The 7 Principles of Interior Design
We’ve covered the 7 elements of interior design — space, lines, form, light, color, texture, and pattern. The elements are the building blocks of creating a well-designed space, but the principles are the time-tested guidelines to how to use those blocks to successfully build a put-together interior. Now, it’s time to talk about the 7 principles of interior design.
As you’re about to learn, the elements and principles of interior design work hand in hand. I’ll be using the photos of one of my favorite residential spaces — the duplex penthouse designed by John Rawlins and Athena Calderone — to illustrate the 7 principles.
So what are these 7 time-tested guidelines to create a well-designed interior? Let’s dive right in!
Balance in a space is all about visual balance. The dictionary defines balance as “an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.” In interior design, this means distributing the elements evenly throughout the space to create visual balance.
There are 3 types of balance: symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial.
To understand the different types of balance, let’s refer to these photos:
1.1 Symmetrical balance can be seen by how the chairs are distributed evenly on each side of the dining table.
1.2 Asymmetrical balance can be seen by how the smaller paintings are hung to each side of the central and bigger painting above the sofa. They may not be mirroring each other, but they still create a balance of visual weight.
1.3 Radial balance can be seen in the chandelier above the dining table. The spherical glasses hang evenly around its center.
All examples above talk about the balance of forms within the space. Remember, there are six other elements that can be played with to create visual balance.
2. Emphasis & Focus
To give emphasis to something means to give it particular importance, value or prominence. In interior design, it’s about giving importance to a particular area or object. It’s about creating a focal point within the space.
In this bedroom, it isn’t difficult to see what stands out. Color, an element of interior design, is used to give the painting special importance through contrast. (Contrast is another principle in itself, and we’ll get to that next.)
Color has been used in this space, but how can we use the other elements to create emphasis? Light is a powerful element to play with in a space. Accent lighting alone already gives focus to an object. Lines can be used to direct the eyes towards what you want to give emphasis to. Leaving negative space around an object or an area would definitely give it importance. These are just a few examples. Let your creativity run wild!
Applying contrast in interiors adds drama and interest. Placing contrasting (strikingly different) elements next to each other somewhat creates emphasis on both objects or areas. However, the use of contrast shouldn’t be overdone in a space, or else it would lose its magical touch of drama.
In the last photo, the saturated painting above the bed used contrasting colors to the rest of the room’s color palette. Although color is probably the most powerful element in creating contrast, it can most definitely be achieved using the other elements, too.
4. Rhythm & Repetition (Movement)
To create rhythm in a space means to repeat certain elements throughout. In music, rhythm is a repetitive beat that creates a musical pattern. In interior design, rhythm can be achieved by the repetitive use of elements.
Let’s take these photos as an example …
The use of brass is repeated throughout the kitchen, living room and dining room. In the kitchen, it’s used on the trimmings of the cabinets and on the pendant lamps above the counter. In the living room, it’s used on the coffee table. In the dining room, it’s also used on the pendant lamp above the table.
Sometimes, repeated elements are subtle. In other cases, they can be painfully obvious such as repeated colors or patterns. But even when they’re subtle, they can create a sense of unity throughout the space.
5. Scale & Proportion
While the meaning of scale and proportion are oftentimes confused, they both have to do with the size of an object. In interior design, they’re intertwined. They both have to do with the size of elements in relation to other elements or in relation to the space as a whole.
A scale is used to weigh an object, and a balance scale compares the weight of two objects to achieve a balance.
In interiors, this has to do with the visual weight of an object (or element) compared to the objects right next to it or to the objects and space surrounding it.
The dictionary describes proportion as the “comparative relation between things or magnitudes as to size, quantity, number, etc.; ratio.”
Scale and proportion, therefore, are intertwined in that scale is about one object’s visual weight while proportion is about comparing that object’s visual weight to other objects around it or to the interior as a whole.
We’ve already covered five principles: balance, emphasis, contrast, rhythm, and scale. They tend to lean towards the bigger picture of a space. Now, it’s time to zoom in and take a closer look at the less obvious — the details.
Details are easy to overlook. Details include decorative objects and their trimmings such as fringes on curtains and pillows, picture frames, cornices and wall trimmings, and furniture handles.
Examples of less obvious ones are the color of wires used on lamps, the corners of cornices (the quality of installation), power plugs and light switches, and so on. Although details are easily ignored, an excellent interior is consistent throughout — down to its teeny tiny details.
7. Harmony & Unity
This is the goal of all the other principles: to achieve a unifying and harmonious space.
Last but most definitely not the least, harmony and unity encompass all the other elements. This is the goal of all the other principles: to achieve a unifying and harmonious space.
The dictionary defines harmony as “a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts; congruity.” Unity is defined as “oneness of mind, feeling; concord, harmony, or agreement.”
Harmony & unity is achieved when all the elements in a space work together and complement each other. It means looking at the space as a whole and seeing how each element plays a part in meeting the function of the space. It also means seeing the harmonious transition between one element and another.
The 7 elements of interior design are the building blocks whereas the 7 principles are the time-tested guidelines for using the elements to create a unifying and harmonious space. They’re kind of like the rules of design.
As rules, the clichéd saying — rules are meant to be broken — still applies! When using these principles, don’t be too rigid. Play around and be creative. To restate what William Lidwell wrote in Universal Principles of Design …
The best designers sometimes disregard the principles of design. When they do so, however, there is usually some compensating merit attained at the cost of the violation. Unless you are certain of doing as well, it is best to abide by the principles.