Designing Your Dream Aquarium: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners

Designing Your Dream Aquarium: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners

Vanessa LeRoux

Welcome to the mesmerizing realm of aquarium design, where you can turn a humble fish tank into a fishy paradise that will make all other fish envious. Get ready to dive into the world of underwater creativity, where your love for fish and your inner artist unite in a truly fin-tastic endeavour!

Designing an aquarium is no mere decoration project—it's a chance to create a natural wonderland that caters to your fishy friends' needs and your whims. Imagine transforming a glass box into a captivating underwater landscape, complete with hideaways, dazzling decorations, and even a touch of humour to keep your fish entertained. In this guide, we'll cover all the basics of aquarium design and provide tips on creating an underwater masterpiece your fish will love! But first, let's talk Tank.

A stunning collage of Betta fish against a black background.

Talking Tank: Your First Step in Creating a Beautiful Aquarium

The realm of fish tanks is incredibly diverse, offering a variety of sizes and shapes to cater to all tastes. Whether you prefer round, rectangular, square, or hexagonal tanks, the choices are virtually endless. Sizes can vary dramatically, from compact 2-litre Betta tanks to gigantic tanks holding thousands of litres. However, a spacious yet manageable tank is the perfect starting point for beginners venturing into the aquatic world.

Boyu EC-400 Series: A Blend of Style and Functionality

The Boyu EC-400 Series (38x26x45cm, 33L) is an excellent choice for both novice and experienced aquarists, offering an exquisite blend of style and functionality. This nano aquarium set is a marvel of convenience, featuring a built-in trickle filter system and lighting system, making it an effortless delight to set up. To further enhance its user-friendly design, it comes complete with filter media and an uplift pump.

Crafted from the finest quality glass, this nano fish tank boasts a contemporary aesthetic, with its rounded front corners adding a touch of sophistication. The canopy of the aquarium houses an integrated LED lighting system controlled by a 'soft touch' switch, allowing you to choose from three captivating lighting colours - a vibrant red, a harmonious blend of red, blue, and white, or a soothing combination of blue and white.

The Boyu EC-400 Series is designed for effortless feeding and cleaning, as well as easy maintenance of your aquatic plants and creatures. This sleek nano tank is not just a container for your aquatic life but a stunning visual centrepiece.

glass tank with rocks and spider wood arranged inside

Creating a Striking Aquatic Impact with the Daro Starter Kit

For beginners ready to explore a more expansive aquatic environment, the Daro Starter Kit (61.5x32.5x32.5cm, 60L) presents an exceptional choice designed to provide a seamless entry into the world of aquatics.

The Daro Starter Kit is a fantastic choice for beginners ready to embrace designing an aquarium. The kit features an all-glass tank, providing a clear, unobstructed view of your aquatic inhabitants. A black grain canopy complements the tank and comes with a submersible filter with a spray bar for a natural water flow.

The kit also provides Aquaclor for optimal water conditions, a fish net for easy handling, and 2kg of medium gravel. This not only serves as a substrate for your tank but also adds a naturalistic touch to your underwater landscape. The kit includes a manual to guide you through the setup and maintenance process, making it an ideal choice for a beautiful aquatic setting that will undoubtedly make a significant impact with its striking beauty.

desktop aquarium sits next to a pc

The Perfect Spot for Your Aquarium: Balancing Creativity and Practicality

The dimensions and form of your aquarium should harmoniously blend with the available space in your home. Whether it's a small desktop aquarium that fits neatly on a desk, table, or bookshelf, or a standalone unit complete with its own cabinet, there's a suitable tank for every space.

However, it's essential to strike a balance between creative placement and practicality. The supporting furniture must be sturdy enough to withstand the tank's weight, and you should have unobstructed access to your tank for feeding and maintenance. Do not place it next to a heat source or an air conditioner.

Additionally, the tank should be positioned away from direct sunlight, and, most importantly, it must provide ample space for your chosen fish. With careful planning and thought, you can identify the ideal tank to embark on your aquatic journey.

blue and orange fish swims peacefully in the aquarium

Step Two in Aquarium Design: Choosing the Coolest Theme

Designing an aquarium involves selecting a theme which sets the foundation for your underwater landscape. Consider the needs and preferences of your fish species when designing their habitat. Create a comfortable environment that caters to their requirements.

Here's how to choose a theme that suits your preferences and aligns with your aquarium's purpose and inhabitants:

  • Research various aquatic ecosystems for inspiration: Explore freshwater rivers, lakes, marshlands, swamplands, and brackish coastlines. Read books, browse online resources, or visit public aquariums for ideas.

  • Choose a theme that suits your taste and complements your space while considering the atmosphere you want to create.

  • Refine your vision with inspiration: Include features closely resembling the chosen ecosystem. Use appropriate colours, textures, and natural elements. Or perhaps your vision is abstract themed, with movie characters and contradicting landscapes like a desert look or desolate rock lands.

  • Seek guidance from experts and consider personal preferences. Consult experienced aquarists or professionals for advice.

aquarium ornament of a diver and treasure chest.

Aquarium Design Step Three: Mapping Out Your Layout

After you've decided on a theme for your aquarium, the next step is to map out its design. This involves creating a layout that is not only visually appealing but also practical and tailored to the requirements of your fish. It should reflect the natural ecosystem you've chosen. In this part, we'll explore concepts for your initial design and delve into the various decorative elements you can use to transform your idea into a breathtaking reality.

The Aesthetics of Aquarium Design: Balancing Colours, Textures and Composition

Colours and textures are essential elements of good aquarium design. When selecting decorations, consider how they work with each other and the overall look of your tank. Here are some tips to help you create a balanced and harmonious atmosphere:  

  • Analyze your tank's colours: Choose decorations that feature shades complementing each other to avoid excessive contrast.

  • Be mindful of textures: Incorporate different textural elements like rocks, wood, sand, gravel, and plants. Create varying shapes and sizes for visual appeal.

  • Create an underwater oasis: Strategically place plants, ornaments, and decorations around the tank for a pleasing composition resembling an underwater oasis.

Embracing Nature in Your Aquarium: Ideas for a Naturalistic Design

Regardless of how you envision your aquatic landscape, there are numerous transformative natural elements you can incorporate. With a dash of creativity and thoughtful selection, these additions can significantly enhance your tank's aesthetic appeal and functionality.

Gravel: The Foundation of Your Aquarium's Beauty

Working from the ground up, so to speak, the first thing on the list is your gravel substrate. Gravel comes in a variety of natural hues and bright colours. According to Jeremy Gay, lifelong fishkeeper and expert: "Dark gravel colours can enhance bright fish colours and black substrates can look striking, contemporary and attract less algae than light substrates."

He goes on to say that the jury is out on the use of coloured gravel, with some aquarists loving it and others loathing it. "Ornamental fish like goldfish or guppies don't seem to mind bright-coloured gravel at all, whereas wild-caught and cryptically coloured fish prefer a natural substrate to blend into." 3 Gravel is usually sized 1-3mm or 3-6mm. Choose the size and colour that fits your aesthetics or your theme.

Double the Fun: Enhance Your Aquarium's Vibe with Double-Sided Backgrounds

Ready to give your fish tank flair and style? Say hello to double-sided aquarium backgrounds. These durable, water-resistant wonders stick to the back of your tank, offering two exciting nature-inspired scenes you can flip between on a whim. It's like having two different stages for your fish to show off their moves, adding depth and drama to your tank and giving your fish a comforting sense of home.

Choosing a background is part of the fun, like picking a set for your underwater play. Consider your aquarium's vibe and your fish's personality, then select a background that suits their style. Double-sided aquarium backgrounds are a cost-effective, simple way to turn your fish tank from ordinary to extraordinary.

Aquarium with rocks cleverly arranged to look dramatic.

The Magic of Rocks: Creating a Fish-Friendly Underwater World

Ready to rock your fish tank? With slate, Elephant, or Dragon rocks, you can create a unique underwater landscape. Dragon rocks even double as live plant holders, adding a touch of green to your rocky terrain. The real magic happens when you start stacking these rocks, creating multi-level cliffs, caves, and crevices.

The secret to this rocky masterpiece? Reef glue! Just apply it to your base rock, add the next layer, and dunk them in the water. The water sets the glue, securing your creation. But remember, while a rocky landscape is stunning, it's also your fish's home. So, leave plenty of room for them to swim and explore. Whether you prefer one single rock style or a combo of rock formations, you create a breathtaking aquatic world that's both beautiful and fish-friendly.

driftwood and plants in an aquarium with a black background

Incorporating Driftwood: A Unique and Striking Addition to Your Aquarium

Driftwood is a striking and mood-enhancing feature in your aquarium's theme. Available in various types and sizes, including Mopani driftwood, Spider driftwood, Honeycomb wood and wood vine, it adds a unique, natural touch to your underwater landscape. Remember to boil the wood, let it cool, and then position it thoughtfully within your tank.

The intricate patterns and rustic charm of driftwood can create a stunning visual impact, transforming your aquarium into a captivating underwater tableau. Its naturalistic appeal not only enhances the aesthetic value of your tank but also provides an authentic environment for your aquatic inhabitants, making your aquarium a true spectacle to behold.

Artificial Plants: The Secret to a Low-Maintenance, High-Impact Aquarium

Whether you're a seasoned aquarist or a newbie, artificial plants are a fun, easy way to bring your fish tank to life. These colourful additions can transform your aquarium into an underwater paradise, creating visual interest and giving your fish exciting new places to explore. They also serve as camouflage for those inhabitants who like to hang out backstage. And the best part? No green thumb is required!

Silk plants are the stars of the show when it comes to realism. They sway gently with the tank's current, mimicking the graceful dance of real underwater plants. On the other hand, plastic plants make a great choice for your aquarium masterpiece because they won't decompose and pollute the aquarium. While they may not enrich the habitat like live plants, they serve as a fantastic alternative, particularly for beginners. Moreover, artificial plants are a perfect solution for fish that tend to uproot or consume live plants.5 Both options are fantastic for adding a touch of vibrant nature to your tank without the upkeep of live plants.

Create Dynamic Underwater Scenes with Changeable Ornaments

If you're looking to create a serene underwater garden or a bustling aquatic city, aquarium tank ornaments are your ticket to a captivating and comfortable habitat for your fish. These delightful decorations add a whole new level of fun to your fish tank, transforming it from a simple aquarium into an underwater adventure. But it's not just about the aesthetics - these ornaments also provide essential hiding spots for your fish, giving them a sense of security and a place to retreat when they need some downtime.

And the best part? You can change them out whenever you want, giving your tank a fresh new look without the hassle of a complete redesign.

orange fish swim through the fish tank surrounded by plants and air bubbles

A Captivating Aquarium: The Role of Depth, Ornaments and Airstones

Use depth strategically by providing different zones for your fish and recreate the natural flow of water using elevations and deep sections using rocks and driftwood. This creates visual interest and enhances the natural look. Place larger ornaments and plants at the rear of the tank with smaller ones in front of them. This allows you to have a direct view into the whole of your tank and leave a greater swimmable area for your fish. Some of your tank's inhabitants may be territorial; having defined spaces in your tank will contribute to creating a harmonious habitat.

Airstones: Creative and Versatile

Airstones and air diffusers, available in many shapes and sizes, including air curtains, can add a dynamic element to your aquarium. Imagine a stream of bubbles or a synchronized wall of bubbles rising through your tank - it's a sight that truly captivates. These features not only create visually appealing points of interest but also help delineate depth and spaces within your tank. Moreover, they play a crucial role in oxygenating the water, which is vital for the health of your fish.

A uniquely designed fish tank with dark grey rocks on a green substrate.

Your Aquarium, Your Imagination! Step Four: Creating a Personalized Underwater World

But wait, what happens if au natural is not your style and you're up for a splash of funky fun, a dash of creativity and a sense of humour? This is where you can let your imagination run wild. You're the master of the stage set before you; the world is your oyster! Gravel comes in bright neon colours, Disney and TV characters abound, and there are crocodile heads doubling as airstones! Perhaps a happy skull or a cactus is more to your fancy?

The beauty is you can add just about anything: glass, ceramic, clay, or plastic items to your tank. You can make your fish tank an extension of your quirky, interesting personal style. As long as the needs of your fish come first, your tank design truly can be a smorgasbord of ideas all of your own imagination.

Important note: Unspecified aquarium ornaments must be soaked in boiled water before being placed in your aquarium. Click here for more information on how to prepare your decorations.

a set of aquascaping tools

Step Five: The Intersection of Artistry and Functionality in Aquarium Design

In Step Five, we delve into the strategic placement of functional elements in your aquarium's waterscape. Your grand vision for your aquarium should seamlessly incorporate essential components like filtration, heating and lighting. But don't worry; with a few clever tactics, these necessary elements can blend into the background, maintaining the aesthetic integrity of your underwater paradise!

Finding Filtration: A Key Factor in Aquarium Aesthetics

You'll need to investigate the appropriate filtration system for the tank size and the fish species you will be keeping.

When it comes to aquarium design, the question becomes, where is the best place to put the type of filtration I have chosen so that it doesn't get in the way of my design? The following table2 shows where each kind of filter is located. As you can see, it is only the internal filter which is placed in the tank. For an underwater designer, they may not, therefore, be your best choice of filter.

"The internal filters take up a large amount of space in your fish tank. If you have a smaller tank, this can be a big drawback. The visual aesthetics are negative as it is hard to hide these types of filters." Built-in hood filtration is the most aesthetically pleasing option for an uninterrupted waterscape.

Filter Type Placement
Under Gravel Bottom of Tank
Internal Inside Tank
Hanging Outside Tank
Canister On Floor or Under
Built-in Hood Filtration In Canopy

aquarium heater

Strategic Heater Placement: A Crucial Step

There's room to move and strategically stage your heater as part of your overall tank design. "It may be attached in any direction: horizontally, vertically, or at an angle. Horizontal placement is more common and more beneficial. However, heaters are sometimes placed vertically and at angles (30-60 degrees)," says Bruce D Holgate from

He continues: "Aquarium heater placement is not a great deal if you have perfect water circulation. The heater should be in a place where good water flow is available. Place your heater close to the filter inlet/outlet." So there you have it; keep these facts in mind as you stretch your creativity and find the perfect placement for the heater in your underwater wonderland.

planted fish tank featuring lighting.

Illuminating Your Tropical Fish Tank: The Secret to a Mesmerizing Aquarium

The lighting in your tropical fish tank can significantly enhance its visual appeal. The chosen colour spectrum of your light plays a pivotal role in this aspect. While it doesn't drastically affect plant growth, it does influence the aesthetic allure of your aquarium. Many enthusiasts prefer a neutral white light ranging from 5000 to 6500 K, which replicates natural daylight and effectively highlights both plants and fish.

The intensity and spread of your light also add to the overall visual impression of your tank. A carefully chosen light can highlight the colours and movements of your fish, create depth and contrast, and accentuate the beauty of your plants. LED lights are particularly recommended as they can produce high brightness with lower energy usage and have a long lifespan. Some LED aquarium lights even offer dimming capabilities, allowing you to adjust the light intensity to create different moods or highlight specific areas of your tank.

Proper lighting can transform your tropical fish tank into a vibrant, captivating underwater spectacle. It's not just about providing the necessary light for plant growth but also about enhancing the visual charm of your tank, turning it into a standout feature in your home.4

aquarium snail

Keeping Your Aquarium Clean and Beautiful: The Essential Tools You'll Need for Step Six

Creating a stunning and beautiful aquarium environment involves a few key tools and natural helpers. Step six starts with introducing snails, shrimp, or algae-eating fish species into your tank because not only do they aid in cleanliness, but they also add to the diversity and visual appeal of your aquatic landscape. Regular use of an algae scraper keeps your tank walls clear, enhancing the visibility of your vibrant underwater world.

Decorative elements like rocks and logs, when cleaned with a simple scrub brush and hot water, remain algae-free and visually striking. A substrate vacuum, used weekly, not only extracts debris but also rejuvenates the tank, enhancing the vibrancy of the substrate and the overall aesthetic of the aquarium.

Trim and groom aquatic plants: Maintain your live plants by trimming and grooming them regularly with plant-scaping tools. This prevents overgrowth, maintains the design balance, and promotes healthy plant growth.

Lastly, a soft cloth and an appropriate cleaner will keep the exterior of your glass polished and clear, ensuring a perfect view into your stunning aquatic universe. The most crucial element, however, is regularity. Consistent upkeep not only maintains a healthy environment but also ensures your aquarium remains a beautiful, visually pleasing centrepiece for both you and your fish to enjoy.

brown and grey fish swims peacefully amongst the aquarium plants

Step Seven: The Moment You've Been Waiting For - Adding Life to Your Aquarium

Welcome to the most exhilarating phase of your aquarium design journey - Step seven. This is the moment when your carefully crafted underwater landscape springs to life as you introduce the living stars of your aquatic show - the plants and fish. These elements not only amplify the aesthetic appeal of your aquarium but also establish its ecological balance, transforming your tank from a static display into a vibrant, dynamic ecosystem.

The selection of plants and fish is a critical process, requiring careful consideration of their compatibility with the aquarium's conditions and each other. As you watch your aquarium burst into a spectacle of movement and colour, you'll realize that all your meticulous planning and hard work have paid off. This marks the culmination of your aquarium design process and the commencement of your thrilling adventure in aquarium care and enjoyment.

all glass tank with aquarium plants on black substrate

Underwater Gardens: The Beauty and Benefits of Aquarium Plants

Live plants are a terrific addition to any aquarium, serving multiple purposes that enhance the overall health and aesthetics of your aquatic environment. They offer a natural refuge for your fish, creating a comforting sanctuary where they can relax and hide. These green wonders also play a vital role in maintaining water quality, as they absorb nitrates and other impurities, contributing to a cleaner, healthier habitat for your aquatic friends.

Moreover, the vibrant green hues and diverse textures of live plants add a layer of visual richness to your tank, transforming it into a captivating underwater garden. When selecting plants, consider varieties that align with your chosen theme and personal preferences, ensuring a harmonious blend of beauty and functionality. Click here for a beginner's guide to aquarium plants.6

Starting Your Aquatic Journey: Key Factors in Choosing Your First Fish

When you're just starting out on your fish-keeping journey, picking the right fish can feel a bit overwhelming. Care has to be taken that you don't go for 'looks' alone! As much as you might want the most striking and fantastical-looking fish to fill your tank, your choices have to be tempered by reality. Here's what to consider:

Firstly, you want a hardy fish. This means they're tough little swimmers who can handle a few beginner blunders, like if the water temperature fluctuates or the pH level isn't quite right.

Next, think about their personality. You want peaceful fish that will play nice with their tank mates. An aggressive fish can turn your tranquil tank into a battleground.

Size is another crucial factor. Make sure your fish will be comfortable in your tank. If you choose a fish that grows fast or gets very large, it might very quickly outgrow your tank.

In addition to this, you want fish that are easy to feed. You don't want a fish that requires a gourmet diet! Starting with affordable and readily available fish is a good idea.

Remember, every fish is unique and needs specific care. So, do a bit of research on each species before bringing them home. This way, you'll make sure your new finned friends are a perfect match for your setup and your level of experience. Click for a list of fish suitable for beginners.

Planted aquarium against a black blackground

Creating an Underwater Masterpiece: Your Aquarium Awaits!

Designing a stunning underwater landscape for your aquarium is a rewarding and creative endeavour. By choosing a theme that resonates with you, planning the layout to create depth and perspective, incorporating essential elements such as rocks, driftwood, live plants, and substrate, balancing colours and textures, maintaining a healthy environment, and allowing your design to evolve, you can create an enchanting aquatic masterpiece. Remember to enjoy the process, observe your fish's well-being, and let your imagination run wild.

With steadfast devotion and a keen eye for detail, you hold the magic to turn your aquarium into an enchanting aquatic spectacle. This captivating underwater realm will continue to dazzle and fascinate, becoming a source of endless joy for years to come. So why wait? Begin the thrilling journey of crafting your very own aquatic masterpiece today!


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