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Ultimate Swimming Pool Design Guide

We talk a whole lot about swimming pools here on the blog. Sometimes, however, it's a good idea to strip things down and start with the basics. When you first discuss putting in a pool, you need to start somewhere. And after making the decision to green light the project, the first stop is nearly always design. In ground pool vs above ground pool, outdoor pool vs the elusive indoor pool. No matter what type of swimming pool you're putting in, you're going to need to think about pool design before anything else.

This can be overwhelming, but everyone has to start somewhere. Most of our readers are either looking to install a backyard swimming pool or make renovations to an existing swimming pool. So whether you're diving into the deep end, or just giving your old swimming pool a facelift for next summer, here are some pool design pointers to think about.

Swimming Pool Design: What To Consider

Knowing how to start is all about having a good grip on the basics. Pool design is no different than any other project I or around the house. That is, the most important elements are that it serves your needs, fits in your space, and (hopefully) looks great. It can be tempting to skip the building blocks of the project and let your imagination run wild. Still, we encourage you to slow down and take stock of what is already in front of you.

The best pool contractors will work with you to help you understand some of these preliminary issues as they work to design your space. However, it is always a good idea to have the knowledge you need to be your own advocate. Pool designers do a great job, but they can't read your mind.

At the end of the day, you know your family and your backyard better than anyone else. Understanding what goes into the best pool designs will help you create a swimming pool that you love and enjoy for years to come.

Shape and Layout

One of the first things your pool contractor will discuss with you is the desired layout of your new pool. A pool layout refers to not only the shape of your pool, but essentially its "floor plan". Where do you want your stairs to go? Would you like to attach a spa? Should you be thinking about a diving board? What shape pool will look best in your space and with the design of your house? And where do you want to put that awesome Baja shelf you've been dreaming about?

The answers to all of these questions seem easy enough. However, getting the layout of your pool correct is key to maximizing your family's enjoyment of their investment. Stairs that are too far away from the house can make it a hassle to go back and forth between the pool and your home. Pool exits that backup to another high traffic area of your yard can make having company over tricky.

The same debate goes for shape and style. A rectangular pool style may look great in a modern home. Some yards may benefit from the softer lines of a freeform style construction.

Getting all of this right means taking the time to think through the pool designs proposed by your contractor. They can get a good idea of the space you need by talking to you, but it is your job to notice when something won't work for your family.


Another aspect of the pool design that is critical is deciding the size of your pool. The size of your pool should be scaled in accordance with your yard, and your needs. Keep in mind that pools are not multi purpose uses of space. Any space that is claimed by your pool is definitively used. That is why putting a big swimming pool in a small yard is most often a bad idea. Chances are, you don't want to forgo a pool deck or seating for more water-dedicated square footage.

Standard swimming pool designs work with pools of a few sizes. On the small end, you may see a smaller rectangular pool measure at about 10 x 20 feet. A larger pool will usually measure around 20 x 40 feet. Small pool or large, both can look great. Just make sure your pool design ends up allowing for usable outdoor space, and works with its natural surroundings.


One you've determined the size and layout, you should also work to establish the depth of your swimming pool. But how deep does a pool need to be? Well, this is a tricky question. The answer is largely based on what you want out of your pool.


If you're like many of us, your pool is your backyard's relaxation station. In this case, 3.5-4.5 ft. deep should work just fine.

Multi-Purpose / Transitional

Multi-use or transitional pools generally have a shallow end beginning at around 2 or 2.5 ft. deep. The deep end slopes and nears 6 ft.

A tanning shelf, or baja shelf, is typically between .75 and 1.5 feet deep. This depth is great for soaking in the sun, relaxing on some in-pool furniture or chaise lounges, or watching the kids and dog splash around.

Diving Board

Pools with a diving board must be at least 8 ft deep or greater in diving areas for safety purposes. Shallower than 8 ft, and you are creating dangerous conditions. A dive in shallow water can result in bodily harm, injury, and even death.

Lap Pool

Lap swimming, water aerobics, or water sports such as volleyball all are best done in a lap pool, usually between 3.5 and 4.5 ft deep. A lap pool is not a common installation style.

Location, Location

Location, location, location. The old real estate saying applies here, as well. Where you put your pool is as significant as how big it is, or where the features inside of it are laid out. Your pool should be designed to work in your outdoor space. Even if it isn't a one of a kind design, even prefabricated fiberglass models should be placed in the best location possible.

Hot Tub or No Hot Tub

Hot tubs, also referred to as spas by those in the industry, are a great way to add value and usable space to an already beautiful pool. For those living in cooler climates, it can extend the amount of time you use your pool, without requiring you to heat the entire unit. Still, it also means a more complicated building process, and possibly more maintenance for you as a homeowner.

Along those lines, some people may just be looking for a spa without a pool, and that is entirely possible. A beautifully built spa encased in some beautiful wood decking is a great way to take your outdoor living space up a notch without spending money on a complete pool and pool area.

What features do you need?

Before we dive into types of swimming pools, and types of pool design features, ask yourself, what do I really need? What is most important for you to get from your pool? Are you looking to up the fun factor, or create a purely functional space? Fun features are great, but if they are never used, then you could be spending unnecessary money.

We've created a list down below including both fun features, and functional features that you may want to incorporate into your own swimming pool.

Types of Swimming Pools

Custom Pool vs Standard Backyard Pool Designs

When talking to your contractor, or shopping around for a company to do your pool, you should have a good idea of what you're looking for. Some companies may specialize in one style of pool, only for you to realize you were interested in something completely different. Whether you're working with a landscape architect, pool specialist, or something in between, your pool is part of your greater landscape design. Question is, does that landscape design need a highly customized style or solution?

It's definitely possible to find a company that will design a completely individual pool for your backyard. But this is going to cost quite a bit of money. Still, the final result will likely be incredible. On the other hand, there are many great companies that will let you choose from a variety of prefabricated designs, as well.

Gunite Pool vs Fiberglass vs Vinyl

You will also need to choose between a gunite pool, a fiberglass pool, and a vinyl pool. All have different price points, drawbacks, and lifespans. Additionally, most companies will specialize in one type of pool or another. Gunite pools will likely be the most expensive, but are also the most customizable. Vinyl pools can be customizable in shape, but their liners will need replacing. Fiberglass pools are remade molds that are lowered into the ground, and incorporated into the surrounding area.

Chlorine vs Salt Water vs Natural Pool

You may be surprised to learn there are actually multiple choices of pool style beyond the material composition of the pool itself. Though you may only be familiar with chlorinated pools, whether that be chemical chlorine, or salt water cleaning, there is another style of pool that is rising in popularity.

The natural pool is a pool that uses plant matter and a natural filtration system to keep water clean. It is chlorine free, but owning one may be a bit of a learning curve, even for seasoned pool owners.

Popular Pool Design Ideas in 2021

The most inspiring pool design ideas this year incorporate some of the industry's most popular features. Options are endless, but here are some of our favorites.

Baja Shelves (Sun Shelves)

Want to relax? Besides infinity pools and waterfalls, the Baja shelf is one of the most popular pool features in the industry today. Also called a tanning shelf, or sun shelf, the Baja shelf is a feature that creates a shallow area or wading area in a standard backyard pool.

Tanning shelves can be finished with the same material as the rest of the pool bowl, or can become a standout feature with colorful tiles or concrete finishing. Once installed, it's the ideal spot to set up some lounge chairs, grab a drink, and relax in some cool water on warm days.

Swim Up Bars

One of the most fun and unique things to add to your backyard pool is a swim up bar. Not only does this feature give your pool a spa-like feel, but it also provides more seating, visual interest, and overall function.

Of course, swim up bars need to be worked into the design of the space cohesively. Most often, they are attached to outdoor kitchens, and require extra plumbing in order to be functional.

Waterfalls and Water Features

Looking to create a focal point without spending an overwhelming amount of money? Water features are the solution for you. From waterfalls, to laminar jets, to sheer descents, there's a long list of relatively affordable ways to increase visual interest in your pool without completely breaking the bank.

Infinity Pool

If you want an infinity pool, you're not alone. This look, previously reserved for resort pools or pricey celebrity mansions has been steadily working its way into day to day pool designs for years. If you aren't already familiar, an infinity pool is a pool that features a vanishing edge.

Also coming in the form of perimeter overflow designs, these vanishing edge features give any backyard swimming pool a touch of luxury without compromising on function. Some may think that only a rectangular pool can feature a vanishing edge, but this is incorrect. Many different pool shapes can take advantage of the infinity pool design.

Great for highlighting a view, adding dimension, or linking an integrated spa or hot tub to your swimming pool, they aren't without their drawbacks. Some infinity pools do come with additional maintenance, and the demand of installing them may put limitations on how the rest of your backyard can be used.

Pool Slide

For families with kids, a dream pool area isn't complete without a waterslide. Pool slides are features that need to be built into your forthcoming pool design, or added to an existing pool. Of course, you should always take care to consider safety when adding any sort of feature to your swimming pool—especially when that element is geared towards kids.

Height, water depth, and slide positioning must be carefully considered. A waterslide can quickly become a hazard if it is at all unstable, does not offer safe entry or exit, or is not up to code.

LED Lighting

No custom pool design is complete until the lighting design has been completed as well. Both in your pool and on your pool deck, outdoor lighting are the sprinkles on top of a great pool design. Not only does lighting increase navigability and allow you to use your pool after dark, but LED lighting can help you elevate your pool design in ways you didn't know existed.

Modern pool lighting is often customizable, can be set to timers, and change color with a click of your smartphone. And with LED bulbs being more energy efficient than ever, it won't cost you an arm and a leg to keep the party going after the sun goes down.

Steps vs Ladders

When you think about your dream pool, do you think about getting in and out via a ladder? While the pool ladder is still a feature of many above ground pools, the in ground pool scene has decided that they are definitely a thing of the past.

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