Interior Design 101

When you’re working with a professional designer, knowing some of the terminology can make for a more collaborative—and ultimately satisfying—experience, helping you clearly convey what you would like the end result to be. The following basic design premises and terms may come up during your project:

Function and Feeling

Understanding the big picture is the first and most important step. Ask yourself:

  • How do you plan to use the space?
  • Will it be a single purpose or multi-purpose room?
  • How many people does the space need to accommodate?
  • What kind of feeling should the space evoke?
  • Are there any elements of the existing decor that need to remain, or that you’d like to preserve?


Color is the quickest and least expensive way to transform a room. A serene pale green or tranquil blue are good choices for a bedroom or spa bath, while deep colors add intimacy to a dining area. Combinations of color are also important. Color schemes include:

  • Monochromatic or tone-on-tone: varying shades of a single color makes for a very soothing atmosphere
  • Analogous: colors that are adjacent on the color wheel, such as orange and yellow, are also very easy on the eye
  • Complementary or contrasting: colors that are opposite to each other on the wheel, such as green and purple, help create stimulating environments


Fabrics are categorized by weight (sheer, light, medium, and heavy) and type of fiber (cotton, polyester, silk, etc). The way the fabric will be used is an important consideration in choosing an appropriate weight. For example, a medium or heavy weight might be more appropriate to withstand the wear and tear put on upholstery, while a lighter fabric may provide a sense of airiness for window treatments. The texture of fabrics is also important and they range from smooth and shiny (like satin) to nubby (like boucle). Varying the textures is a great way to add visual interest to a room. Practical considerations like fading and wrinkle and stain resistance should also play into your decision.

Window Treatments

The right window treatment can add the perfect finishing touch to a room. Simple styles and fabric patterns suit contemporary décor, while more elaborate designs and fabrics complement a more traditional setting. Windows with architectural style or beautiful views are often left uncovered to emphasize the dramatic effect, if privacy is not an issue.


Home furnishings are grouped into two categories: upholstered (such as chairs and sofas) and case goods (including cabinetry, desks, tables, and the likes). Choosing the right pieces of furniture requires thinking about style, size, material, and quality. Correct scale can be difficult for novices to gauge and proper placement is the key. Furniture shouldn’t impede the natural traffic flow in and out of the space or create visual blockage to make the space appear uninviting.


Functionally, lighting comes in three general categories:

  • Ambient: provides general background lighting for a room. Recess and track lights, cove lights, chandeliers, and wall scones are all good choices.
  • Task: used for particular activities, like reading and food preparation. Fixtures may include table lamps and pendants.
  • Accent: used to highlight accessories in the room, usually very small and can be installed inconspicuously.

The type of bulb used affects how the colors of the room are seen.

  • Traditional or incandescent: casts a yellow glow, bringing warm colors like red and brown to life, but dulling cool colors like blue.
  • Fluorescent: casts a blue glow.
  • Halogen: closely approximates natural light, so most colors look true under them, but they tend to have a relatively short lifespan and generate a lot of heat.
  • LEDs: available in a variety of shades of white, are energy efficient, and can last up to 50,000 hours (compared to 5,000 for halogens and 1,000 to 2,000 for incandescent.) The downside? They are pricey, about 10 times the cost of a traditional bulb.


Flooring options include wall-to-wall carpeting, area rugs, hardwood floors, stone, and tiles. These surfaces provide different advantages when it comes to comfort, noise dampening, ease of cleaning, cost, and of course, visual effect.


Accessories are usually the last part of interior decorating projects, but are the items that complete a space and give it a truly personal touch. Give them lots of room to breathe, though—placing too many in a given area can make the space look cluttered and detract from the impact of each individual piece.