Most designers —whether photographers, painters, architects, graphic designers— agree on a similar series of principles that are aesthetically pleasing or intriguing. Interior designers relate them to the spaces we inhabit rather than what we just look at, but the goal is the same: to arrange space in a way that feels aesthetically pleasing. If you understand the basics, you can even do it yourself.
Interior designers generally agree on 7 elements that make up the science of interior design:
- Space – Interior design is essentially the mastery of space in a room, so this might seem like a more obvious element but it’s critical nonetheless. The space of a room has a two-dimensional component and a three-dimensional component. The two-dimensional space such as the floors and walls are flat areas that can be left blank or filled in with rugs, paintings, and windows. The other type of space, three-dimensional space, is what we typically think of when we refer to interior design, and it consists of the area in the middle of the room filled by upright furniture like tables, chairs, and beds. Now, let’s take a trip back to your elementary school art class where you first learned about positive and negative space in paintings. You can apply those same rules to interior design. The positive space is the objects and furniture in the room or on the walls while the negative space is the space in between all of that. Like in a painting, you have to make sure the space in neither overcrowded nor barren.
- Forms – Forms are the outlines of the three-dimensional objects that occupy space. Forms can be categorized as open or closed as well as organic or man-made. However, you categorize them, the goal is for the objects in the room to work well next to each other.
- Lines – Lines help to draw the eye around the room. Whether it’s the horizontal line of tabletop, vertical line of a doorway, or dynamic line of a staircase, a line will draw a person’s focus from one object to another to create the whole picture of the room. Because of this, they can also help influence the mood of the room. As a general rule of thumb, horizontal lines give the illusion of safety and security, vertical lines give a sense of expansiveness, and dynamic lines have a dramatic effect.
- Color – Color is one of the most fun and least complicated elements to understand and implement. By choosing a color, or family of colors, you can determine the mood of a room simply based on psychology. For example, blues and greens have calming effects while yellows and oranges evoke energy. The other superpower of color is that it can quickly create cohesion from object to object and room to room. By using different shades of the same color or different combinations from the same family of colors, you can create unity across different spaces with minimal effort.
- Light – Similar to color, light sets the ambience of the space. Manmade light from lamps and overhead light fixtures highlight specific elements of a space, such as a line or object. You can also manipulate natural light from windows to cast a certain mood over the space as a whole. Window treatments such as blinds and shades can brighten a room or create a cozy atmosphere.
- Texture – Experimenting with textures adds depth to the space. If every surface in the room is the same texture, the space will feel monotonous and artificial. Changing the texture by adding a rug, a basket, or an embroidered pillow will instantly add interest to a room.
- Pattern – Pattern works double duty by adding unity and interest across the interior space. The repetition of a color, texture, or shape helps transition one part of the room to the next so that the design feels consistent. If employed effectively, pattern can also liven a room so that not every aspect looks the same.
Now having a sense of the components of interior design, you can maneuver them so that they work together. There are 5 compositional techniques of interior design to integrate its elements:
- Emphasis – Think of your emphasis as the focal point of the room around which your forms and lines are arranged. It should make sense aesthetically but also functionally. For example, usually all couches and chairs in the living room point towards a television. Your focal point could also be a window, painting, or piece of furniture, but everything else should be organized around it in a way that makes visual and logical sense.
- Balance – Balance can seem like an abstract concept to implement, but you don’t have to be Ansel Adams to understand how it. Balance can usually be felt just by looking at the space. If the elements on one side of the room mirror those on the other side in terms of visual weight and busyness, then you’ve achieved symmetrical balance. You can also aim for asymmetrical balance, where two sides of the room are unequal. This is often easier to do, feels more natural, and adds life to the room. Rooms can also achieve radial symmetry, where objects radiate out from a central point. For example, chairs and decor in the dining room are usually positioned around the dining table.
- Rhythm – Rhythm in a room makes the space feel less stiff and lifeless by giving the illusion of movement. The element of repetition can usually achieve this. By creating a progression from one shade of a color to a different shade or between two of the same objects in different sizes, you can make it easy for the eye to transition around the room.
- Details – Detail, like rhythm, pertains to how parts of the space relate to each other. Play with the details by changing the proportions of objects near each other or by contrasting colors against one another. Adding slight changing in details like size and color adds points of interest in a room to fend off boredom.
- Harmony – Perhaps the most important technique and your ultimate goal of interior design is to create a sense of unity and harmony in the space. Harmony occurs when all the elements work together to complement each other and to produce a cohesive whole. Every other compositional technique, from balance to emphasis to rhythm through color scheme, aspires to achieve unity.
The most fundamental aspect of interior design is that it should feel right. No designer deity came down from the heavens to bestow a rulebook of design principles to follow. Not in the form of a tablet, at least. Many of the principles, such as radial symmetry and symmetrical balance, are exercised by nature, though. Mother Nature is a fantastic interior designer, which is why humans find the outdoors inherently beautiful. Humans’ attempt at interior design is simply a way to set an algorithm to what naturally works well. Most of interior design is instinctual. If it feels boring or awkward, it probably is. If it feels pleasant and harmonious, it is. The fundamentals of interior design are guidelines, but ultimately, the most important fundamental is your own opinion.