How To Stop Overthinking Your Aquarium Design, According to Experts

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton


how to stop overthinking aquarium design

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When it comes to aquarium design, it’s easy for things to get over-complicated. Elaborate planting and fancy layouts might look impressive, but they also take considerable time, effort, and money to establish and maintain.

Thankfully, a beautiful and effective aquarium design doesn’t have to be complicated. With a strong vision for what you want to create and an eye for aesthetics, even the most simple aquarium plants and décor can turn your tank into an enchanting underwater wonderland.

Let’s look at some of the most simple and functional ways to design your dream aquarium.

Put Your Plans to Paper

drawing of an aquarium with decor, algae and stones painted in watercolor

The first step of aquarium design is visioning and planning. What would your dream tank look like? Are you trying to emulate a lush Amazonian aquascape or a rocky African lake? What kind of colors and textures do you wish to create? How would you like the tank to make you feel?

Even if you don’t feel like an accomplished artist, try sketching out what you have in mind on paper. Get creative and, if possible, add some splashes of color to help your drawing come to life.

The more effort you give to this part of the process, the more feeling you’ll get for what you’re aiming to create, and the easier the rest of the design will go.

Make Sure Your Design Suits Your Fish

Tropical freshwater aquarium

A prerequisite to any aquarium plan is making sure the design suits the fish you’d like to keep.

If you want to keep angelfish, gouramis, or tetras, you’ll need plenty of live plants to help them feel at home. Catfish and loaches need rocky caves to live in, as do many types of cichlids. Without the right habitat, your fish won’t feel at home and may sulk, fall sick, or become prone to bullying.

By researching your fish’s natural environment, you can recreate their favorite habitat at home. Check out our care sheets to learn more about each species’ native setting.

Add Enough Hiding Places

aquarium with shells for hiding

Following on from our last pointer, one of the most crucial design features of any tank is enough hiding places.

While novice aquarists sometimes avoid too many hiding places in the hope they’ll see more of their fish, it soon becomes apparent that this strategy doesn’t pay off. Without abundant places to hide, your fish soon become stressed, sick, and not very enjoyable to watch at all!

Instead, add generous quantities of dense plants and hiding holes so that your fish can feel happy and relaxed. They’ll more than reward you with their glowing health and well-being when they’re ready to swim out into the open.

Choose Easy Plants

A very useful piece of advice for the majority of fish keepers is to choose tried and tested easy live plants and avoid the more difficult ones.

With so many aquarium plants on the market, it might seem tempting to try out all kinds of exotic species that few others are growing. There are, however, often good reasons that certain types of plants are rarely grown, and one of them is that they’re more challenging.

Ttropical freshwater aquarium with plants

While beginner plants like Java fern, Java moss, Amazon Sword, Anubias, Crypts, Anacharis, and Vallisneria can all be grown in ordinary gravel without any extra inputs, the same can’t be said of more specialist plants that need specialist lighting, fertilizers, or CO2 injection, to remain vigorous and healthy.

Choosing challenging plants is often regrettable because, instead of becoming a delightful attraction, plants that aren’t thriving often become an eyesore. Pale, melting foliage gives your aquarium a degraded appearance, and you’ll be left chasing your tail trying to keep them all happy.

Instead, stick with the tried and tested plants, such as the ones that I’ve suggested above. Arranged in the right way, they’ll offer a stunningly diverse, lush aquascape that will take good care of itself.

Abandon Artificial Imitations

Cute little fish in an aquarium

While it is strictly a matter of personal preference, I’d tend to encourage people to forego artificial ornaments and choose instead all-natural décor.

Now, most of us have played around with synthetic skulls, treasure chests, or plastic castles at some point in our fishkeeping careers, and there’s nothing wrong with experimenting. But for a truly breathtaking, natural aquascape, I’d encourage you to leave them out.

It’s amazing what a difference this can make. I can remember removing my last synthetic igloo ornament and noticing how the whole tank suddenly glowed with naturalness. I never went back to any artificial décor again.

In the same way, artificial plants can easily taint the purity of an otherwise natural setup. Even convincing silk replicas will never possess the elegance and splendor of living plant leaves, and with robust plants being so easy to grow, there’s little need to entertain imitations.

Avoid Colored Gravel

Following on from synthetic ornaments, another component of your aquarium that’s bound to ruin any chance of achieving a natural look is colored gravel.

corydoras in an aquarium with colored gravel

Once again, there is no right or wrong about different aquarium styles. If you want your tank to look futuristic and other-worldly, then by all means, throw in the pink pebbles! But for a natural look, colored gravel must be avoided from the very start.

If you’re looking for a more natural way to enhance your tank’s substrate, why not adorn it with some elegant shells or carefully chosen semi-precious stones? We discuss which crystals are safe and effective in our dedicated guide, here.

Hide Your Aquarium Equipment

A great planted aquarium

One of the greatest differences between an outstanding aquascape and a so-so aquarium is whether the equipment is visible or not.

Peering into a well-crafted underwater world, you begin to feel transported to an Equatorial rainforest or Rift Valley lake. All of a sudden, a piece of angular plastic catches your eye in the background, you notice the tank’s filter and the bubble bursts.

Yes, every tropical tank needs a filter and a heater, but thankfully there are ways to disguise these for a completely natural look. One method is to simply conceal your aquarium gear behind tall plants at the back of the tank. While this provides a simple solution, your equipment may still become visible behind the swaying foliage.

A more foolproof way of hiding equipment out of sight is to choose specially designed equipment compartments at the back of the tank. Some tanks come with this built-in, but just make sure that the filter and heater of your choice are small enough to fit properly before you buy all the parts.

Provide Functional Rocky Caves

Getting too caught up in aquarium aesthetics, it’s easy to lose track of the functionality of your design. As well as looking beautiful, the best aquascapes also provide a homely environment for fish to explore, shelter, and rest.

Catfish in aquarium

When designing the rocky layout of the tank, I’ve sometimes been struck by how much effort is required to provide caves that are truly functional. You need to think like a fish and ask yourself how large you’d like it to be, which direction it will face, and how much light will enter there.

Since most cave-dwelling fish like catfish, loaches, and cichlids prefer somewhere truly secluded, offer them spacious, yet dark caves where they can enjoy spending most of their days.

The Elegance of Driftwood

If you’re going for a densely planted tank, there’s nothing in the world that will make it shimmer as magically as some well-chosen pieces of driftwood.

Driftwood or bogwood are tree branches or pieces of tree root that have been soaked and eroded with water, giving them a beautifully smooth and worn appearance. The solid texture and golden color of driftwood provide a wonderful foil for the surrounding, swaying plant foliage.

aquarium driftwood

Many of the lakes, rivers, and forest pools that tropical fish come from naturally have many pieces of driftwood in their habitat, so adding these pieces can give the tank a natural look that resembles your fish’s origins.

Once dusted with algae, driftwood begins to feel like an authentic part of an underwater ecosystem. As a bonus, driftwood can also release tannins which color the water with an attractive amber hue.

Tannins for an Amber Hue

Following on from driftwood which dyes the water golden brown, let’s discuss other materials that can provide the same effect.

Dried leaf litter such as oak leaves, Indian almond leaves, and peat are also rich sources of tannins, and when added to an aquarium, they’ll begin releasing their dark pigments to transform the water’s color.

While some aquarists don’t care for tannin-stained water, others deliberately add these substances to give their tank a particular feel or theme. These are often referred to as ‘black water aquariums’ and are designed to mimic the amber or ‘black waters’ of Southeast Asia, South America, and other ecosystems around the world.

If you like the idea of a black-water aquarium (which in reality is more of an amber color), you’ll have to also choose blackwater fish. Any fish that enjoys soft, acidic waters should be happy there, meaning you have half the world’s tropical fish to choose from.

Tank Placement

beautifull aquarium

Where you place your tank is not always thought of as an aspect of aquarium design, but it is every bit as important, if not more so, than any other element in aquarium aesthetics.

When I purchased my first aquarium, I made the mistake of placing it on a desk near a window where it would receive direct sunshine for part of the day.

A tank placed in such a bright space doesn’t have the chance to glow by itself. At worst, the reflecting sunlight makes it difficult to peer into the tank clearly, and it also encourages algae growth.

Instead, place your tank somewhere in a darkened corner so that the soft colorful light refracting through the water and reflecting the glorious greens of your plants can glow like a beacon, drawing viewers in to be enchanted by its charm.

Decide carefully whether you want your aquarium to be a personal passion in your bedroom or a public attraction in your kitchen or living room. Every other aspect of your tank’s design will be boosted severalfold by ideal placement!

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