Out of the box stair design in six high-spirited steps

…or how to let your imagination slowly run wild.




Obviously, this article is about our own approach to stair design. However, we’d like to start things by taking a step back for a broader look.

red and blue postmodern stair design seen in a dynamic perspective looking down
©Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura



When it comes to creating any kind of space, whether real or fictional, practical or the total opposite of that (even nonsensical), the world of 3D visualization offers endless possibilities. It could be about creating surreally layered cosmic landscapes, ancient temples scattered amid the vastness of a whimsical desert, oceans of robotic limbs that swim by themselves through the tides of a sea of hot air balloons, or a childish house with two windows, a door and a chimney. No matter what you see in your mind, it always helps to focus on what you really want to speak of and achieve in your designs. Every artist that conjures up models in the virtual realm has a vision, a message. And trust us, everyone is deeply fond of that certain something-something that lies there. 

Our studio is a big fan of stairs. We see them as an ever-stirring mix between playfulness and pragmatism. They’re links between what’s above and what’s below, between the upside down and the right side up, between worlds and planes of existence. They’re connective elements, not between the floors, but between the stories of the places we envision (see what we’re talking about here). 

Stairs can be highly functional, purely aesthetic or something in between. However, we’ve realized that when we focus strictly on one extreme, the overall coherence of our digital creations suffers. This is why we often approach stair design through creative exercises, always thinking about new ways to play with what we know and what we don’t. Here’s a more or less methodical approach we follow when designing stairs that are differently interesting, paired with some basic stair design rules that will not fail you!

Teal and cream interior with flower vases in the foreground and stairs that go up to the sky with a cloud at the base of the stairs
©Karl Larsson

First things first: good stair design comes from a solid concept.


As we’ve said in the very beginning, it is of utmost importance to figure out just about exactly what you wish for your creations to transmit to anyone who sees them. Obviously, any idea requires an adequately expressed gesture and vice versa. Stair design is no different. Make them grand, posh, put them in the center, they’ll scream “this way!”. Sneakily hide them behind a curtain or a wall, they’ll make you wonder where they’ll take you. Perhaps you wish to add a dash of mystery to your scene, maybe hide them in plain sight. Maybe use an unusual material, an uncanny or exaggerated angle, you get the idea. Once you know what you want, the rest comes almost instinctively. Trust the concept. 

Hard, rough limestone staircase attached to a 90 degree wall with a rough stone sculpture in the foreground and another rough stone sculpture in the background on the stairs
©La Maison D’Ava

Dimensioning 101: don’t skip it.


Let’s not forget about the very basics, stair design is also very much about adequate proportions. In the real world, stairs are actual architectural components that need to conform to certain standards. In other words, they need to be comfortable, safe to use, and for that there are many guidelines that will help you, like the ones you’ll find right here if you’re curious on how this works. Beyond that, considering the dimensioning of the stair elements in your scene has another benefit. It greatly alleviates the risk of creating confusion regarding the purpose and usability of said elements (unless that is your goal, of course).  

Two images depicting tall and minimal stair design, the one on the left is an illustration, the one on the right is a photograph
©Charitini Gritzali ©Aires Mateus

In stair design, boldness goes a long way.


For the purpose of balancing out the whole picture of whatever you’re designing, you’ll always find that certain punctual elements need to deliberately break uniformity and predictability. A little bit – or a whole lot – of dynamics added to your composition can help break a stalemate that we’ve probably all dealt with at some point. Monotony. In our works, we always strive to make the stairs stand out by either diminishing or emphasizing their presence through different means (placement, size, materials, color, etc.). The result is always surprising. 

Pink space with a round metallic table and black rocks in the middle and a full length and width 90 degree stair design staircase leading up to the table and the stones
©Studio OVERLAP x Staal Studio Frank Penders

Get a grip on that handrail.


Ah yes, one of the most important pieces of stair design that you can totally ditch. If you decide to incorporate a handrail, though, keep in mind that it almost has a story of its own. If the staircase is Yin, the handrail is Yang, if one’s Bonnie, the other one’s Clyde and so on and so forth. Think of the handrail as a subordinate or equally important sidekick in a dynamic duo that makes or breaks your story. Just like in cinematography, everything you see on screen plays a role in defining a scene. And, whether you perceive it or not, there are certain key elements that require a lot of attention. Bottom line: never underestimate the handrail and the power it holds. 

Soft pinkish gray postmodern futuristic interior room with minimal contemporary furniture, a thin steel stair design staircase and a round window gap at the upper half level
©Alina Alenikova

Light it up.


We don’t mean telling you to set your PC on fire, so please don’t do that. In any 3D scene, light is probably the most important element. Le Corbusier would certainly agree with us. Without a proper lighting scheme, all that effort you’ve put in your stair design will go to waste. Light can also become your most trustworthy personal assistant when tweaking all the parameters that change your staircase’s material qualities. Alexa, turn on the lights! 

Minimal aesthetic interior room with stair design lit by soft window light
©Rafael Eifler

Go crazy.


What else can we tell you? Rules are meant to be broken and you already know that. So go ahead, take a dive. Explore what can be done outside of what we’ve told you in this article. Playing around is never a bad idea. Trust us, we’ve tested it. And we’re still doing it.  


Disorienting Escherian composite image of intertwining stair design staircases in the colors red and blue designed by the architect Ricardo Bofill
©WArtclub x Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura

Hope we’ve been helpful. Have fun stair designing around! 


Written by Mihai Moga-Paler.


Meet the team behind this blog!

    Our expertise is focused on architectural visualization and spatial branding through high-end photorealistic CGI.

    We are architects at our roots. That’s why we begin every visualization project by understanding the problems the client addresses within their design. Then, we add layers of substance as we dive deeper into the client’s vision of reality. In other words, we OVERLAP realities.

    Therefore, our mission is simple. We consistently deliver meaningful work that exceeds client expectation. We help you communicate your project & increase its value.

    Led by Monica Safta and Răzvan Socol since 2018, OVERLAP helped some world known designers communicate their visions. Like Peter van der Jagt, or Karim Rashid.

    Check out our project case studies & blog!

    The OVERLAP visualization studio founders at the 2018 Venice Bienalle. Monica Safta on the left, and Razvan Socol on the right.