How to Apply the Principles of Design

How to Apply the 6 Principles of Design in Interior Design

The principles of design are the fundamental guidelines that designers use to create a beautiful, functional, and inviting space. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore the most important principles in interior design, and discuss how to use them to create beautiful, livable spaces that reflect your personal style and taste. From the basics of balance and proportion to the more advanced concepts of rhythm and emphasis, we’ll cover everything you need to know to bring someone’s dream home to life. 

Principle of Design #1: Scale

An example of the principle of scale in interior design.

The principle of scale in interior design refers to the literal size or relative size of an element. We often use terms such as small, medium, and large to describe scale. When we use scale in interior design, we are looking to select furnishings that fall within the same scale. In doing so, interior designers can design interiors that are harmonious.

When you design a space, it’s best to determine which scale is best for your space. An interior designer determines scale by evaluating the size of a space. Large rooms with high ceilings will call for large-scale furnishings. Likewise, smaller rooms with standard-height residential ceilings will require small-scale furnishings.

Once you’ve established the necessary scale for a space, you can then decide on your furnishings based on this scale. Meaning, if you are designing for a living room that is large, then you will need seating that is large-scale. Your coffee tables and side tables should be large-scale as well, and so on.

That said, interior designers can break these guidelines to create emphasis on a particular feature of a design.

Principle of Design #2: Proportion

An example of proportion as displayed through wall moldings.

Proportion in interior design refers to the size relationship between the various parts of a whole. It is the balance between different parts of the room or building, and how they relate to the whole. The principle of proportion is closely related to the principle of scale, as they both require a balance between various elements in a space.

Proportion has a lot to do with ratios. For instance, a dining chair that has good proportions will have a leg size that is neither too big nor too small for the particular seat it has to support. Additionally, the chair back will be a size that works well with the chair legs and the chair seat.

Proportion is also relevant to architectural elements of design. Carpenters often recommend that you install chair-rail about 32 inches off the floor for 8’ high ceilings. This is because a 2:1 ratio of upper chair-rail space to lower chair-rail space is visually pleasing. Installations that do not adhere to this ratio will not appear well proportioned.

Similarly, a living room with 10’ ceilings will require a larger crown molding than a space with average-height ceilings. If the crown is too small, it will disappear against other design elements. However, if it is too big, it will carry too much “weight” and feel heavy in the space.

Principle of Design #3: Balance

Balance in interior design refers to the arrangement of furnishings within a space. Balance also deals with the distribution of visual weight. Ideally, you want to arrange furnishings so that they are literally or visually balanced within a room. 

There are three types of balance: symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial.

Symmetrical Balance

Example of symmetrical balance in an interior space.

One of the three different kinds of balance is symmetrical balance. It is also known as bi-symmetrical, passive or formal balance. You can achieve symmetrical designs by arranging elements to form a mirror image on either side of a central point. For example, two of the same side tables on either side of a bed will create symmetrical balance. 

Symmetrical balance is known as passive balance because it does not require much thought to achieve it. Two of the same objects will always have the same visual weight and emphasis.

(Emphasis deals with how much or little a design element draws attention to itself, but we’ll get to that later.)

Often, symmetrical balance creates an atmosphere of formality – this is why it is also known as formal balance. Consequently, you can frequently find it in traditional design styles.

Asymmetrical Balance

An example of asymmetrical balance in interior design.

Asymmetrical balance is known as occult or active balance. You create asymmetrical balance by arranging furnishings of different sizes, shapes, and colors in a way that creates balance without exact duplication. You can achieve balance if the forms of two objects are similar but not the same.

Asymmetrical balance is active because it requires effort and knowledge to properly achieve.

Asymmetrical balance is less formal than its symmetrical counterpart. For this reason, it creates an inviting space that we are more likely to encounter in everyday homes.

Radial Balance

A round dining table displaying radial balance.

Radial balance is based on the circle. This type of balance creates a sense of movement around one point. A round dining table surrounded by chairs arranged around it is an example of radial balance. Another example would be a sculpture that spirals up or down to a point.

Principle of Design #4: Rhythm

Rhythm in interior design refers to the repetition of visual elements such as color, shape, line, and texture to create a sense of movement and continuity within a space. It is the principle of creating visual flow and movement through the repetition of certain design elements. 

Rhythm is an important principle in interior design and we often see it in many places. Some examples include evenly spaced structural beams or matching sconces that are spaced along a corridor.

There are five variations of rhythm that you can utilize.

Repetition and Alternation

You can create rhythm through repetition. This repetition can exist in any visual element of a design. It could also appear as reoccurring design elements. Repetition inherently creates unity because you are repeatedly using the same element in various parts of your design.

Alternation is a variation of repetition, only it is when two repeating elements alternate to create one cohesive design. 

Principles of Design: Examples of repetition and alternation rhythms.


This type of rhythm is created when elements are organized from largest to smallest or smallest to largest. You can also incorporate this kind of rhythm through monochromatic color schemes. This means that you would have to incorporate a hue from highest saturation to lowest saturation, starting from ceiling to floor or floor to ceiling. By doing so, progression rhythm creates movement with direction in a space.

Progression rhythm is also known as gradation rhythm.

Principles of Design: Examples of progression/gradation rhythm.


Transition rhythms move across a room, and in doing so, cause the viewer’s eye to move along that visual line as well with no interruption. You can create a transition rhythm by using a runner up a staircase, or by adding continuous crown molding along the ceiling of a space.

Opposition or Contrast

This is a type of repetition that is created by change. There are three ways this can manifest. 

The first is through 90-degree angles. Spaces have four corners, and each corner denotes where one wall ends and the next begins. However, because this change happens repeatedly (4 times) then it creates rhythm. 

You can find contrast rhythm in patterns. The contrast exists through color, motifs (complicated to simple), and more. For example, a black and white striped fabric has an oppositional rhythm. This is because the stripe pattern repeats, but there is contrast between the white stripe and the black stripe.

Lastly, you can create oppositional rhythm through asymmetry. You can have a round accessory offset an angular sculpture and although they are not the same, they nonetheless create a type of rhythm.


A ceiling depicting the Bada Bagh cenotaphs.

This type of rhythm is closely related to radial symmetry. Radiation rhythm is when circles or circular visual elements are repeated around a central point. In interior design, geometric medallions on ceilings and floors usually have radiation rhythm.

In the picture above, there are various design elements radiating around the center point.

Principle of Design #5: Emphasis

A black fireplace that exemplifies emphasis in an interior.

Emphasis deals with the use of design elements to draw attention to a specific area, feature, or object within a space. This thus creates a focal point.

Designers commonly select fireplaces, gallery walls, and windows with great views as a central focal point. You can choose more than one central focal point, but it is crucial that one be more dominant than the other. Otherwise, a viewer’s eye will not know where to settle. Generally speaking, large rooms can handle more than one focal point.

That said, you can create and define focal points in a variety of ways.

Furniture: You can arrange furniture – like seating – around a central point.

Color: You can use paint to create a focal point. An accent wall in a bold color is one example. The point here is to create contrast on one wall to draw attention to it. This will also create visual interest.

Pattern: You can use patterned textiles or patterned wallpaper to draw the viewer’s eye to one location.

Scale: You can utilize furnishings like art or mirrors that are very large to create emphasis.

Principle of Design #6: Harmony

An image of an interior space depicting the principle of harmony.

Harmony in interior design refers to when all elements of a design – from a color scheme to furnishings to architecture – work well together so as to look very pleasing. Interior designers can determine whether something is harmonious when it effectively balances unity and variety.

Unity is when various things feel and look ‘right’ when experienced together. When you’ve designed a space that incorporates most of the design principles and has finishing touches like accent lighting, then you’ve created a space that is unified.

On the other hand, variety is when you’ve incorporated enough differentness in your textures, colors, patterns, accessories, etc. That said, designers must delicately balance variety or you risk disturbing the visual unity of a space. All forms of variety should be intentional, but you can counter balance them with negative space.

How to Apply the Principles of Design

Once you’ve developed a good sense of the design principles, you should make them a foundational part of your design process. Below are some tips on how to do it.

Function Always Comes First: When incorporating the design principles into your work, it’s important to always prioritize function. You should establish the function of a space first before developing any ideas about the design.

Start With a Plan: Before you begin any interior design project, it’s important to have a clear plan. This plan should include the overall design concept, the color scheme, the furniture layout, etc. Once you’ve established these details, identify any potential problems you may encounter.

Incorporate as Many Design Principles as You Can: The principles work best when you use them together. An excellent interior designer utilizes all the design principles in one form or another.

Use the Right Amount of Each Principle: Be mindful of how much of each principle you use in a space. Although you want a space with visual interest, remember that harmonious spaces are balanced.

Incorporating the principles of design into your interior design work can be challenging, but with a clear plan, and experimentation you can create spaces that are visually interesting, and harmonious.


Understanding and applying the design principles is essential for creating visual interest in interior design. Good interiors will always employ at least most of these design principles.

The key points from this post you should keep in mind are:

  • The principles of design are the building blocks of interior design.
  • Each principle has a specific role in creating a cohesive and harmonious space.
  • Incorporating the principles into your work can be challenging. Yet, with a clear plan and experimentation, you can create visual interest in a space that is also cohesive.
  • It’s important to use the principles together, in the right amount, while keeping the function of the space in mind.

Hopefully, you have gained a deeper understanding of the principles of design and how you can apply them to create successful interior design projects.

The principles of design in interior design are scale, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis and harmony (which includes unity and variety).

Absolutely. The principles of design are merely overarching concepts, and can therefore be appropriate for any design style. However, some styles feature some principles more prominently. You should therefore familiarize yourself with the particular style you are trying to achieve and go from there.

The best way to create a cohesive designed space is to ensure that you have utilized several of the principles. If you’ve done a good job balancing other elements such as color, texture and shape, then you likely have a cohesive design.

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