6 Weird Ways to Be a Better Interior Designer

woman in dress sitting in front of a laptop

12 minute read

Wanna up your design game? Here are six things I’ve done to help me think about design outside of traditional design work, and if they’re weird, they totally work!

1. Play the “Change One Thing” Game

Here’s a game that I invented sort of by accident. My very first interior design school assignment was to find two images of interiors from an interior design magazine. One interior was supposed to be an interior that I liked, while the other was an interior I did not like.

We were asked to explain our reasons for choosing each image. Next, we made recommendations for what changes we would suggest for the second, disliked room.


Sharpen Up Your Aesthetic Sense

As simple as this exercise is, I discovered it was a really useful way to gauge my changing aesthetic tastes and your decorating and design knowledge. I’ve also used it with people I wanted to teach basic design principles to.

Here’s what I find interesting about this study.


I actually found it way easier to find a picture of a room I liked than a room I didn’t like.

The reason is, everything in an interior design magazine has been styled and produced by professionals, so it’s hard to pick at little things you don’t like when you are a beginner yourself.

It’s even harder to explain to your professor what you would change and give reasons for it. But it makes you think!


The Game

After this first exercise I took what I learned, and challenged myself to play a little game. I would do it when I came across a new interior design magazine, but I also played this game in real life, all the time.

I came to call this game “Change One Thing”.

The rules are simple.

While the centerpiece works harmoniously, it seems a little flat in this composition. It’s also a lot of circles.

How to play: Look at any interior and challenge yourself to make that room better by finding only one thing that you would change, and justify your choice by giving a good reason.


The Ingeniousness of Simplicity

You can go a step further and even make the switch by gluing another image over the magazine image, do it in an image editing program, or if you’re out and about, just do it mentally.

Here’s a more interesting centerpiece.
Whether you agree with my purely aesthetic swap of table decor or not, you can see how the game works.

Why just one thing?

This is actually the what makes the game so ingenious.

By being forced to choose one thing, you will be looking at each thing you don’t like and prioritizing the least desirable aspect through a process of elimination.

The goal is to find that one thing that will make the biggest difference to the space, and you will need to have a clear reason for your selection.


Changing the World, an Item at a Time

It’s interesting how much changing one thing can benefit a room. No, it can’t solve all of it’s problems, but it will get you thinking about what the problem actually is.

It can be the way a chair is facing, it could be the color, size or pattern of the rug, or it could be something bigger, like swapping out an entire sofa, or the lighting, for example.

Once you’ve played this game for a while you can level up!

Change two things, three things, five things.

Make the biggest difference you can.

Soon you will be walking into any room and mentally rearranging it like a boss.


2. Make Your Measuring Tape Your New Best Friend

a man using a tape measure

I came across this tip from an architect who suggested that designers carry a simple tape measure everywhere they went.

He said he had learned not to mind the stares he would invariably get when he would pull it out and measure things in the built environment.

The obvious question here is, why was he measuring random things in the course of his day, and what does that have to do with interior design or being a better designer?

Here are some reasons why you should make your measuring tape your best bud:


3 Reasons for Designers to Actively Measure the Built Environment Themselves

Reason 1 – Free Physical Reference

A designer works with measurements constantly. We couldn’t have design and plans without measurements. We could say they’re pretty important.

I have Pinterest boards that are full of measurement reference images for woodworking, furniture, construction and also for anthropometrics (human measurements, especially useful for universal design compliance).

Our professors advised us to collect and keep these references at hand to refer to as needed. After all, without accurate measurements, we have poor design.

With your measuring tape at ready in your pocket or purse, you can get real world measurements for anything you can get your measuring tape on.


Reason 2 – Build Up Your Mental Reference for Quick Studies

When you are a beginner (or even an out-of-practice designer), you will need to either measure real world objects yourself or else look up references for measurements for everything when designing from scratch.

This is because, as we know, there are standards used in the furniture and building industries which need to be followed so that they meet code.


The longer you have been designing, the more you will start to become familiar with common measurement ranges.

Getting friendly with your handy tape measure tool will help you get better at keeping your references in your head. You couldn’t have a handier reference tool than your own brain.


It goes without saying that you should always double check measurements before producing your final drafting plan.

real estate agents checking the tiles in the kitchen

Reason 3: Compare Measurements

Yes, our mothers told us that we shouldn’t compare with others, but it’s quite different with science. In real life you will find all sorts of interesting variations between door widths and counter heights, mantels and stair treads. Most of the time they are in the acceptable range.

Start taking note of all the real world examples you can find, and you will find your time designing and drafting at the computer so much easier.


You’ll probably start finding that you have a preferences for certain measurements after observing what does and does not work as well. You might even spot things which are not built to code!

So, bring along that tape measure on your next excursion and when it is safe to do so, pull it out and dare I say, use it from time to time. Develop your eye and your feel for dimensions across real world design settings.


Time to Gamify

In case you’re wondering, this too is a game. Play “guess the measurement” before you measure, and see how off or how close you are.

I promise that you will get better and better at nailing your measurements the more you play.

Guess that architect might have been onto something, after all!


3. Figure Out Rough Floor Plans from Photos

an architect s work table with tools and blueprints

This one I learned out of necessity.

Since more work comes to designers ‘remotely’ these days, I’ve sometimes been given really dodgy images of a property prior to starting a new project.

Usually these types of photo are taken from a real estate agent‘s website or they came from the agent directly prior to the client moving in. However they originated, it has shocked me how badly the pictures are sometimes taken.

It’s pretty clear that the agency didn’t have a professional do the photography.

Nonetheless, in order to get the ball rolling on the project, (and while waiting for better pictures and actual measurements!), I’ve sometimes gone ahead and created the basic house floor plans purely from photos.

How is this done?


How to Guess-timate House Measurements From Photos

  1. Establish the basic size of the house. How many rooms? What type, and number of each? if possible. What is the orientation to the street? When looking at the photos you might be able to see where you are in the house this way. This is useful if there are higher floors above the first, as well.
  2. Sort the images by room. This is to make sure they are in order, and to get a sense of how complete the information is. Make note of the information you have for certain and what is missing. Even if you have a lot missing, you can actually get by with relatively little information, depending on the architectural structure. (Homes with tons of odd angles are going to be trickier.) Drop down in Google Maps street view to get a sense of the external envelope and how the rooms might fit within it.
  3. Determine the layout. Once you have the basic idea of how many rooms there are (or at least major divisions of space), you will want to look at the images to see if you can tell where the person started taking the pictures. If they were taken in a logical way, they might start at the front entrance and carry on in a recognizable procession as the photographer traversed the interior. You are trying to figure out what room leads into the next. This is way easier if the rooms have different wall or floor treatments. Luckily, people tend to leave doors open when they are taking pictures of the whole house. If the person started in the entrance and worked their way around the building in a circuit, that’s also going to make your life a whole lot easier.
  4. Next, Figure out the size of individual rooms. For example, in an apartment with many rectangular rooms all you need is for two full walls to be visible in the pictures to get measurements for the basic dimensions of the room.
  5. Try to figure out where the openings and barriers are. Most important are traditional doors and windows, but also do take note of any important architectural features you encounter, especially structural columns. Figuring out the structure of the building helps with those areas of the building which are not fully represented. If you understand the architectural shell structure, you can infer where repetitions of structural elements might occur.
  6. Note any large built in furniture, cabinetry or partitions.
  7. Make note of ceiling features and light fixtures.
  8. Keep adding to the rough plan as you accrue more information. Get the ‘client’ on the phone and ask questions! Is that two identical-looking bathrooms or one?

Apps for Measurements from Photos

You might be wondering how I get measurements from the photos. For that I use an app called Image Meter on Android. By using a single, known measurement in a photo, the AI can figure out the rest of the dimensions by default.

Coming back to making rough floor plans from photos, the emphasis should be on ‘rough’.

I use this method to determine the general color and finish schemes, for the most basic space planning and maybe get ideas for the free standing furniture needs of each room, but never for decisions related to cabinetry and mill-work, or for any fine details at all, for that matter.


How to Photograph a Room for Virtual Design Measurement

woman in black long sleeved shirt using camera

For best results when determining a basic floor plan from photos, have the person who takes them take the photos systematically.

Starting at the center of a room they should taking the photos so that the frame includes all four of the top and bottom corners, with some of the ceiling and some of the floor, above and below. If they need to step back to do this, they should.

It also helps if they take the images in the same sequence. For example, left to right in each room and clockwise around the home.


Game it Up

So, is this a game too?

You bet. If you are someone who enjoys real estate, property development, home renovation, or DIY projects, go ahead and get some images from a real estate agent and imagine how you might improve the place without ever setting foot in the building.

You can make a rough design for any building you can get pictures for. That includes the president’s office or your local gym on Google Maps or even a house on YouTube.

If this concept is new to you, you’re welcome.


4. Watch Construction Videos on YouTube

adult app channel connected

Oddly Satisfying

I fear I might lose some people here.

Hear me out. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Like my friend in high school once said, “I love work. I could watch people do it all day.”

In all seriousness, if you’ve ever enjoyed those oddly satisfying videos, like the ones of Korean bakeries, you’re gonna love watching time-lapse construction.

This is an another one I learned while studying and it came in pretty handy when I did my construction unit.


Practical Study

The profession of interior design touches many other contributing industries and trades, including professional carpentry, framing, tiling and roofing, to name but a few.

If you plan to create good plans and execute good projects you don’t need to understand every detail and know all the nuances and minutiae of the trades, but you should understand the foundational basics if you are going to manage projects.

Get a leg up on your competition by continuing to learn about how the built environment is actually built and especially about new techniques and materials.


5. Read Product Catalogs for Fun

a man reading a book while sitting on a chair

Oh no, I didn’t. I totally did. I suggested you watch construction videos and now that you thumb through material and product manufacturers catalogs for fun?

Surely I’m kidding.

I wish I was. Instead, I’m going to tell you that studying catalogs will give you that mental palette to use when creating your next design masterpiece.

As a designer you are the center of the creative process and all roads go through you when you are the administrator of a project. Make sure that you have a well-balanced and educated mental inventory of the possibilities when creating the best design.

You don’t have to memorize what you read, just be aware of what’s available. You might actually find it inspiring!

Personally I’m always impressed by a B&B Italia catalog, and I love the Archiproducts and Architonic websites.

Next time you go to a design expo, have a leaf through your horde of trade literature and maybe even try your hand at categorizing your favorite suppliers.


6. Do a Challenging “Fake” Project

two women in white hijab veils

Rekindle Your Design Imagination

Last, but not least, if it’s been awhile since you did a project that interests you, it might be time to take on fantasy project. Just like the ones you might have done in school, purely for the thrill of it.

Before design got to being a job, remember when it was about your imagination, about exploration and about testing the possibilities?

If you find yourself in a grind or bored or unchallenged with your current design work, it might be time to challenge yourself once again. It’s time to fall in love with the process of design and the magic of creation and the ‘architectural imagination’.


Become Your Own Design Client

Don’t wait for the perfect client and the perfect project to fall into your lap. Once in awhile you need to get out of your comfort zone and design something that scares you!

Being willing to do what you’ve never done can’t help but make you a better designer. After all, if you “fail”, you only fail ‘on paper’, and like Edison was supposed to have said, he had only found another way that didn’t work.

Do it for ‘science’ and see if you can’t find your way back to loving being a designer.

Happy designing and being your best version of a designer!

Don’t forget to have fun with it.

Baddie Bitesized Newsletter example


If you found these ‘six weird ways to be a better designer’ interesting, you might enjoy “how to be a design baddie”, link below. Enjoy!


vonsassy

Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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