The ABCs of Interior Design

living room with cozy chairs near lamp and wooden bookcase

You might know it all or just be starting to learn about interior design, but it’s never too early or too late to brush up on your ABCs. Yes, these are the myriad little things that make up the delightful kaleidescope of interior design learning and practice.

We’ve tried to include the most obvious and important word or words for each alphabetical entry as pertains to interior design. At the very least, this A to Z list of interior design tools and terms is a good primer for students or memory jogger for designers–and hopefully entertaining as well. Enjoy!

A is for Architecture (and Art!)

brown wooden planks

Interior design’s sweethearts are architecture and art. You might even say the three disciplines form something of a “holy trinity” for interior designers.

After all, you can’t have interior design with architecture, and the best interior design includes art. Many people consider architecture an artistic discipline. After learning about the “architectural imagination” from an open Harvard course, I would tend to agree.

Most of interior design history is understanding the history of both of these extremely important subjects: art and architecture.

B is for Bespoke

two assorted color padded chairs near side table

Where would the interior design profession be without custom and made-to-order furniture?

From reupholstering antique and vintage pieces to tailoring to a client’s specific needs, the best designers can conceptualise almost anything and deliver it!

C is for Chairs (and Construction Documents)

wooden chair against gray background

A chair is probably the most important piece of furniture in human history and enjoys a rich heritage across every culture.

Chairs are miniature architecture, and almost every great architect had tried their hand at designing one.

Construction documents are the hidden part of job, that, while less glamorous than the final product, are essential to pulling it off in the first place.

D is for Detailing

photo of wooden chair beside window

Whoever said, “the devil is in the details” would have made an excellent interior designer.

Detailing is where craftsmanship shines. It’s where the extra effort is embodied. It’s where quality, thoughtfulness and attention to detail are most evident. All of which, subsequently, makes for outstanding interior design.

E is for e-Design

two women looking and pointing at macbook laptop

E-design is a virtual interior design service. As the ‘new kid on the block’ in the world of interior design, it has only really come into the mainstream in the last decade, but it is on the rise!

Say goodbye to long projects and construction management. Say hello to pure design, one hundred percent virtual processes and cutting edge tools. The future of interior design is virtual and VR. We told you first!

F is for FF&E

interior of modern bathroom with bathtub and big windows

FF&E stands for Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment. This term is attributed to commercial real estate but is also used in contract interior design.

Typically FF&E (also known as FFE) describes product specification (the industry word for selection) for projects where non permanent and movable items need to be purchased and installed. Basically, everything including HVAC and the kitchen sink, but not usually related to finishes and architectural details and millwork.

All in a day’s work for the commercial interior designer professional!

G is for Graphic Design

person holding blue red and white book

You can’t really have interior design without graphic design. This might be true for many businesses, but in interior design, which is a highly visual field, this is especially true.

The best designs in the world are nothing without good presentation, and if your graphic design skills are lacking, your interior design is going to look the worse for it. Interior designers typically get a crash course in graphic design because it is so much a part of the process.

The good news is that both graphic and inteior designers find plenty of overlaps between the wo disciplines!

H is for Hardware (and Hardwood!)

opened full lite door

Ask any designer if they like hardware stores. It’s hard to imagine one who would say no. Despite the fact that designers typically are in the planning and orchestrating roles of renovation and building projects, there are just so many things that spark the imagination and inspiration in a hardware store.

If there’s anything HGTV has taught us it’s that there is a lot of overlap between DIY and interior design. Some people can barely tell them apart!

Sure, not all DIYers are designing with perfect design process, and not all interior designers are good at DIY, but in all honestly they are a perfect and natural fit for one another.

I is for Imagination and Inches

yellow tape measure

There’s no denying that a designer needs to cultivate their imagination in order to be able to do their job well. The design process is, in fact, an excellent way to channel the imagination and harness it to its best use. The best part about using good design thinking and process is that it becomes a habit, and is repeatable, meaning that you can rely on a fairly good outcome each time.

Inches are because the small dimensions and measurements are extremely important to the planning of the built environment, thus; interior design. Nevertheless we’d be lying if we said we loved inches or the imperial measurement system. Why can’t it all be metric? In our opinion it’s the better way to go.

The number of times any designer has had to convert between the two systems is enough to make most crazy at the thought and seems a waste of energy. Just saying.

J is for Juxtaposition

multiethnic cheerful colleagues looking at stickers and smiling

Design is all about relationships. Juxtaposition, the way one aspect of a design relates to another, is hugely important to the planning and ultimate success of any project. Whether it’s the relationship between the functions or the aesthetics of a plan, how individual elements come together in the whole is a big part of creating a successful design!

K is for Kitchen & Bath

white bathroom interior

Kitchen and bathroom specific design is an important subgenre of the interior design profession. The National Kitchen and Bath Association trains and licenses professionals dedicated to this specialty.

Kitchens and bathrooms require more technical knowledge and learning how to design a highly functioning as well as beautiful space is a special talent. Remodeling these rooms is also one of the best investments to make in the quality of living –as well as resale value– of your home.

L is for Lighting, LEED and Lifetime Assessment Value

apartment architecture chair chairs

Lighting is another specialization in interior design. It is often called one of the most important elements, because failing to light a space properly can ruin even the best design.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green building certification standard set by the U.S. Green Building Council that all designers in the commercial interior design space should be aware of. Indoor air quality and material resources are probably the most important aspects of an interior designer’s role in creating a healthy and sustainable environment.

Lifetime assessment value looks at a product from cradle to grave when assessing how sustainable it is. Designers need to look at this when making product and material specifications on projects.

M is for Millimeter and Mid Century Modern

space construction ruler writing

Perhaps the ingenuity is in the inches. At least, measurements are incredibly important in the field of interior design. Designers measure and measure again. Wrong measurements are the bane of any project and can undo hours and even weeks of work. Luckily newer tools make measuring easier than ever before.

It’s easy to forget that most of the world uses centimeters: Look up measurements for everyday home and construction projects on Google and you’d never know it! Most results are US-oriented. My advice: Designers might need to be fluent in both, depending where you work. At the very least, have your handy conversion app on hand.

N is for Niche

abstract accuracy accurate aim

Many design professionals are known for their specialization in one area. Whether its because they enjoy those particular types of projects, happened to get really good at them or just developed a reputation in a certain market, sometimes having a niche is the ticket to success.

O is for Orthographic

Orthographic Projection diagram – Image from the Encyclopedia Britannica

For the designers reading this, this is a harkback to design school, and drafting in particular. Orthographic Projection is a method of drawing a three dimensional object in such a way that it is clearly documented from each angle in plan, front and side views. The First Angle and Third Angle are slightly different mthods, used in Europe and the United States, respectively.

Orthographic projection is important to the engineering and design fields, and especially to the manufacturing of products to the correct specifications.

P is for Programming

close up photo of survey spreadsheet

Programming in interior design is what happens right at the beginning of a project. Basically, it means collecting all of the information about a project and compiling it so that it is organized and useful to planning the design. Programming is a really important part of any design project, because without the correct information to start with, the design can’t be successful.

In particular, programming is used for writing the design statement or brief upon commencement of a design project. Read more about research for interior design projects here:

How to Do Interior Design Project Research

Q is for Questionnaire

crop woman writing on clipboard

The interior designer’s client questionnaire is their secret weapon. Every designer drafts their own questionnaire, for use with their particular brand of client or project. Often the product of years of development which includes a lot of trial and error, a good questionnaire is key to getting a new project off on the right foot.

And you guessed it, it is a very important part of programming!

R is for Revision

woman using silver laptop

Rarely, if ever, is a design job planned so perfectly that there is no need to change anything about the original design proposal. Whether its making adjustments on behalf of the client before work begins or discovering surprises on the job site in the construction phase, there’s always something that needs to be tweaked! Most designers have just come to acccept the endless revisions as an important part of the process of executing a successful design.

S is for Specification

woman in plaid jacket walking behind man in plaid shirt in vintage store

Some designers like to hit the shops in the city’s deisgn quarter, others like to source online. Regardless of how you do it, almost no interior design job goes without needing to source furniture or fittings. Specification is the process of evaluating the needs of space and finding the most suitable furnishings, fittings, fixtures and fittings. Anything that needs to be bought for a project falls under specification and includes ordering, documenting and in many cases in stalling those products.

While it can be one of the more tedious aspects of the job, it is also extremely important. Now I remember why I did two massive units and almost thirty weeks just of furniture study in design school!

T is for T-Square and Timeless

comfortable couch and coffee table in modern living room

How do you describe “timeless”? I think of it as being a creation or an arrangement that is so perfectly put together that it looks and even ‘feels’ right, no matter the time period or context.

A timeless composition hits such high aesthetic notes that it can’t help but seem in tune, whether you appreciate the genre or not. It’s not about periods or styles, it’s about an achieved balance which is perfectly and beautifully harmonious. It could fit into any time and still seem fresh!

What about T-square? Well, we didn’t want to bore you with it. But suffice it to say, that it’s a tool that all engineering and design students of manual drafting are well acquainted with. You can see one here.

U is for Upholstery and Upcycle

green candle on wooden table

These two words are both really important to interior designers. Upholstery because that is the art of covering furniture, usually in either textiles or leather. Upcycling is the eco-friendly practice of taking something that needs a little love and restoring it so that it can live a second life, perhaps even improving it in the process.

V is for Vendor and Vintage

man in bus

Another two terms that are key to understanding the culture of interior design:

Vendors are where we get our furniture, fittings and decor products. A good database of professionals who’s offerings are necessary to interior design practice are the bread and butter of any practice. From lighting specialists to fabric shops and picture framers, vendors are the lifeblood of interior designing.

Vintage sellers are always a good addition to the mix. Using vintage items adds character and is more sustainable than buying everything new. Good thing its in vogue, too!

W is for Window Treatment

brown wooden framed windowpanes

Chefs dress salads, interior designers dress windows. Okay, you probably knew that. In fact, it’s one of the parts of an interior designer’s job that almost everyone remembers. There are many ways to dress a window, and it depends on many factors, including climate, the intended function of the space, the amount of shielding required from harsh sunlight as well as personal preference and aesthetics.

Choices include sheer and glass curtains, drapes, blinds and shutters, among others. There are also loads of different styles and looks to choose from, each with its own merits and demerits. Generally speaking, traditional styles are heavy on window dressings, while modern styles tend to go for lighter and less obtrusive versions.

X is for eXacto-Knife

anonymous artisan cutting piece of wood

From model making to trimming wall paper, no design student ever strays far from their personal trusty craft knife. There are many brands to choose from, but we needed something to go with ‘X’! Perhaps we could add the word x-ecution and x-act. If you’ve ever had to work down to the millimeter, you will understand where I’m coming from.

Watch your fingers!

Y is for Yard Sale

person standing in front of brown crate

You’d think that interior designers would take a day off, but that’s when all the best yard sales happen. Yes, we can’t help ourselves. This is what many a designer does on their day off! Yard sales, after all, are like estate sales, but with lower prices and sans the blood pressure raising auctions.

Designers have a secret. Most of us are living our dream. This is something we’d do even if we weren’t getting paid for it: enjoying the thrill of the hunt. The search for the perfect piece for some small corner of a room can become an obsession.

Designers who know how to spot a great bargain or a hidden gem are well familiar with the need to keep searching. Some designers are permanently shopping for clients. Might as well make that great eye work for you, don’t you think? And besides, our own homes only have so much room.

Z is for (Net) Zero

mobile phone with green recycling sign and mesh bag

Designers know better than the average person that the way we live, work, design and build need to change if we are to have a realistically sustainable future on this planet. We are ready to do our parts! Whether its educating our clients or trying to make better choices in our own practices and personal lives, we can’t forget that we are all accountable for building a greener future.

Whether you are well past your design ABCs or just starting out I hope you enjoyed the A to Zs of Interior Design. What would you add?

If you’d like to learn more and be part of our awesome community of passionate, future-driven, up-and-coming design professionals get started by becoming a Design Baddie and signing up to our newsletter today! We welcome complete beginners as well as established designers. Whatcha waiting for?

See you on the inside!



Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

Hottest Articles

%d bloggers like this: