cheat sheetInterior decorating is both an art and a science: improving your ability with the “art” side of the equation only comes from natural talent and experience, but over time you will improve and learn how and when to break the design “rules” below.

However, we can help you with the “science” part of the equation. Below are the most fundamental tips for the theory and rules behind the home decorating process.

Room Color Schemes

Color is obviously a huge part of interior decorating, and it’s best to choose your color scheme ahead of time, because the balance of color in a room plays a major part in how well-decorated it looks. Below are the most common color schemes.

colors2Complementary Colors

A 1:2 ratio (2/3 one color, 1/3 its complement) is a common balance for decorating schemes that is simple and can be sharp and dramatic if you use vibrant shades.

Color Triads

A 60%/40%/10% split is the “golden ratio” for most three-color design schemes, and is especially powerful with equally spaced-apart triad color schemes to create a balanced look to the room.

Analogous Colors

This is a relaxed, “easy on the eyes” color scheme that can quickly create a unified appearance. It’s best to pick shades that are either all warm or all cool.

Split Complementary

The “single” side of the split complementary scheme should be the dominant color, balanced against either a 2:1:1 ratio or the 60/40/10 ratio from above.

Choosing Materials

Notice the varying materials and textures, including wood, fabric and upholstery give visual weight and interest to this room.

If you’re living in an apartment you can’t make changes to, or you’re not planning on a major renovation anytime soon, the existing materials that make up your home should be integrated into your decorating style – yes, even if they’re hideous. Trying to ignore an existing design element only ends with it becoming even more of an eyesore, because it will be the one thing that clashes with the rest of the decorating scheme.

The Importance of Natural Materials

There is something fundamentally pleasing for humans to be in environments with natural materials, probably because most of the human evolutionary process has been surrounded by nature and not man-made objects. You will see a positive difference if you make a point to include plenty of natural materials in your interior’s design.

Natural materials: wood, bamboo, grass-cloth, cotton, stone, cane, cork.

Processed natural materials: brick, clay, tile, concrete, metal (copper, chrome, aluminum, iron, steel, brass, bronze), glass.

Textures and Patterns

Having textural elements in a room adds visual depth and interest and prevents the room from appearing stagnant and “flat”. Most of the natural materials listed above add texture, as do intricate details on furniture, woven surfaces, patterns such as wallpaper or wall stencils, and canvas artwork or sculptural pieces.

How to Balance Textures

Just as with colors, there are general ratios you should strive for in your flat vs. textured surfaces. The most common is probably the 2:1 flat to textured surface ratio, though this can also be inverted.

Additionally, try to have a variety in the “scale” of textures and patterns: have both large and small-scale patterns, and some in-between.

Using Repetition in Your Design

Repetition is not only visually appealing because it creates a sense of security and immediate understanding of a space, it also develops an “intentional” look that conveys that thought went into your design. Usually, you want at least three “repetitions” of the design element, and at least three base design elements in a room.

Repetitions can be based on:

  • Color
  • Texture/Pattern
  • Material
  • Design Style
  • Shape

Setting Focal Points

Don't be afraid to use an oversized piece of artwork that you love to make a dramatic focal point. [CC License via Coco + Lelley]

Don’t be afraid to use an oversized piece of artwork that you love to make a dramatic focal point. [CC License via cocokelley]

Every room should have a best feature that the rest of the design is aware of and complements it, not take away from it. Your eye will naturally look for a focal point in a room, and having a clear, attractive focal point give the eye a place to rest as well as convey structure and order to the room’s style. In the photo to the right, your eye is naturally drawn to the oversized art above the sofa.

Other focal points include:

  • Windows
  • Art/sculptures
  • Plants/flowers
  • Fireplaces
  • Interesting architectural details, like an archway or antique tile
  • Piano


Soft lighting from table lamps has a major impact on the feel of this bedroom. [CC License via jsunv]

Interior lighting is very important, and a common beginner mistake is not having enough sources of (non-overhead) lighting in your home.

You generally want your lighting to mimic the effect of direct sunlight as closely as possible, so full-spectrum incandescent lightbulbs are usually the best option. Lighting that isn’t full-spectrum can overemphasize some colors and under-emphasize others, instead of showing the color’s “true” appearance.

If you have the option to install your own ceiling lighting, recessed lights are preferred by most designers. Chandelier-style, hanging lights are also good as accent lighting. You should also have at least three non-ceiling lighting sources per room, usually provided through a mix of table, floor and task lamps.

Call attention to recessed areas or beautiful features in your home with direct, focused lighting, such as special picture lights for hanging artwork.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are generally accepted decorating “mistakes” that most professional decorators will advise against. There are always exceptions, but in most cases your home will look better if you correct any of these errors.

  • Hanging pictures too high: Art should be easily viewable at a person of average height’s eye level, no higher. The same goes for TVs, for that matter, meaning hanging TVs over the fireplace is much too high in most cases.
  • Too many small pieces, not enough substantial pieces: Pay attention to scale. If you have a big room, you should have big furniture, or the room will look empty. Similarly, big features, like the mantle of a fireplace or the top of a large credenza should be decorated with larger-scale items. Using multiple smaller items, instead tends to look messy.
  • Pushing all furniture back against the wall: Space planning needs to accommodate a sense of balance between visually “heavy” areas and visually “empty” areas, which means you should not have all the open space in only the middle of the room. Desks don’t need to face walls, sofas don’t necessarily need to be pushed back against walls.
  • “Floating” rugs: Rugs should be anchored by at least two legs of furniture besides the coffee table, not just “floating” out in the middle of the floor.
  • Not integrating existing features: Ignoring parts of your home you don’t like don’t make them disappear. If anything, it draws attention to exactly what you would rather not see. For example, if you have mint green and pink tile in your bathroom, make sure your bathroom color scheme coordinates with these colors instead of clashing.
  • Insufficient or bad lighting: As mentioned above, you should have multiple sources of full-spectrum, incandescent light. Use table lamps, floor lamps, task lights and focused spotlights to improve your lighting.
  • No focal point: If the eye doesn’t know where to look first, it creates subconscious restlessness and you will feel uneasy in the room. Once a focal point is chosen, everything in the room should complement the focal point, not distract from it.

Decorating Tips from Feng Shui

These are basic principles from modern feng shui interior decorating practices that might not be obvious until you hear the “rules”.

  • Use mirrors to reflect reflect pretty things: Increase the impact of positive things in your life by reflecting things that make you happy and are attractive, such as a pretty view, artwork or accessories. Do not position mirrors so they reflect blank walls, doors, bathrooms or anything else not visually stimulating to look at.
  • Don’t use “vulnerable” seating positions: Positions that place a seated person’s back to the entrance to the room produce a subconscious feeling of discomfort and vulnerability. Whenever possible, let people’s backs be close to a wall and so they can easily see who is approaching.
  • Don’t have anything that makes you guilty, sad or angry to look at: Anything that causes less-than-positive emotions in your home, from family heirlooms you hate, to pictures from a failed relationship to accessories that just aren’t quite “right” should be removed from your home. It’s better to have empty areas than to have items in your home that make you unhappy.
  • Pay attention to traffic and visual flow: Feng shui decorators will tell you about the importance of the flow of chi, or energy, in a space, which is referring both to the ease of physically moving throughout a space and visually moving. Areas for moving should follow natural traffic patterns and be spacious and uncluttered. Visually, clutter should be minimized and/or hidden inside attractive storage containers.

Practicing on Your Own

The only way you’re going to get better at decorating and interior design for your home is if you practice… a lot. You don’t need to spend a dime to get started. Here are some free ideas for learning how to improve the design of your home.

  • Watch design shows like those on HGTV, which are available on their site for free.
  • Re-arrange your furniture, see what impact is has, and re-arrange again!
  • Practice making mood boards with coordinated color schemes and paying attention to scale, repetition, and all the other interior design concepts mentioned above.
  • Look at pictures of how others have decorated their rooms, or pay attention to homes you visit in real life. What do they do well? What would you improve?