It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of a home renovation. But if you’re working with an interior designer, it’s important to trust their vision along the way.
Today we’re talking about the 9 basic principles of interior design and how they guide your designer’s choices – and ultimately provide the end result you really want.
You hired an interior designer to deliver dreamy results – a room that’s one hundred percent you. At initial meetings, your designer asked a series of questions about your goals, lifestyle, and preferences. She took note of colors, inspiration photos, and brands you love.
But then...you see a mood board or product sample and wonder: how did my designer choose that color? Why is she recommending that lamp when we talked about clean lines? Do all of these elements really go together?
It’s normal to have questions for your interior designer. In fact, we welcome them. After all, most of us are people pleasers at heart. We want nothing more than for you to be absolutely thrilled with your home after a redesign.
But don’t forget, part of the reason you hired an interior designer in the first place was to get a service, a skillset, and a vision that you likely can’t achieve on your own. And we leverage our specialized training, education, and experience to get the results you want.
Professional interior designers know how to mix and match elements that untrained eyes might miss because we know this simple truth: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This idea is attributed to Aristotle, so I’m guessing he wasn’t discussing the right floor lamps for your open concept family room. But it’s one hundred percent true in interior design.
Interior design clients tend to get really bogged down with minutiae, becoming hyper-focused on every last detail. To be clear, I love details. They make all the difference in the world. But in my experience – and I suspect this is universal with my colleagues in the design world – clients get hung up on the wrong ones.
As designers, our choices are rooted in 9 basic principles of design.
This is Interior Design 101, but to the rest of the world it remains a bit of a mystery. So I’d like to offer explanations on each design principle in hopes it helps improve a few designer-client relationships out there.
What are the 9 principles of design?
This list applies to visual design across a range of disciplines – graphic design, fine art, architecture, and yes, interior design.
Some of these words might seem straightforward, others less-so. But a combination of all of them, applied thoughtfully, is what produces spaces that not only look beautiful but feel right.
So what do these interior design principles look like in practice? Let’s break them down.
It’s as simple as it sounds. Your interior designer will thoughtfully repeat an element – a shape, a color, a pattern, or material – throughout your room or home.
In the Playa beach house project, we took a cue from the angled ceiling trusses and repeated that shape in the rug, the pillow textiles, even the wall art. Nothing ‘matches’, per se, but there is a familiarity between the elements that provides a soothing cohesion.
Repetition and rhythm typically go hand in hand. They work together to provide focus and order to a design. In this case, your eye bounces from the familiar angular shapes – the trusses, the lampshade, the wall art, the rug – one after another after another after another. It creates a rhythm that we respond to on a subconscious level and helps us feel peaceful in the space.
Another way to create rhythm is through pattern. Textiles and wallpaper are an obvious option, but you can create pattern with any repeated element.
In the image on the right, the stacked rectangular pattern in the backsplash tile is mimicked in the bamboo barstools, the blue and white chair cover, and the rug. Similarly, the angled black legs of the barstools create a strong pattern, which is repeated in the legs of the bench.
Balance is achieved when the visual weight is carefully distributed around the room. This can be
done with symmetry – the mirror, sink, and faucet are centered in the space with matching sconces on either side.
But for visual interest, a room needs some balanced asymmetry, too. The woven hamper and the clay vase add softness and texture to the space. The hanging hand towel and folded washcloths flank the sink with equal weight, even though they’re not exactly the same.
Finally, the sculpture to the left of the sink provides a bit of visual weight to balance the volume of the palm branches.
Sometimes referred to as unity, this is one design principle that clients intuitively understand, but don’t always see until the end result comes together. That’s because if a client prefers a modern space, they assume every element of that space should be modern. But that’s how you end up with a space that feels like an impersonal showroom instead of an actual home.
It’s possible – and infinitely more interesting – to create harmony with a mix of styles and textures. The patio below illustrates this concept beautifully.
Here the white and blue color palette unites the entire patio, even though the furnishings are a mixture of styles that most clients wouldn’t put together on their own:
Architecture of the home has Cape Cod features
Chaise lounges are contemporary
Adirondack chairs lean traditional New England
Round cocktail table stems from mid-century roots
Flower pots are Asian or more traditional lines
Because the color palette is the unifying theme, the space looks effortless and serene, instead of disjointed or overly matchy.
As much as you need harmony, you need variety, too. A pop of something unexpected that provides balance and texture to the space.
In this same patio image, the pink flowers add a pop of visual interest to an otherwise monochromatic design.
Movement is part of what gives really well-designed spaces that ‘feeling’ we all know and love. That’s because when a designer creates movement in a room, the space draws you in. Movement can be created in interior design either through artwork or prints – like the striped surfboard and the bold painting in the room below. It can also be achieved by the way elements are arranged to lead your eye around a space.
In the image below, your eye first lands on the surfboard, then moves to the bold painting, down the fireplace, and then around the seating area. This sweeps you into the space and invites you to stay awhile.
Many of the design principles work together to create a solid foundation in a space. But without emphasis, or an intentional focal point, a room will either end up looking cluttered and unfocused, or just plain boring.
Emphasis can be created with architectural elements, like a fireplace, built-ins, or bold ceiling treatment. It can also be achieved through decor and fixtures – graphic wallpaper, an oversized chandelier, or a pop of color on the kitchen island.
If a room feels ‘off’, it’s likely because the proportions aren’t right. When designers talk about proportion, they might mean a number of things:
The size and scale of the furniture a room will accept – the larger the room, the larger the furnishings. Same with patterns – larger pieces of furniture look best with larger patterns.
The scale of furniture pieces – an oversized sofa won’t feel right with a dainty end table next to it.
How shapes relate to one another within the space – the rectangular window above is the focal point of the room. The shape is repeated in similar proportions in the fireplace and the wall art on either side of the room.
White space – every space needs room to breathe. Too much stuff – even if it ‘goes together’ makes the room feel cluttered.
Proportion isn’t always obvious to the untrained eye, but everyone can feel its effects.
And there you have it, friends. These are the 9 design principles that interior designers know and rely on as they select, create, and source furnishings and details for your space.
I hope this gives you some insight into why a designer makes the choices they do. While homeowners tend to get bogged down and focus on each detail individually, a trained designer steps back and looks at a project holistically. This delivers an end result that most clients aren’t able to.
This is why she might recommend a lamp that’s not your first choice. It’s not that she’s not listening to you, but rather, she’s carefully selecting elements that will be part of a better whole.
It’s why I often have to remind clients halfway through a redesign to ‘trust to process’. Each step might not seem clear in the moment. But if you’ve selected the right designer and you know they produce great work – trust that your end result will be just as beautiful. Even if it hasn’t yet come into focus for you.
After all, that’s why you hired us!
Until next time,
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