13 interior design rules to use when creating your space

blue living room with orange sofa
(Image credit: Richard Kiely)

Interior design rules are an often overlooked and much undervalued aspect of building a new home or renovating an existing property. We tend to think of interior design as the finishing touches; the fun part at the end — picking paint colours and soft furnishings to adorn our newly completed homes. 

However, the key to successfully incorporating interior design trends and to creating a scheme that works for you is all in the planning — which should happen before work even begins on your building project. Take the kitchen layout or the positioning of lighting, switches and sockets, for example — all need to be decided before first fix plumbing and electrics.

Whether you intend to take on the role yourself or hire an interior designer for their professional input, we’ve gathered together some of our top tips for interior design success on your project. 

What are interior design rules?

Interior design rules are not about telling homeowners how their homes should look. They are simply guidelines that can help ensure a space feels a pleasure to spend time in, based on ensuring there is enough room to comfortably manoeuvre around the various areas within a home, lighting spaces well and creating a place to live that works on a practical level too. 

They can be used to help you begin to build up a sense of what will (and won't) work for you and referred to in order to come up with a clearer plan of how to proceed. 

1. Use statement features as a springboard for ideas

Starting with a blank canvas can be both liberating and incredibly challenging. In some ways, this task is often easier for those renovating a house who have existing features to work with (or around) which can provide a springboard for ideas. An original 1960s staircase might inspire a mid-century modern interior, for instance. While in my last renovation, a stone inglenook and delicate timber beams formed the starting point for the palette of materials and colours I used throughout.

In a self build, however, inspiration can instead be drawn from features you intend to include (a statement fireplace or picture window), or you could look to the exterior materials for inspiration. 

Architect Jake Edgley took cues from surrounding houses and barns when designing a contemporary brick and timber-clad home in the Buckinghamshire countryside. Brick and timber cladding have also been used in the interior (shown at the top of the opposite page) to create a sense of cohesion between inside and out. 

Alternatively, artwork, an ornament or a statement piece of furniture, can also provide inspiration for a scheme. Which brings us on to…

open plan kitchen diner with polished concrete floor

In this home, the walls of glass and the materials themselves form the focal point in the open plan kitchen diner. (Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

2. Consider treasured possessions early on

Designing a new home doesn’t mean you need to start entirely afresh with furnishings. Whether it’s a piece of furniture handed down by family or a favourite print, such items should have a place in your new home. Even if the interiors are more modern in style. 

“There is no reason a modern building can not house antiques if you use them in the right place, allowing them to be statement pieces,” echoes Emma Deterding, founder and creative director of Kelling Designs. “Avoid dressing them in a period style, but use them as statements throughout your home, creating points of interest.”

Integrating these items successfully into a new interior can, however, require forward planning. 

“We’ve previously worked with large items such as antique doors with sentimental value, important pianos, and rare grandfather clocks (which needed very high ceilings but also no direct sunlight), to smaller pieces such as collections of glassware and special artwork,” begins Merry Albright of Border Oak. “It’s all possible with self and custom build and so much easier to integrate and showcase from the very beginning. It can involve pretty significant architectural changes (getting larger items into the house also needs thought) or simply a considered lighting plan and built-in niches. Sometimes it’s even just a small tweak to a layout that allows a treasured cupboard to sit centrally, or a painting to be enjoyed from the right distance.”

oak frame interiors

A ground floor wall was designed exactingly to accommodate an antique dresser in this Border Oak home.  (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

3. Create a moodboard

A virtual or physical moodboard is an invaluable tool when pulling your interior design scheme together. “There’s no better way to spot trends and themes in the visuals you’re drawn to than to put them all together on a moodboard. This will help uncover your true interior style personality — the colours, textures, and room layouts that are most suited to you,” says Connor Prestwood, design consultant at Dowsing & Reynolds.

However, a moodboard is not just key in bringing together your ideas, but further down the line will help you focus on making the right purchases when presented with a myriad of choices. “Many people make the mistake of buying things in a hurry without thinking about how they will all work together,” say interior designers Jenna Choate and Mariana Ugarte, founders of design practice Interior Fox.

But where do you start? “Usually the walls, curtains, and floor, these areas will dictate and anchor the colours in the wider scheme. Get those right and then the rest of it will fall into place,” advises designer Sarah Peake, founder of Studio Peake

“Fabric schemes are important, but you must think about the floor, fireplace, hard finishes and metal finishes as well — it all needs to work together. This will help you when it comes to turning your moodboard into a fully-fledged scheme.”


Building up a moodboard of colours, patterns, textures and finishes you like is a great way to start your interior design scheme.  (Image credit: Getty)

4. Choose your material palette wisely

One integral element of creating a moodboard is selecting key materials which will form the basis of your scheme. Give consideration to those finishes which can not be so readily changed — such as types of flooring and wall finishes, hardware, light fittings and so on. Here, it’s wise to select materials which are not just durable, but will stand the test of time aesthetically. 

“In terms of materials, natural woods, glass, metals and stones will always be timeless. Now, more than ever before, we are looking to bring natural materials into our homes to bring the great outdoors in — and this is something that will forever be in style and continue to prove popular as we try to reconnect with nature,” says Emma Deterding of Kelling Designs.

5.  Get furniture proportions right

Considering the proportions of key elements is also an important aspect of the interior design process. “Even the most beautiful piece of furniture in the most beautiful space will fail to impress without the correct proportions,” says Cathy Dean, founder and CEO of Svtudio Dean. “We begin every project with a detailed spatial planning process to ensure not just the look of an item is right for the client, but the scale, size and function works for their needs too. 

“Going oversized in small spaces can seem like a risk,” she adds, “but actually one oversized statement piece versus a plethora of smaller pieces can make the room feel bigger as there is less clutter for you to process.” 

6. Bring in a professional

“It’s a misconception that interior designers are only for those with huge budgets and large properties. In actual fact, working with a designer can save you a great deal of time and money,” advise Jenna Choate and Mariana Ugarte. 

So, just what is an interior designer?

The services offered by an interior designer vary and you can usually choose the level of involvement you wish them to have. At the most basic level, they can provide a ‘design only’ service, ranging from a simple design based on your brief up to a more detailed design package that can be used to get accurate quotes from contractors and show to your builder. If you are after more than this, a ‘design, supply and install’ service might be more suitable, where your interior designer works on the project for its duration, even acting as project manager

“Many underestimate the value of an interior designer,” adds Emma Kirby, design director at Emma Kirby Design. “Having a professional on board can avoid expensive mistakes. A designer will bring an awful lot of practical experience to a project. They do not simply consider colour, texture and pattern, but spatial planning and lighting. However, it’s important to bring them in early. The key to a successful interior design scheme starts with the ‘bones’ of the project, with the ceiling heights, floor finishes, the mouldings and skirting boards.

“There are typically two main ways in which interior designers charge: a fixed fee per room or per scheme, or on an hourly basis. Price will depend on the service provided, the size and complexity of the scheme, location and the experience of the designer. Budget from around £500 upwards per room,” she suggests. 

7.  Consider flow

While there’s nothing to say that each room shouldn’t have its own personality, taking a holistic approach – considering the house as a whole rather than rooms in isolation – can help unify your new home. Using the same or a similar palette of materials and/or recurring motifs such as patterns, colours or shapes throughout will create a sense of flow as you move from room to room. 

8. Don’t overlook lighting

“Good lighting design is about far more than simply illuminating a space. Lighting has the power to bring out all the best bits of an interior scheme, create atmosphere and draw the eye to architectural features, decorative objects or pieces of art,” begins Homebuilding’s associate editor, Natasha Brinsmead.

“Lighting plays a crucial role in the success of an interior design project,” echoes Hanna Walter, creative and product manager of Heathfield & Co. “A well-designed lighting scheme can enhance the aesthetic appeal of a space, create ambience, and improve functionality.

“To achieve a well-designed lighting scheme, there are a few things you must consider:

“Create layers of light: Lighting should be adaptable, changing the mood and feel of the room to suit the time of day and the situation. For example, your open-plan kitchen needs to be bright enough for food preparation, but also requires softer lighting for when you want to relax over a meal with family and friends.

“Combining light sources, also known as layering light, is the best way to adapt a lighting scheme according to your needs. Typically, these are broken down into three categories: ambient lighting, the general light that helps you navigate the room; task lighting, providing light for specific tasks in a room; and accent lighting, used to draw attention to particular features in a room. 

“Invest in separate lighting circuits: Ensure that ambient, task, and accent lighting are controlled by separate circuits to adjust the room’s mood with ease. If you don’t have separate circuits already, you’ll need an electrician to install them. This could also be an opportunity to smart lighting.”

grey modern living rom with soft lighting

Use layers of lighting rather than relying on just one light source.  (Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

9. Get to grips with design software 

If you’re hoping to take on the role of interior designer yourself, free or low-cost design software and apps can help you plan out room layouts and create elevations, which can be particularly useful for spatial planning, positioning furniture, and when conveying your ideas to tradespeople on site. 

“Google SketchUp is still one of the most powerful free access software tools available. It’s quite easy to master but you’ll need to commit a couple of days to learning how to use it,” says Emma Kirby, design director at EKD. “In addition to the free kitchen and bathroom design tools available on supplier websites, there are also useful free apps such as IbisPaint which enable you to import a photograph and sketch over it with your ideas.”

10. Tailor colour to the function of the room

Colour, pattern and textures can have an impact on how we perceive a space, so it’s important to consider the function of a room when making key choices. 

“Start by taking note of how dark or light the room is and decide how the space is going to be used, before choosing your colour palette,” says Ann Marie Cousins from AMC Design. Some rooms will be productive and task-driven spaces (think home offices), while others will be designed for relaxation, such as living spaces. 

This is arguably most important when it comes to master bedroom ideas, as colour can have an effect on our circadian rhythms. “The best colours for sleep are blue, yellow, green, silver, orange, and pink. These colours reduce stress and soothe the nervous system. Try to stick with neutral or pastel shades for a soft, welcoming atmosphere,” advises Geoff McKinnen, certified sleep coach at Amerisleep. He also advises against choosing clashing colours.

“Stick with flat paint, instead of one with a high-shine or glossy finish. The shine reflects light, disrupting sleep,” he continues. “Flatter paints absorb light and are less invigorating, promoting relaxation.”

calming bedroom painted in neutrals

This bedroom benefits from a calming, soft colour scheme that uses Yarmouth Blue HC 150 from Benjamin Moore UK (Image credit: Benjamin Moore UK)

11. Plan furniture placement from the outset

“I’d recommend planning everything before you start — even down to room layouts and where the furniture is going to go,” say seasoned self-builders Ash and Jess Alken (whose home is a masterclass in adding character to a new build). 

“It will help when working out your electrical and plumbing layouts so you get as much right at the start. You can always change things as you go, but there is nothing more annoying than when you move in and wish you’d put a switch/socket/tap somewhere else.” 

Use scaled floorplans and experiment with the position of key items of furniture such as sofas and beds.

blue corner sofa and white internal timber cladding

Self builders Jess and Ash Alken, whose living room is shown here, were careful to think about furniture layouts before building work had even begun.  (Image credit: Dan Duchers)

12. Master the colour wheel and colour theory

If you’re hoping to take the role of interior designer into your own hands, then it’s a very good idea to familiarise yourself with colour theory, and in particular, the colour wheel.

“The colour wheel is a simple device that shows how primary, secondary and tertiary colours relate to each other. In other words, it helps you quickly see which colours go together,” explains Ginevra Benedetti, print deputy editor of our sister title, Ideal Home. “It can be used in combination with colour theory to help you create successful decorating schemes and guarantee decorating success.”

An analogous colour scheme – where a main colour is paired with colours which sit directly adjacent to it on the colour wheel – is arguably one of the simplest to get to grips with. Selecting items in shades, tones and tints of your chosen colours can help build your scheme.

“Knowledge of the wheel can really help you to understand the dos and don’ts of colour pairing and what goes best together,” adds Ann Marie Cousins from AMC Design. “Once you’ve chosen your colour palette, stick to this and layer it throughout the room to create balance. Use different tones of the same colour and pair this with a variety of textures or patterns in the same colour. This way, your scheme will look fluid but you will have statement pieces which will stand out.”

the colour wheel

The colour wheel can be a handy tool when choosing colours that work well together.  (Image credit: Getty)

13. Use colour to enhance spaces 

On a similar note, colour theory can also be applied to help make spaces feel larger or smaller than they actually are. Receding colours are the cooler colours on the colour wheel, such as blues and greens, and can make a room look larger and so are ideal for those after small living room ideas

Warm, advancing colours, such as red and orange – as the name suggests – appear nearer and therefore can create a cosier feel. Adding a receding colour to an end wall in a long hallway can visually bring this wall in, or used in a living room for a cosseted feel.

Considering the orientation of a room alongside colour choice is another clever trick. Advancing colours can be used to enhance northerly-facing rooms, which can often feel cold, for instance. Even if you simply intend to paint your interior white for the present time, using a warmer white in north-facing rooms can help make the space feel more inviting.

Claire Lloyd

Claire is Editor in Chief of Homebuilding & Renovating website and magazine. She became Editor of Homebuilding & Renovating in 2016 and has been a member of the team for 15 years. An experienced homes journalist, her work has also appeared in titles such as Real Homes and Period Living.

She has a particular interest in green homes and sustainability, and interior design is a passion too; she has undertaken qualifications in this area. 

After finishing a major renovation of a period cottage, she is now onto her next project: overhauling a 1930s property in the Shropshire countryside.