How to layout a small patio space

As a commercial interior designer, my job is to layout spaces on a daily basis for my clients. I’ve been designing interiors for many, many years and one of the biggest challenges is planning smaller spaces. In this article we’ll look at what to do when faced with outfitting a small patio, porch, or deck.  After reading this, you’ll see how easy it is to plan a space no matter how small or oddly shaped it is.

Think of the “experience”

Are you struggling with a small outdoor space and wondering what kind of furniture to buy or how to lay it out?  First you need to take a step back.  Start with thinking about how you want to use the space. A lot of folks will look at their patio, porch or deck and think “how many chairs can I fit?”.  But a designer will approach this dilemma differently. Instead of starting with “what will fit”, start with “what do I really want to do in this space?”.  What is the experience you wish you could have?  Do you want to have your two best buddies and their spouses over for dinner and drinks on the patio?  Do you want a secret, private getaway for just you and your significant other? Are you thinking outdoor movie night for the kiddos?  Think about this for a while and visualize how you’d like to use the space.

what would make the experience special?

Now, ask yourself “what would make that experience really special?”.  If it’s dinner and drinks with your besties, visualize what an ideal evening out there would be like with them.  Would the ability to mix drinks out on the patio do it?  What about prepping and cooking the entire meal outdoors?  Do you want to play music while your friends are there?  Will you need shade from the sun, or do you need heat on cooler nights?  What about privacy from the neighbors?  

Again, you’re still not thinking of “things” to buy for the patio just yet.  You’re still thinking about the experience and qualities that would make it perfect or special: privacy, warmth, keeping cool or shaded, playing music or movies, preparing food, etc.  Write down your ideal experience and then describe those qualities that would make it perfect.

time to layout your outdoor space!

Okay, it’s time to start making a plan.  And don’t you dare go back to “well, how many chairs can I fit?”!  

Put those visualizing efforts to work for you!  Remember what describes your perfect time spent on the patio, porch or deck.  I’ll give you an example: my front porch.  It could fit a nice porch swing, or a handful of chairs, or a small table and chair set. But I’m not likely to use my front porch for sitting and relaxing. If I want to go outside and relax, I head to the backyard patio not the front porch.  So, I need to be asking myself “what do I want to do in this space”. 

Unfortunately, I don’t really want to do anything on my front porch.  I prefer my backyard spaces. But to answer the question, “I would use the front porch to receive guests – I’d answer the door when someone enters the porch and rings the bell”.  Okay. So how do I make that experience special? Well, I want the front porch to look and feel welcoming to guests.  And I guess I would like it to be festive at holidays. So instead of starting with “how many chairs would fit nicely” I’ll brainstorm ideas on how to make it welcoming.  Maybe it needs large planters and a big welcome mat. Maybe I should think about what I can do to change it up and pay homage to the seasons and holidays. I should be shopping for planters and decor versus chairs!

Again, you’re still not thinking of “things” to buy for the patio just yet.  You’re thinking about the experience and qualities that would make it perfect or special: privacy, warmth, keeping cool or shaded, playing music or movies, preparing food, etc.  And you’re starting to come up with ideas and solutions that fit your experience.

Plan and shop with a purpose, but be flexible.

Okay, so now that you know how you want to use your outdoor space, and what will make that experience special, it’s time to plan and shop.  I like to have an idea or a sketch of how I want to outfit the space to fit the ideal experience.  But I also like to let ideas and products I hadn’t thought of change my original plan.  

Let’s say I like to use my patio to entertain a few friends and have dinner and drinks outside.  I live in the Midwest and want to extend my outdoor entertaining.  So, my original plan might include a dining table for 6 and a group of lounge chairs circling a small cast iron fire pit.  Hard to do in a small space, but I get creative and sketch out how I could make that work with a narrow table and small fire pit. 

Now let’s say that as I’m looking on Pinterest or Google images for ideas, I come across a picture of a pergola with infrared heaters mounted to it.  I think that this might be a better fit – it allows me to be more flexible in how I layout the patio.  Perhaps, instead of a fire ring, I decide that a sectional with a table that somehow lifts from coffee table height to dining table height would be a better fit.  Be flexible and open minded – there’s more than one right way to outfit a space to suit your needs.

Think outside the box… er, patio.

As you think about what you need to make your experiences a reality, open yourself to consider ideas that might differ from your plan.  Especially if those ideas will make your experience more special.  For example, let’s say you’ve come to the conclusion that an outdoor kitchen and casual seating area is the right way to go.  But the shape or size of your patio or deck isn’t conducive to this.  Could you use the deck for casual seating, but build an outdoor kitchen on a patio adjacent to the deck?  Or vise versa?  Sometimes the limitations we set aren’t really limiting at all, if you think a little creatively.

Planning tools to try

I recently came across this free planning tool for outdoor spaces.  It’s on Gensun’s website and it’s an outdoor room planner.  Check it out here:

They have a comprehensive quick start guide to show you how to use the tool.  And it is totally free to use!  You can start with one of their plans or build your own based on your specific dimensions. I like how customizable this tool is.  If your outdoor space is a complex shape with lots of curved edges, this tool will allow you to draw a patio of any shape and size.  And it has a ton of furniture and accessory blocks to use.  It’s a pretty impressive tool considering it is free for anyone to use.  Here’s a quick example of what you can create using this online tool: 

What outdoor spaces are you struggling with?

Got a space you just can’t figure out how to arrange?  Leave us a comment telling us all about it!  Try the method described above, starting with your ideal experience and let us know if that helps plan your space!  

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