Story by Meredith Coopman
M any people confuse interior design with interior decoration. The former refers to designing an entire space from scratch, while the latter refers to decorating an existing living space with added furniture and upholstery.

Interior design isn’t as simple as one might imagine. It’s a science bound by its own elements and principles, which all work together and rely upon each other. These elements are essential to all fine art and are used by artisans of all types: painters, sculptors, photographers, interior designers, etc. They have been discovered and refined over the course of history.


Space is a simple, yet important, element to understand. It refers to the physical boundaries of a room and acts as the foundation on which the entire interior design plan is built. Think of it as the parameters of how much you can place in a room. The optimal goal of designing a room is to give it balance (the perfect amount of furniture, art and accessories), so that it feels complete, comfortable and sophisticated.

Positive space vs. negative space: In art and design, positive space is best described as the subjects or areas of interest. Negative space refers to the blank space or the area not taken up by the subject. In an interior setting, negative space could be considered the blank areas in your home where there’s no design — no art, no furniture, no stuff. Expertly executed negative space can bring calmness to certain rooms and make other design elements pop even more powerfully. Traffic flow areas are negative spaces with practical functions.


Line is used to create width and height, or the appearance of activity, movement, or flow. In interior design, lines are created by the furnishings and architecture of a room, and guide the eye. Lines are generally categorized into these types:

—Horizontal lines are most often found in furniture such as tables, chairs, bookcases and beds.
—Vertical lines are in elements such as windows and doorways.
—Dynamic lines consist of diagonal lines, which portray action or drama, and are seen on structures like stairways.
—Curved lines soften the lines listed above.

Every interior uses lines in combination. Vertical and horizontal lines usually dominate, as they form the architecture of a space. Dynamic and curved lines are incorporated for interest and movement, and add a human element to the space. The most pleasing outcome will have a balanced mixture of lines with one dominant one.


Forms mean shapes in general, which define objects in space. Shape is the two-dimensional outline, while form is the three-dimensional configuration. There are two types of forms:

—Geometric (manmade): Circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, etc. are all examples of geometric shapes. They have clear edges and are characteristically made by humans.
—Organic (found in nature): These are shapes that have a natural look and flowing appearance. They are typically irregular or asymmetrical. Think plants and animals.


Light is one of the most obvious and important elements of interior design. Light sets the mood and ambience. Without light (natural or manmade), other elements, specifically color, texture and pattern, have no significance.

While smart placement of doors and windows should take care of the natural light, manmade or artificial lighting is broadly divided into three major types:

—Task lighting refers to light sources such as tables, beds and desk lamps, which have a dedicated purpose for a specific “task.”
—Accent lighting is just that, meant for highlighting items such as artwork.
—Mood lighting or ambient lighting basically sets the mood and illuminates the overall space.

Lighting plays an important role in achieving a successful interior. It can be complicated, as it has many layers. It’s also unfortunately often overlooked.


Along with light, color is a key element of interior design. It’s used to create aesthetically pleasing combinations and has psychological impacts. It’s the most personal and suggestive element. We all have our favorite and least favorite colors, as well as numerous associations with particular ones. Colors are considered warm (reds, yellows, and oranges), cool (blues, greens, and purples), or neutral (beiges, browns, black, grays, and whites).

Colors are classified as primary or secondary. They’re also also sub-categorized into tertiary, complementary, analogous and monochromatic. See the above color wheel for a better visual description.


Texture is the actual tactile feel or surface appearance of a furnishing or treatment. Texture adds depth and interest to a space, and is used to provide added dimension. Everything from fabrics and furniture to decorative accessories introduce different textures to a space. Texture can refer to rough or smooth finishes, glossy or dull surfaces, and soft or coarse textiles and fabrics. It’s classified into two types:

—Visual texture refers to an implied sense of texture. It’s merely a representation of a physical texture.
—Actual texture is just that: texture that can be both seen and felt.


Similar to texture, patterns add life to interior design and work in conjunction with colors. Patterns tell a story of their own. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and are mostly composed of attractive and repetitive designs. They work like texture to make surfaces appealing.

In order for an interior to be successful, it’s important to be aware of these elements and principles of interior design. Like with art, there are general rules to follow, but it’s OK to break them once in a while. But knowing the rules before you break them is essential to achieving the look or feel that you want. If you use these elements as guidelines and keep them in mind when you’re making selections or arranging furniture, you’ll ultimately have an attractive space.

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