6 Ways to Achieve Sweet Proportions in Your Interior Design

potted green leafed plant beside wall
Do you think this room has good proportions? Why or why not? Let’s explore proportion, harmony and relationships in interior design.

There’s nothing worse than working on a design only to realize at the end that the proportions are all off. While creating a harmonious space seems simple in theory, it’s not as easy to get right as you might think.


Always consider scale

As an interior designer you probably know that designing rooms with good proportions has a lot to do with you developing your sense of scale.

How do you develop a good sense of scale? One of the best ways we know is: by studying good classical design. This is because ‘classical design’ (which began with the ancient Greeks), was based on clear mathematical proportions and almost rigid symmetry. It’s hard to go wrong with that approach!

The truth, though, is that we live in a modern time, and classical design and modern design have quite different ways of thinking about successful proportions. If you love modern designOpens in a new tab., does that mean you have to follow rules? The horror.


Classical proportion is good math

Rather than be limited by classical design ideas, you might consider trying this:

Make some effort to learn and understand the “rules” of classical design, even if it’s only by looking at a lot of classic examples. With this ‘visual reference’ knowledge under your belt you’ll have a much easier time creating interiors with pleasing proportions, even if you choose to totally “break” the rules later in your own designs.

Parametric design lovers and abstract art fans will appreciate this.


What we’re trying to say is that even modern design lovers should study how the great masters worked with scale and created often flawless proportions. Yep, plugging that history classOpens in a new tab., again!


With this first piece of advice about scale and mathematic principles out of the way, here are our six best tips for creating interiors with the perfect proportions.


1. When uncertain, scale up rather than down

modern studio apartment interior with sofa and kitchen zone
In this example, the scale of the vase on the table and the cluster of pendant light fixtures above it are both upscaled slightly. The result is a bold, pleasing composition that works because other elements, like color and texture, are harmonious. Can you imagine this with a smaller vase? It would bring the room back into the realm of “ordinary”.

Confidence is key

A common mistake for less experienced designers is being afraid to scale things up too far. This common pitfall might come down to personal design confidence due to lack of experience.

For a new designer, being uncertain of the correct scale can lead to making a more “conservative” choice. You might be tempted to keep it small so as not to be “too obviously wrong”


Practical reasons to go bigger

Unfortunately, the result of playing it too ‘close to the chest’ is that the scale ends up being off because of being too small. The problem is: an object that is smaller than it should be can actually look downright comical, and even ridiculous.

On the other hand, an object with slightly exaggerated proportions seems luxurious or bold. It also works to cater to more people. Even Alice in Wonderland was more comfortable with the furniture being too large than with the entire room being too small.


Here’s an example: A small child could be very comfortable chilling on a large cushioned sofa built to accomodate a six-foot-seven-inch man; but that same guy would not be comfortable relaxing on furniture built for a small child. Savvy?


Keep it real, but all rules do not apply

The caveat here is that, of course, designs should be proportional to the human body. There’s no need to scale everything to the extreme or space it out to the max just because you’re working with a large interior space, for example.

In that situation, focus on groupings which cater to the human scale.

When it comes to decoration, the same rules do not necessarily apply. Size matters.

For example, if you want to make a statement you might consider going hard or going home. In order to make a room memorable, you need something to draw your attention; so, if in doubt, make that element bigger, not smaller.


Bottom line: don’t be afraid to be bold and rock that quirky idea if it fits the bill. If you follow the other tips on our list, you’re sure to have a well proportioned room.


2. Make the color scheme work for you

woman with black and white sweater with pants sitting on black leather sofa beside red painted wall
In this very simple image, we can see how color added to the wall behind the sofa seems to create a space that is separate from the white wall, even though it is the same surface. This pop of interest “frames” the sitting area and breaks the whole composition down into smaller parts. With an all white wall this image would be expanding in all directions with no “end” in sight.

Apply this color knowledge

If there was no color in the interior, then scale would be more of a law unto itself. However, the truth is that scale needs to play well with color, and color has a lot of influence on the way scale is actually perceived.

You probably know these basic color facts:


-Light colors recede, dark colors advance

-Lighter colored objects appear bigger, darker objects appear smaller

-Strong contrast breaks the space up

-Similar value colors blend and tie together


Blend or punctuate

Color is a major factor in how the scale of planes and objects appear. You can make a small room look larger by using hues that are closely related in value and intensity. A large room, on the other hand can be made to look smaller if you use contrasts of colors and intensities.

How does this work? In the small room you are stretching out the space by keeping it more uniform, and in the large room you are breaking up the monotony with punctuation of colors.


3. Keep the composition harmonious

interior of spacious living room with minimalist furniture
This room has excellent harmony. Notice how the warm wood of the floor provides a continuous grounding base for the composition? The warm brown is complemented by a beautiful tealy blue, which gives it plenty of contrast without being jarring to the eye. One reason for this is that the colors resemble what we see in nature. Ground below and blue sky above. The room is also divided quite well along the “rule of thirds” principle and has clean lines. The edges of the room are linear, while the furniture forms are all softly rounded.

What is harmony?

Harmony is what we get when all the elements of the room play nice together. Nothing is screaming for attention, nothing is niggling at you or bothering you about the composition. Instead, it all seems to flow and work well together.

If you’ve really done your job right, good harmony will give the viewer the impression that this room has always been this way, and always will be. It’s timeless, and everything seems to be “made for each other”.


How do we achieve harmony?

How the heck do we pull this magic called harmony off?

For one thing, the objects in their room are at a good scale, have a pleasing and balanced relationship to one another, and are in context. For another, the way the objects relate to one another is balanced out and makes good visual sense.

Here are some questions to ask:


Look at the relationship between elements

Size: Is there good balance between the objects’ sizes in relation to one another?

Forms: Are the forms related enough that they work in the same composition? Think about the shapes and silhouettes of furniture. If you do have two very different elements at play is there something that can help to tie them together and bridge that gap?

Textures: Do the textures all work well in the same room? Do you have too many? Could you use a few more? How can you make sure there’s a good balance of textures?

Colors: What type of color scheme is best suited to the space? Are you trying to add more symmetry or do you want to create visual interest instead? Are there any colors which are overpowering or need a colunterbalance? Can the clever use of color be used to hide bad symmetry from the architecture?

If you simply want to smooth everything out consider using analagous colors (colors next to one another on the color wheel and achromatic schemes to achieve more harmony. “Color” also applies to the tones of natural finishes like stone and wood.

Context: Does the element you are questioning have good context? Does it make sense where it is or does it stand out because it is out of place? If you are going for whimsy, make sure that it’s clear that that is what you are doing.


For example: A large gilt-frame painting might be well proportioned on it’s own but it will look very different on a gallery wall and in a bathroom. In the modern way of thinking, neither one is necessarily ‘right’. Think about the impression you are trying to make. The bathroom installation might work best if the painting’s subject matter is humorous.


4. Keep your design simple

flat screen tv
This room is pretty pared down, but at the same time it is beautifully harmonious. The color palette is very restrained, and all the lines are clean, with good spacing and balance on either side. The television stands out as the focal point, but it is mirrored in the view out of the window and finds a grounding complement in the statement coffee table. This is a great example of the modern approach to symmetry. It is compositional cross symmetry using the principle of visual weight and juxtaposition. We could call it “higher math”.

Coco says

One of the memorable things the legendary designer Coco Chanel said was, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”. Interior designers could use this bit of advice too.

It’s simple: the more disparate elements and objects you put into a room, the more you have to fuss over the arrangement.


Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for maximalist design, just that you need to really know what you are doing to pull it off properly. Leave the highly decorated masterpieces to the decorators among us, but if you are more focused on the design side, try to achieve the harmony without resorting to too many extra features and frills.

Can the design stand on its own?


Restraint is thoughtful

In our first point on “scaling up rather than down” I mentioned not being too conservative. Here, where we take the whole design into account, we take the opposite approach. You can always add more to the design later.

The rules of proportion have been around a long time. You could say they are timeless. You know what else is timeless? Simplicity and restraint, even when you have a ton of options shows thoughtfulness and considered deliberation. Thoughtful planning is what good design is all about.


5. Relationship between objects is the most important factor

photo of coffee shop

Tell a successful design story

This is kind of obvious, but it’s how all the elements come together that decides the success of the entire scheme. Think of the parts of the whole coming together to tell a single story. The story may have ‘parts’ to it, but there should still be overall cohesion.

We come back to harmony: Rather than any one thing standing out (unless that is the main intent) There should be a ‘conversation’ of equal and opposing proportions, clean lines, sensible color, and a cohesiveness of feeling.

The most important aspect of decorating is the relationship between objects and how they serve up a particular narrative. A good design story is a story worth sharing and also returning to. This is success.


6. Develop a feeling for good proportion by practicing composition

Rather than a lesson on what to do when it comes to proportion and scale, this shows you a product board I played around with, in process. More than half of these elements won’t make it to my final board, and they will all be rearranged for the final design scheme, but this is my “playground”. It’s where I get to try things out and see what works and what doesn’t. Get yourself a playground, too!

Virtual design practice for design skills

Some people are blessed with a natural sense of proportion and it comes easily for them, while others struggle with it. No matter which you are, you can always improve your interior design proportions skills by practicing.

Practicing on your design clients could prove pretty expensive, but luckily with so much of the design process digitized and virtual these days, there’s a lot of you can do in the experiement phase before committing to anything.


Let your graphic design skills train your eye

My favorite interior design project management software tool, “Design FilesOpens in a new tab.” helps the designer with conceptualizing, product selection and management as well as presenting and communicating with the client through the entire design process. It can even be done one hundred percent remotely.

The best part is the mood board creator, which allows me to pull furniture from a 2D library and easily drag, drop and manipulate them with timesaving image-editing methods that would make photoshop blush.


Get a style playground

Pull this baby, or another of your favorite graphic design tools up and give yourself permission to play with artistic arrangements and visual designs just to practice your eye for design. There’s a lot that graphic design and photography skills can do for the designer who wants to improve their sense of proportion and harmony.

Throw together some mockups and keep pushing yourself. You’ll get better with every iteration, trust me.


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Vonsasssy.

vonsassy

Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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