and Mountains


One of the most basic and affordable designs, yet it remains one of the most uncommon aquascaping techniques used by enthusiast.

  • This is an ideal design for providing multiple aquascapes in a single tank.
  • As well as aquascaping an aquarium that can be viewed from multiple angles.
  • A symmetrical island or mountain aquascape can look nice, if it was centered in the aquarium that would have a full 360 decree viewing angle.
  • For a single directional viewing point, use the Golden Ratio to find the ideal location for this design.
  • Keep the tallest aquascaping elements towards the center of the mass and tapper down towards the edge.
  • For an island appeal, either keep the rest of the tank’s bottom bare. Or change the type or color of the substrate that is used in the rest of the aquarium, and have a drop off at the edges of to island.
  • Islands need to have some degree of separation from the rest of the aquarium.

mountain-design- aquascape

  • For a Mountain style design, fill the aquarium with the normal amount of substrate.
  • Using rocks, substrate, driftwood or a combination. Build the mountain up by having it look like it’s part of, or connected to the aquarium’s substrate.
  • The biggest difference between an island and a mountain design. Is that islands do not meld into the bottom of the aquarium, while mountains do.

Rabbit Holes and Spirals

rabbit-hole-design- technique

Designing the scape to direct the eye to an empty void, or sloping it with circular spirals that draw the eye into a deepening hole. Is by far one of the toughest designs to try and pull off. The idea is to have to have an empty spot beneath the canopy that acts as the point of focus. The surrounding aquascape guides the eye towards the void from most areas of the aquarium. Some enthusiast achieve this with nothing more the plants. Others use arched structures like bridges, driftwood, and hollow logs to accomplish this effect.


  • Try using larger element in the foreground and slightly smaller decor in the back ground.
  • These designs can have an eerie, foreboding and surreal aesthetic to the design.
  • If designed correctly, it can make the aquarium look much deeper then it actually is.
  • An effective method for portraying the theme of nature reclaiming old structures.


Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, as this is a vital part of learning to do things effectively. Stick within your own budget and buy elements that are suitable for your designs. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little though. Who knows you might surprise yourself when something you thought was going to fail, actually turns into an amazing master piece.

Have fun and get creative.

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