Story by Meredith Coopman
Interior design, art, architecture and even music have basic design principles that are essential to success. While many of these seem like common sense and sometimes just come naturally to some people, we can all use a refresher course. It’s also a great reference if you are planning to revitalize a room or even start from scratch. Also know before you read these basic principles that it’s okay, even encouraged, to break the rules. There really are no rules … only guidelines.

Harmony and Unity

Harmony refers to the blending of similar elements, while unity refers to the overall sense of belonging together. Think of your house as a whole, the sum of all of its parts.

If you break it down, it really is a series of spaces linked together by hallways and stairways. In order to create a sense of unity, everything needs to work together. A common theme, style, composition, elements or color all help create coordination that will build the relationship between the spaces. This is not to say that all design elements should be the same, but that they should work together to complement each other and reinforce the whole composition.

An artist uses color in much the same manner as music uses harmony. We can create harmony with color to help us build a particular relationship between the colors on the palette. When colors are harmonized, the relationship that is established allows the colors to work together.


Balance in interior design is described as the equal distribution of visual weight in a room. Balance can be symmetrical, asymmetrical or radial.

Symmetrical balance happens when a space is divided into two equal halves centered on a central axis (real or imaginary). We are naturally comfortable in a symmetrical setting because it reflects the human form. Symmetry is usually found in traditional interiors and is typically more formal. Examples of this would be the same object found on either side of a fireplace, fireplace mantle or matching side tables and lamps on either side of a bed.
Asymmetrical balance occurs when elements are placed unevenly, but work together to produce coherence overall or when using dissimilar objects that have equal visual weight. Asymmetry suggests movement and leads to more dynamic interiors, as it feels more casual and less contrived but more challenging to achieve. Examples of asymmetrical balance would be mismatched tables and lamps on either side of a sofa.
Radial Balance takes place when elements of a design are arrayed around a center point. Spiral staircases, chandeliers and round dining tables are all examples of radial symmetry.


We generally refer to this as the focal point of the room. As the name suggests, emphasis is a principle of interior design that says that a central piece of art, furniture, fireplace, window with a nice view, or even the television must play the role of a focal point or attention grabber. This is the point of visual reference to which the eye always returns. A well-designed room has, depending on the size, one or more focal points. It needs to be the top priority and dominant enough to draw attention.


Elements repeated in an orderly fashion and the spaces between them create a sense of rhythm. Rhythm can be achieved in any living space by following these three methods: repetition, alternation and progression.

Repetition is the use of the same element more than once throughout a space. You can repeat pattern, color, texture, line, or any other element, or even more than one element.
Alternation is the method of creating rhythm by alternating two or more elements in a pre-defined fashion like ABABAB or ABCABC.
Progression is when elements are arranged ascending or descending based on their size, color gradient or any other distinctive characteristic.

Just as it is in music, rhythm in design is about creating patterns of repetition and contrast to create visual interest. It is defined as continuity, recurrence or organized movement, and is achieved by using the same element, or series of elements, to move your eye around the room. For instance, you can establish a rhythm by using a color in the pillows picked up from a painting, and using it again in a rug, or by using the same fabric on a sofa and an accent pillow in a chair.


In interior design, contrast can be achieved by three elements: color, form and space. Contrast places opposites side by side, such as black and white or hard and soft. It is fairly straightforward and is mostly used to enliven a space.

Putting two elements in opposition to one another, such as black and white pillows on a sofa, is a trademark of this design principle. Opposition can also be implied by contrasts in form, such as circles and squares used together. The challenge is to balance contrast, so as to maintain a sense of overall unity. Without adequate and distinct contrast, which can be subtle, a room can look boring. However, if a room has too much contrast or too much variety, it will look chaotic and cluttered.

Scale and Proportion

The principles of scale and proportion ensure that objects placed in a space look like they belong to each other. Scale refers to overall size, while proportion relates to the size of parts compared to the whole. Be it the size, dimension, shape or color of the objects, harmonization should be established between them, and a proportion has to be maintained.


Details are like jewelry, which add an extra touch that completes the outfit. Every detail adds a little bit of life to the overall interior design, adding unique features to the overall composition.

Come up with a formula that has just enough but never too much of the elements that make for beautiful, functional rooms. One of the key considerations in any design is the question of whether a design works or functions for its purpose. And most importantly, do what feels good. Trust your instincts.

Meredith Coopman of Meredith Coopman Design Studio has a background in architecture and interior design. You can reach her at