Skip to Content

19 Stripped-Down Essential Interior Design Rules (Design 101)

Essential Interior Design Rules

This is one of my favorite posts on this site because it offers a lot of information that’s easy to follow for DIY interior design.

Too often interior design is made infinitely complicated; this post will simplify interior design into 19 easy-to-follow rules that will dramatically improve your home’s interior design and decor.

If you do nothing else on this site, that’s cool. You’re here. This post offers you a crash course in interior design that makes sense, is easy to implement and in most cases, inexpensive.

We all like rules and templates (even if we think we don’t). This is the perfect interior design template.

Here it goes. Interior design stripped down to essentials.

A. Essential Interior Design Rules

Rhythm Rules: Colors, Prints and Shapes

Creating attractive rhythm with colors, prints and shapes in your home1. Repetition: 

When planning your room or home, plan out elements of repetition. It’s like advertising – one must be on average exposed 7 times to something before buying.

The same concept applies to design. Include repetition so the design resonates with inhabitants. Repetition creates rhythm which offers harmony.

2. Alternation:

I love alternation in design. It offers variety but it’s not “messy”. I don’t care for random yet I don’t like bland. Alternation is the perfect solution. It’s an essential interior design rule because it works.

3. Progression:

Our minds like our world organized. Sudden shifts or surprises are a stressor. But so is monotony.

You can find a happy medium in design with progression design elements, whether sizes or colors.

4. Contrast:

Sometimes contrast is the perfect design choice. Think white and black – a classic combination. The same can be said of shapes, sizes, etc. However, use contrasting techniques judiciously.

Proportions and Scale Rules of Interior Design

Establishing proper proportions and scale with interior design

5. Small – keep to scale:

This rule is broken way too often. Big furniture in small spaces (is bad). Scale is key or else your brain gets confused.

Small in small applies to furniture, patterns, decor elements… everything.

6. White space:

The white space rule is like the “less is more” rule. White is blank signifying less. You can seldom go wrong with white space especially when juxtaposed against color elements.

Too much color without white creates a mental bombardment. The mind finds it uneasy. Strive for creating mental ease.

7. Tall in tall:

The tall in tall rule follows the same reasoning as small in small.

8. Larger in larger:

Larger in larger is the same as tall in tall and small in small. It makes sense.

Fortunately these are easy rules to remember. It’s not rocket science.

Harmony and Unity Rules

Creating interior harmony (4 rules)

9. Fewer colors:

It’s so easy to go nuts with colors and various shades of colors. Don’t.

Keep it simple. You don’t have to go all white, but if you want color, keep it to one wall

10. Similarities = flow:

One end-game with interior design is to create flow. In fact, when it comes right down to it, we want flow in our life.

While you may not have flow in your life, you can incorporate flow in your design.

One method for interior design flow is using similar shapes and textures throughout (or at least within a room).

11. Consistency:

Consistency is an extension of similarities. However, you can take this further and be proactive with it by setting out to create patterns in your design. The example above is perfect by creating wall art that has consistency as its style element.

12. Theme:

Theme in design is going a little deeper because it forces you to think or observe themes happening in your room. OR, you have to determine a theme from scratch.

Be careful with theming though because it can easily be taken too far and you end up with cutesy.

Interior Design Balance Rules

Interior design balance rules

13. Symmetry: 

I love symmetry. That’s why I love cape cod and Federalist architectural styles.

I like symmetry to continue inside.

Symmetry isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, and you decide to incorporate it, be consistent with it.

14. Asymmetry:

If symmetry isn’t your thing, then it’s asymmetry. That’s cool. We all have personal preferences.

I think doing asymmetry well is harder than symmetry. You need to find the right elements and furniture for asymmetry to work. If not done right, it becomes a jumbled mess.

15. Radial Balance:

Radial balance is arranging objects around a central point extending outward or inward.

Examples include around fireplaces or kitchen islands – two items in a home that are often a central focal point.

Speaking of focal emphasis… that’s next.

Focal Emphasis Rules

focal point rules in interior design

16. Fireplaces:

Fireplaces when lit attract eyeballs like no other element in a room. This means you can dress up the area around a fireplace to balance out the strong pull of fire.

17. Artwork:

Such a simple design tactic… when you invest in nice art why not highlight it with a great light. The light itself can be a terrific design element as well.

This is an inexpensive and easy way to really enhance your artwork. Unfortunately most homes fail to do this.

18. High Ceilings:

Most people love high ceilings. They make spaces seem bigger (footprint-wise) and create drama.

However, enhance your high ceilings (which no doubt cost more money) with chandeliers, beams or contrasting paint. Really make those already fabulous ceilings pop.

19. Large Windows:

Don’t forget window treatments (but forget the valiances). I like the second part of this tip an that is replicate the window treatment color elsewhere in the room. This lends to consistency.

B. 4 Do’s and Don’ts of Interior Design (by the Pros)

4 Do's and Don'ts of Interior Design (by the Pros)


  1. Stick to what you like
  2. Focus on the big ticket items


  1. Be unique
  2. Test paint in your home

C. 5 Popular Design Styles – Rules in Effect

1. Modern Design

Modern Design Style

Do you know what’s interesting about modern design?

It’s popular in that people like looking at it and architects love experimenting with it (it’s experimental after all); however, most people don’t want extreme modern design for their home. It’s often referred to as “sterile” or “cold”.

I tend to agree. I’m not an extreme modern design lover. However, one off-shoot of modern design I love is what’s referred to as West Coast Modern. That’s clean lines and neutral colors but warmed up with extensive use of wood.

Modern design elements include:

  • Neutral colors
  • Clean lines
  • Minimal textures
  • Iconic furnishings (think mid-century or vintage)
  • Asymmetrical balance
  • Geometric patterns (this can be taken to crazy heights).

2. Industrial Interior Design

Industrial Design Style

Industrial design is very popular these days. Think “urban loft”. We all dream about reliving our youth by moving to some large, open industrial loft.

The fact is as many cities in North America are regentrifrying, warehouses and factories are being turned into apartments. In the beginning to keep costs low, the interiors were left-as is (brick, pipes, venting… all the elements we now love about industrial).

It’s another classic example of necessity driving trends.

Industrial design includes:

  • Raw steel with exposed brick
  • Stripped-down infrastructure
  • muted shades of browns and greys
  • copper-tone decor
  • rustic wood
  • unique non-functional pieces

3. Contemporary Design

Contemporary Design Style

I think many people refer to a design as modern when it’s really contemporary.

I think when people say they like modern, they really mean contemporary. Me included.

Above I mentioned West Coast Modern. I think a softer version is West Coast Contemporary which is extensive use of wood within a contemporary design.

Key contemporary interior design elements include:

  • Clean lines and shapes
  • Plenty of open space (i.e. open concept… a word we’re going to grow sick of)
  • Clutter is omitted
  • Soften curves
  • Neutral, clean,smooth and subtle

4. Classic Design

Classic Design Style

Classic isn’t so popular these days. It reeks of decades ago; however, you see it in homes that have not undergone a reno for decades or maybe some people still like the “grand” old design of the robber baron years or 19th Century France.

Okay, I’m being a little harsh. I’m biased. I’m not big on classic.

Nevertheless, it’s a bona fide design style.

It’s key elements include:

  • Refined style rich in details
  • Chandeliers (grand)
  • Symmetrical floor plans and furniture arrangements
  • Delicate furniture pieces (antiques)
  • Luxurious fabrics
  • Oversized architectural elements (I do like this aspect of classic design).

5. Traditional Design

Traditional Design Style

Traditional is a warmer version of contemporary.

It’s actually very popular these days especially in my neck of the woods where new Craftsman replica houses pop up by the tens of thousands.

That’s cool. It’s a design I like. I’m not hog wild about it, but it’s nice and it works.

Key elements include:

  • Edges are soft and curved
  • Paired furniture pieces and accents
  • Consistency and attention to details
  • cozy and welcoming textiles
  • Warm color palettes
  • Dignified trim and mouldings

There you have it.

That wraps up interior design 101.

Originally published as an infographic at Republished here with permission.