Principles of Design: How to Put a Room Together Like a Pro

Some people have an inherent ability to combine furniture, fabrics, and accessories to create fabulous rooms. They can mix thrift store finds with clearance bargains and make a room look like a million bucks. It’s not how much the items cost; it’s how they are put together. You don’t have to spend a fortune to have a stylish home. There are certain principles of design you can apply that can help you decorate a room like a pro.

Maybe you already know what you like in different design elements such as style, color, texture, and pattern, but you’re just not sure how to bring it all together. To make the most of any space regardless of budget, you need to understand these basic principles of design:

  • Scale and Proportion
  • Lines
  • Balance
  • Harmony and Rhythm

Principles of Design

Principles of Design: Scale & Proportion. One of the basic decorating principles that helps you decorate like a pro.

Scale basically refers to how an item relates to the size of a room. An example would be a large overstuffed sofa crammed into a small living room. That sofa would be considered out of scale for the room. The room requires a smaller sofa.

Proportion refers to how one object relates to another object in terms of size. For example, a delicate coffee table would be out of proportion if placed in front of that large overstuffed sofa. Instead it should be paired with a sofa that has a smaller profile.

Note: Though they actually mean two different things, scale and proportion are often used interchangeably by many designers.

Principles of Design: Lines. One of the basic decorating principles that helps you decorate like a pro.

Lines define a space. Walls, floors, ceilings, and cabinetry all create lines in a room. Here are some important points to remember about lines:

  • Vertical lines can make rooms seem taller and wide spaces seem narrower; they lend an air of formality to a room and a sense of grandeur.
  • Horizontal lines do the opposite; they widen narrow spaces, bring the eye level down creating a sense of intimacy and are very contemporary.
  • Diagonal lines convey a sense of energy to a space.
  • Curved lines soften the sharpness of rectangles and squares; they make a room more interesting and lively.

Check out my post Decorating With Lines for more information and photos showing how lines can be used to enhance a space.

Principles of Design: Balance. One of the basic decorating principles that helps you decorate like a pro.

Balance refers to the equilibrium of objects within a room. Balance can be created through shape, color, pattern and texture. A room that is well-balanced will feel comfortable and relaxing to the eye. There are 3 types of balance:

  • Symmetrical Balance occurs when you arrange items or objects the same way on both sides of a real or imaginary line. One side mirrors the other. For example, a tall cabinet with a chair and sconce placed on each side of it. The chairs and sconces must be identical or at least the same weight and size.
  • Asymmetrical Balance creates equilibrium by using objects that have the same visual weight, but are different is size, shape, color and texture. An example would be placing a group of tall slender candle holders on one side of a shelf and putting a short, wide vase on the other side. If you keep the scale correct, the grouping will be balanced.
  • Radial Balance is achieved when you arrange objects around one central focal point. An example would be a round dining room table with chairs sitting around it.

Principles of Design: Harmony & Rhythm. One of the basic decorating principles that helps you decorate like a pro.

Harmony results when all the design elements relate to one another in some way, creating a visually pleasing space. One way it can be achieved is by using one color throughout a space, but in different textures shapes or sizes. Or you can combine patterns and prints as long as they have the same scale, motif or color palette. They don’t have to match, just share something similar.

Rhythm is about creating patterns of repetition and contrast that move the eye around the room. It can be achieved by repeating the same color or shape at different areas in the room. For example, taking one color and picking it up in fabric or upholstery and again in accessories and artwork.

Sometimes, such as in my written examples, it’s easy to see when an item is out of scale or proportion. Other times, it’s not as obvious. You can help train your eye by studying photographs of professionally designed rooms. Really look at them to get a feel for why it works. Look at how the different elements relate to one another. Then start applying these principles of design in your home.


Photo Credits: Scale, Better Homes and Gardens; Proportion, Traditional Home; Vertical, Lines, Elle Decor; Horizontal Lines, Homes and Gardens; Diagonal Lines,  Cute Stencils; Curved Lines, DigsDigs; Symmetrical, Tobi Fairley; Asymmetrical, Better Homes and Gardens ; Radial, House Beautiful; Harmony, HGTV; Rhythm, Traditional Home


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