We joke that after this post goes live, we’ll do a collective blog mic drop and retire. For some reason it seems hilarious to me that we’ve never written a “how to design a room” post – one article can’t encapsulate it all, obviously, but I will be referencing this post for years. My creative process is not the only way, but if you follow these steps, you can get a room that is functional, comfortable, cohesive, stylish, will reflect your personality, AND meets your needs without it taking years or costing a fortune. I’m not saying it’s easy or that anyone can just pick up and do it (even we still make mistakes, and there is a reason why if you are going to hire someone you will likely save a lot of time and stress) but this post WILL HELP.
Some of these can be done in a different order. For instance feel free to take measurements first, or find your jumping-off point before you start pinning inspiration. This is really for a beginner, someone who has never designed a room before and truly doesn’t know where to start. But let’s be honest even if you aren’t a total beginner, it’s always nice to a little refresher 🙂
STEP 1: FIND AND PIN INSPIRATION
Step 1 is truly where most people get paralyzed and they stop before they start. Yes, you are likely a mix of styles. And yes, mixing your mix of styles with a partner’s mix of styles is indeed challenging (and brain melting). But it can be done and it will make your home look more like your collective selves. Your style has and will continue to evolve and it’s hard for it not to be tied to the greater zeitgeist, but that’s ok! So think about what styles you are most consistently drawn to, whether it’s mid-century modern, traditional, modern farmhouse, etc., or a mix of them. Just know that all styles can be mixed together if you have a consistent color palette.
Don't know your style? Here's what we have clients do - Go to Pinterest (it's a design life saver) and pin any room that you are really drawn to. This doesn't have to be even the same type of room. Don't look at specific pieces as much as the overall vibe. Once you have 40-50 pins then look for commonalities. Maybe they are all full of wallpaper and unexpected furniture, or maybe they are all super calm and neutral. You don't have to label your style if you can get closer to the general vibe, color palette, and shape of furniture that you are drawn to.
Get specific with your “pins search” to sort through all the generic photos. Don’t just put in “bedroom,” put in “bedroom cozy emily henderson” or “bedroom colorful domino”. Try brands and designers that you like (who will likely have clear and elevated photos), otherwise it can be very daunting. Some brands we use are Elle Decor, Amber Interiors, Studio Mcgee, Domino, and of course Emily Henderson. There are a million more, but it sends a message to the Pinterest algorithm that that is the type of pin you like so it will be able to give you more of what you’re looking for.
CONSIDER YOUR ARCHITECTURE. We always consider the style and era of the house when creating a room. The architecture of your space can help guide you towards a style that will feel symbiotic with your home, but it doesn’t have to be rigid – nor should it. Creating a time capsule or putting on a decorative “costume” isn’t the goal here. If you own your home (or even if you rent), you likely choose that space because you were drawn to its style. You can use that as an inspiration point. However, I will say that considering the architecture is more important when renovating rather than decorating (i.e. choosing hard finishes like tile and flooring that work with architecture and era is important). But when decorating I like to consider the architecture and what feels “right” without making it all that theme, obviously. The key is to weave in a few key pieces that makes it feel like the decorating is cohesive with the design of the home.
Also, within this first step, you want to ask yourself what mood do you want to provoke? What you want your friends to FEEL when they walk through your door. Use expressive adjectives to answer that. Designing a room that is “exciting” is different than “calm.”
Ask yourself how you want it to “FEEL,” not just “look.”
No matter WHAT style I choose for a space (I’m a special case because I design so many rooms in such different styles) I ALWAYS use the adjectives “happy” and “inviting.” Sometimes it’s followed with “calm,” “fun,” “exciting,” or “quiet.” It’s usually “eclectic, storied and collected,” but it’s always “happy and inviting.” Sometimes those adjectives are more important than specific styles, especially if you are someone like me and literally loves the great parts of EVERY SINGLE STYLE. You can make any style provoke any feeling. It all has to do with your color palette and how much energy you put into it via color, pattern and contrast.
The more contrast in colors and patterns in a room, the more energy it will have. The opposite is also true. A lot of contrast can look too busy, and no contrast (just neutral matching furniture) can often look boring.
Step 2: Consider Your Functional Needs
Ask yourself some questions to determine your true needs:
What are you going to use this room for? This determines the scale and comfort level of the furniture. Do you want blackout curtains? Do you want people to be able to lay on the rug? Do you want to worry about lemon and wine on your countertop (read our guide about this)? How much storage do you need? How many people do you want to sit in here? Do you like to face the window when you are working?
Balancing style and function can be very challenging, especially when you have kids. Some rooms need to be multi-functional (for us our living room is our only family/tv room). It was so much easier before kids – but now comfort, durability, and storage are much more important to me. So if you are struggling know that you aren’t alone.
This may seem like common sense, but making a space truly functional is important for you wanting to actually use it. Try to give yourself a few pieces that are more statement-y and stylish, then ensure that all the others really work.
Step 3: Measure and Know Your Limitations (and Opportunities)
This is the very important but boring part. Take measurements and do a simple drawing. I have not always done this and many “wrong” pieces have been returned because of it. Some rooms truly don’t need fancy renderings, but others do. Rugs, sofas, dining tables, and beds – you should know the ideal size of the big stuff before you shop. You can literally do this on graph paper using a 1 square to 1′ scale and it can be rough unless you are measuring for window treatments or things that need to be VERY accurate. If you have a small space, are dealing with awkward niches/corners, or have odd architectural elements don’t forget those. Lay out your furniture on the drawing and if you really want to be sure – tape it out on the floor with blue painters tape. We primarily use Sketchup (AutoCAD too) but there are some great, simple (and free) programs you can use for creating floorplans. Sara used Floorplan Creator when she was first designing her new home, Brady used SmartDraw when we were decorating the Portland Project, and Ginny just shared on her IG that she loves VectorWorks (but she is obviously a professional designer so I’m not sure how easy this one is to learn if you aren’t computer savy).
Take time to know what your opportunities and limitations are. Where is your junction box for your lighting? Where are your outlets? Can you do inside mount shades or only outside mount? Can you wall mount your TV? Add a sconce?
Lastly, think about your budget. If it were a client we’d likely have this conversation earlier, but before you start shopping have a hard conversation with yourself. Pulling together a beautiful room either takes a lot of time or a lot of money – so don’t be discouraged if it takes a lot of time. Thrifting over time, or working with awkward pieces, can actually make your room have more personality. But yes, it can be painful in the interim.
Step 4: PICK YOUR COLOR PALETTE
Ah yes, the color palette. Now, this can be done earlier or even after step 7, but at some point you need to think about color palette. This is what will make your room have the energy and feeling that you want, plus ensure that it looks cohesive. Now real design pros or people who like a ton of color can kinda do whatever they want, there are no real rules to your creativity. But for most of us, knowing the “world that we want to live in,” the colors we choose will make the difference between a room that looks chaotic or cohesive.
How do you pick a color palette? Well, I’ve written a few articles about it, but they need some updating (here is one from 2012 and the facts are right, but the photos are dated). You’ll likely find what you are attracted to while you are pinning. But if you love every color, then these are some basic tips – you want a mix of cool and warm tones (blues/metals like polished nickel are cool, and reds/woods/leathers are warm), you want to include neutrals somewhere, have a few pieces that tie the colors together (rug, art, pillows), and don’t be too strict. This isn’t the time to bring Pantone chips around shopping – have a rough sense of 3-5 colors but let yourself be free with those.
Oh and here’s a big color palette mistake to avoid.
STEP 5: Shop And Find Your “Jumping Off” Piece
You’ve heard about the “jumping off point” on those old HGTV shows but it is actually super, super helpful. My favorite rooms I’ve ever designed have had a clear jumping off point – our patio (the tile), Birdie’s first bedroom (that forest wallpaper), etc. It doesn’t mean that you HAVE to have a big statement, but it’s just so nice to have something that you LOVE to start with. It could even be a pretty white tile for your bathroom or maybe that perfect shade of indigo that you know you want to paint the walls because you’ve seen it enough to be sure.
Your “jumping off point” could also be some imagery of rooms that really, really speak to you Rooms with a feeling you want to emulate. It could be that you are letting the architecture be the star and want everything to complement that (like the mountain house). I think about our master bedroom and there really wasn’t one thing that I bought first. It was more the feeling of comfort and being hugged by my favorite tones of white, denim-y blue, olive green, leather, and wood.
So whether you find your perfect “jumping off piece” or “a feeling” you know you want to evoke, start to shop and pin individual products. Think about your color palette and materials you want to use. Then once you have a bunch of shoppable products, head on to the next step.
Step 6: Create Your “Working” Mood Board With Real Pieces And Start Playing
This is where the fun really begins, but it can be messy and that’s ok. You have your pinboard, sure, but now you need to see all the pieces together to make sure the room as a whole looks good. You want to put pieces together to ensure that it’s visually balanced, that you don’t have too many stripes or too many pieces of furniture with legs (it’s nice to have a couple that have a solid base for contrast).
We use Keynote and Google Slides. Of course, you can use Photoshop if you know how (my team ultimately puts any of the slides we want to show in Photoshop for the blog or for clients). But the playing around should be easy and fast, and I promise it’s SO MUCH FASTER in Keynote or Google Slides.
Here’s how we do it:
1. Simply screenshot the piece you want to play with and the image should appear on your desktop. Press down command + shift + 4 at the same time and a little plus sign will come up so you can trace around the piece of furniture or object you want.
2. Open Keynote or Google Slides and then select “new presentation” – I always choose the white horizontal one, then delete the text boxes.
3. Drag and drop the pieces that you have screenshot and are considering onto that new board.
4. Size and rotate each piece to look more like a room. Don’t be strict about it. Just make the sofa bigger than the lamp, make the rug horizontal at the bottom of the board, not vertical at the top – you get it.
5. Play with WAY more than just one rug or sofa. You want to see what all of your options are. Here is what I do – I have a few main boards (you can right-click and copy the entire board to have a few to play with so you can try different combos), then additionally I have a whole board of lamps, rugs, sofas, etc., so I can copy and paste them in to experiment. If you think you are nixing something don’t just delete it. Instead, copy and paste it onto a different board just in case something changes, and you want it back.
6. MAKE SURE to also pin these pieces from their source/store/website. Otherwise, you may forget where they come from.
7. Screenshot pieces that are similar to what you already have and want to use to ensure that you can mix it in. OR take a photo of a vignette or piece on your phone that you are happy with, upload that photo onto your desktop and then drag the photo onto your mood board.
9. It doesn’t have to be pretty but I promise it’s so helpful to visualize your future space.
10. Work within your color palette, make sure you are creating enough contrast (i.e. you’d likely want a sofa to “pop” off the rug) and ensure visual balance in the room. A.k.a. Make sure all the heavier pieces color-wise aren’t on one side of the room, leaving the other looking empty.
Step 7: Start Purchasing
We are getting so close to your beautifully designed room. Now, professional designers order almost everything at once, but that’s after rounds of edits and approvals. Don’t feel pressured to work that way!. If you are feeling less confident in your overall design, order the big stuff and build the room more slowly to ensure it’s truly working.
But before you purchase, make sure they will fit (tape off rug, bed or sofa on the floor). Nothing is a bigger bummer than finally getting your beautiful sofa delivered and realizing it can’t fit through the door. So, always check the specs (measurements) of a piece with an actual tape measure in your space, don’t just guess by looking at the online photo.
Step 8: Accessorize, Style, Play, And Have Fun
This is the REALLY fun part (or at least I think so). Once you have all of your main pieces in place it’s time to make the room special, full of soul, and unique to you. Know that things might change, mistakes will be made, but don’t be afraid to try something new. Put art in an unexpected place, frame an object in a clear box – really just play around with your lamps, pillows, books, decorative objects, etc. We have a whole section on the site dedicated to just this topic so be sure to check it out and get all of our tips and tricks.
Well, there you have it. It’s not “hard” to design a room but it takes time and patience (and usually some money). But boy is it worth it when you get to come home to a space you love.
Now trust me when I say there is A LOT more to dive into but that’s why we are here, to answer your questions and give you info you didn’t even realize you needed. So let’s chat in the comments and let us know if you have any questions. We are here to help xx