These design basics are the foundation for creating glorious interiors.

Interior designers always keep these design basics in mind when planning interiors for clients or themselves. So when planning your interiors, do as the pros do and always keep the elements of design in mind: point, line, space, form, shape, volume, scale, proportion, harmony, contrast, emphasis, placement, size, color, texture, balance, rhythm, and pattern. They are the common principles of design from which good interiors are created. Rules can be broken; in fact, some of the most fascinating interiors break the rules, but it is important to understand the principles before bending the rules. So here are definitions of the elementary design basics.

Point: A point is simply a geometric element in space with zero dimensions that can be defined by a set of coordinates. Any object, of course, is made up of millions of points. At least two points can be connected to form a line. Digital images are made up of dots, or pixels, of information. French artist, Georges Seurat, created a style of painting using tiny dots of juxtaposed pure color called pointillism.

Sunday Afternoon of the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Line: A line is an elementary design basic. It is simply the connection of two or more dots or points. Lines have length, but not volume. Lines can be straight or curved, and we see them as the edges of objects, at the meeting of two planes, as patterns, or as the result of architectural forms. Objects further from the eye seem to become smaller and lines seem to recede to a vanishing point on the horizon—this is called perspective—and artists have used this technique to create realistic images on a flat surface since the Renaissance.
As far as interiors are concerned, vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines can be used to create different effects. Lines can be deliberately used to call attention to an important feature—a focal point.

Vertical lines connote dignity and strength and help to create a more formal, or traditional feeling. Think of the soaring verticals of Gothic architecture.

Horizontal lines contribute a calming, peaceful effect and help to create a more informal, or contemporary feeling. Horizontal lines are a hallmark of traditional Chinese architecture.

Diagonal lines add excitement and contrast—they are dramatic, but don’t overdo it. Diagonal lines are effectively used in kitchen design to make an otherwise square or rectangular space more visually interesting.

Curved lines are graceful, create softness, elegance and movement, and evoke nature. How often do you see perfectly straight lines in nature?

If you study a room or building, you will notice that either vertical or horizontal lines dominate, with the other in the supporting role for contrast.

Space: Space is the three-dimensional area in our homes defined by the exterior structure and divided by interior walls. Space is said to be negative, or a void, while the objects and forms within it are positive, or solid. Our perception of space changes as we move through it. We never think we have enough space, but how we define it and use it can either make it seem more expansive, or diminished. For example, a house may have 8’ ceilings, but the great room may have a vaulted ceiling to 12’. The additional vertical space makes the room feel much larger than it would with an 8’ ceiling.

Form: Form is the enclosure of space by boundaries (lines). A plane (a flat or level surface with length and width) is a two-dimensional form and can be in the shape of a rectangle, circle, triangle or an irregular shape. Adding the dimension of depth creates a three-dimensional form. If you look at any form, you will see that it is in the shape of a cube, sphere, cylinder or cone, or a composite of these. Look at an object such as a sofa: what do you see? You may first notice the color, pattern, or texture of the fabric. Look more closely and you will see that maybe it is basically a cube, with cube-shaped cushions and perhaps cylindrical rolled arms and cone-shaped feet. Look all around you and analyze the various forms and shapes that make up objects. Learning how to use this basic design element to compose forms in space is one of the hallmarks of a good designer.

Shape: Shape is closely related to form and refers to the particular quality of the form. For instance, we may see a form in space as a ball—it is in the shape of a sphere. A shape can be a basic cube, sphere, cylinder or cone, straight, diagonal or curvilinear, but often it is a composite of these or even highly irregular.

Volume: Volume, or depth, adds the third dimension to a form. It gives bulk or mass to an object. It can be said to be the amount of space an object occupies or encloses.

Scale: Scale is the size of an object relative to adjacent objects. As far as interiors are concerned, scale should be relative to the human body and to the size of the space. The size of the people living in a house should be taken into consideration when choosing furniture. A large man, for instance, would be uncomfortable with dainty, diminutive furniture. Choose furniture with the size of the room in mind, also. A large room needs appropriately scaled furniture, while a small room may seem overstuffed with no room to breathe or move if all the furniture is large.

The way to work out the sizes of furniture for any room is to draw a scaled floor plan on grid paper and locate all of the pieces of furniture on the plan to scale. ½” = 1’– 0” is the scale most commonly used to draw floor plans. It helps to draw each piece of furniture to scale, cut them out and move them around on the floor plan. It is easy to see if the proposed pieces will fit, or if there is too much space.

Proportion: Proportion is a concept that relates the ratio of one part of an object to another and all objects to a whole. When objects in a room are in proportion to each other and to the room as a whole it just feels right. Proportion is one of the most important concepts to use to create beautiful, harmonious interiors. A lack of proportion can prevent a room from achieving the goal of beauty. There are mathematical formulas, like the golden ratio, that have been used in art and architecture since the Renaissance to calculate proportion, but it is not necessary to be that scientific. Just train your eye to see good proportion by looking at examples of good architecture and interiors.

Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr. defined it this way in The Decoration of Houses, “Proportion is the good breeding of architecture. It is that something, indefinable to the unprofessional eye, which gives repose and distinction to a room: in its origin a matter of nice mathematical calculation, of scientific adjustment of voids and masses, but in its effects as intangible as that all-pervading essence which the ancients called the soul.”

Harmony: “A pleasing or congruent arrangement of parts,” says Webster’s. Harmony occurs when all the elements relate to one another and the overall design.

Contrast: Contrast offers comparisons: vertical vs. horizontal, light vs. dark, solid vs. patterned, large vs. small, straight vs. curved, soft vs. hard. Having contrasting elements enlivens a room and prevents monotony.

Emphasis: This design element is important for every aspect of a space. Some features and colors in a room should dominate, or have more importance, and others should be subordinate or complementary to them. If everything were of equal weight or importance in a room, your eye would jump around and not know what it was supposed to focus on. You must decide what features or elements in your design are to dominate by giving them greater emphasis than others. There are several ways to create emphasis such as placement, size and color.

Placement: Where an object is located in a room increases its relative importance. There are natural focal points in every room—such as a large door or window, a wall between windows, the wall opposite the entrance, a fireplace, an alcove or bay, or even the center of the room. If you are building a house, pay attention to the location of doors and windows in the planning stages.

Size: A large piece of furniture will look more important than a small piece just due to scale.

Color: It is easy to use color to create emphasis. Your color scheme will have dominant, complementary and subordinate colors. In a living room, for instance, you can use the dominant color from your color scheme for the seating area and make the walls and perimeter of the room less emphatic with your subordinate color. Bright colors can also be used for emphasis over quieter or neutral colors. Color, of course, is such an important design basic in itself that we will treat it in more detail later.

Balance: Balance is a very important concept in interior design. There are several types of balance—symmetrical/asymmetrical; vertical/horizontal

Symmetrical balance is easy to understand. Each side of a room is the mirror image of the other. Imagine a living room with a fireplace flanked by draped windows on the far wall. There is a sofa facing the fireplace with a coffee table in front of it and a chair at either end of the coffee table and a small end table beside each chair topped with a table lamp. This is a typical formal arrangement. Symmetry lends itself to creating formal, more traditional interiors. If you want to create a formal, classic interior space, pay attention to the placement of the doors and windows. In a classic room, there will be windows or doors opposite each other on all sides of the room—even if there has to be a false door somewhere so as not to disrupt the symmetry. Symmetry is pleasing to the eye, but if too rigidly enforced, it can be static and, well, a little boring. You can still achieve balance by varying the components a bit. The two chairs flanking coffee table in our example above, don’t have to match. Maybe you place a folding screen on one side of the room and balance it with a console and mirror on the other. As long as you have two objects of similar visual weight or height opposite each other, you can still achieve symmetrical balance.

Asymmetrical balance is a much more informal and relaxed look. Our homes and rooms today do not always have the symmetrical architectural features that make symmetrical balance natural. Asymmetrical balance relies on placement of objects of different size or weight. A large piece of furniture placed on one side of the room, for instance, can be balanced by placing a smaller object or piece of furniture on the opposite side of the room, but the smaller piece must be placed further from the perceived center than the larger piece as if balanced on an imaginary fulcrum.

Radial Balance. This type of balance projects in a circular fashion from a central point as if from the hub of a wheel.

Rhythm: Rhythm is the repetition of pattern in a sequence, and is an important design element, though often subtle. The arrangement of tiles in a floor or wall, a row of columns, placement of windows on a house façade, the balusters of a staircase—these are examples of elements that can create regular, repeating patterns. Even the way objects are placed in a space can create rhythm. People find these regular repeating patterns reassuring and add to harmony. By varying the intervals, one can avoid monotony. Rhythm creates movement and can be used to lead the eye to a focal point.

Texture: Texture is the surface or tactile quality of an object. It can be hard or soft, dull or shiny, rough or smooth, clear or opaque, cool or warm. Texture is very important in design. It gives us pleasure to feel surfaces such as silk, polished wood, glass, stone, stainless steel, or wool carpet. Textures are affected by light and affect the way colors are perceived.

Pattern: Pattern is the visible configuration of elements that compose a design. A pattern is usually repetitious, has rhythmic qualities and can convey theme, time period, mood, and visual variety. We most often associate patterns with fabrics, but there is pattern is almost every surface we use in interiors from flooring, to countertops, ceramics, and wallcoverings.

Return to Elements of Design

Return to Home

Plant of the Month

Lantana 'Miss Huff'