Design Elements Principles

design elements and principles

design and remodeling



Do you wonder about how to design for home remodeling?

It’s actually not hard.  We all have an instinct for what works.  But it is definitely helpful to understand why it works.

Let’s dig in.

1: The difference between design elements and design principles
2: Design elements
3: Design principles
4: Applied design –  using and breaking the rules

Distinguish Design Elements from Design Principles

A remodeling project must necessarily operate within the confines of a given or modified structure. This may or may not be modifiable. We do this work with the benefit of the experience and insights of the thinkers, architects, and designers who came before us. In this, we apply accepted design elements and principles that have been handed down to us

Why do we do this? Because it’s what works!

A great deal of good design is simply intuitive. Most of us have a sense of “what works.” There is a good reason for this since important parts of a design are founded in the natural order around us.

So our brief explanation here of Design Elements and Design Principles is offered as an additional reference. It is to help you understand the rhyme, reason, and timeless “music of the spheres” that inform your remodeling decisions.

And in tune with the theme of this site, don’t forget the grounded practical guidance of  Remodeling for Aging in Place and Universal Design and Remodeling.

So what is the distinction between design elements and design principles?

  • Design Elements are the concepts or building blocks we use in first creating space and then filling it.
  • Design Principles are a guide to the use of these tools.

These elements and principles have been discovered, rediscovered, developed, and refined since ancient times. They are used by anyone creating a visual effect. Painters, sculptors, photographers, interior designers, industrial designers, architects, fashion designers, landscape designers, and remodelers alike employ these principles.

Design Elements

Design elements are space, shape & form, mass, line, texture, pattern, light, and color.


Space is an area designed for a particular purpose. It is 3-dimensional, having length, width, and height. In order to please a home needs both large and small areas. Equally, there needs to be a balance of filled space and empty space. Areas such as traffic paths are empty space. Depending on how the furniture is arranged, a room can be made to appear large or small. Differently sized spaces can impart positive or negative feelings. For example, a small room can feel cozy but, if overcrowded with “stuff,” can feel cramped. Equally a large room can feel airy or stark, depending on how it is furnished. Color also has a great impact on how space is perceived. Light colors make a room appear larger. Dark colors can shrink it.

Shape & Form

Shape is the 2-dimensional outline of a 3-dimensional form. Different shapes have different effects. For example, curved shapes appear soft while rectangular shapes appear edgy. It is important to use shape and form in such a way as to complement the intended mood of the design.


Mass is the apparent density of an object. In physics objects with great mass attract other objects towards them. In design, the perception of mass in an object is how strongly the eye is pulled towards it. In design, mass is visual weight. It is the ability of an object to draw attention to itself through line, form, color, and texture.


Line creates width and height. They create the appearance of activity, movement, or flow. Lines draw attention and convey feeling. Vertical lines impart dignity and formality. Horizontal lines impart security and calm. Long curved lines tend to relax. Short curved lines tend to excite. Diagonal lines bring drama and tension.


Texture is the physical feel or surface appearance of an object, furnishing or treatment. It is more felt than seen and is important in the creation of mood, interest, and variety.


Pattern is the orderly arrangement of forms.


Light is critical to residential design. Whether it is general (ambient) lighting, task (focused) lighting, or accent lighting. Lighting can affect the appearance of shapes, colors, textures, and patterns.


Color is the most noticeable of the design elements. It has a major influence on the appearance and feel of a room. Light colors make it appear larger. Dark colors make it appear smaller. Warm colors (reds, yellows, oranges) add excitement to a room. Cool colors (blues, greens, purples) make it restful. Neutral colors are black, white, beiges and browns. Everyone has a favorite color but should be aware of its effect.

Design Principles

Design principles address unity, harmony, balance, emphasis, rhythm, scale, and proportion.


A home is a totality, the sum of its component spaces. It is important that a common theme or style runs through it. Color schemes are an excellent way to create a theme.


Harmony is the creation of an appealing whole through a variety of unifying elements and objects. An example would be a collection of Asian artwork displayed through the house.


Balance is the creation of equilibrium in a space. It is achieved by the placement of objects according to their mass or visual weight.

There are three types of balance: symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial.

Symmetrical balance

Symmetrical balance In traditional interiors is the repetitive placement of identical objects. An example would be the placement of two identical candelabra in opposition from a central point.

Asymmetrical balance

Asymmetrical balance is more casual and interesting. It is where the mass of an object is balanced by another object or objects without duplication. An example would be a sofa balanced in opposition from a central point by a pair of chairs.

Radial balance

Radial balance is where there is a central focal point with other elements arranged around it. An example would be a round dining table with chairs around it.


An emphasis or focal point is what dominates a room and first draws the eye. This could be a piece of artwork, a chandelier, a fireplace, an aquarium, or a view through a window. There is usually only one focal point in a room.


Rhythm is what draws the eye, first to a focal point in the room and then to other components. Rhythm creates a flow of visual interest from object to object and room to room throughout the home.

The “rules of rhythm” are repetition, progression, transition, and contrast.

Repetition is the use of the same element or elements of pattern, color, texture or line more than once in a space.

Progression is increasing or decreasing one or more of the qualities of an element, usually its size.

Transition is creating a smooth flow for the eye, where it is gently drawn from one area to another. Using a curved line in an archway or a winding path in a landscape are examples.

Contrast is simply putting two elements in stark opposition to one another. A black and a white pillow placed on a sofa is an example.


Scale relates the size of one object to the size of another, or to the size of the space in which it is located. The scale of an object must reflect its surroundings so as not to seem too large or too small. The purpose of scale is that objects should be alike or in harmony with respect to dimension or mass.


Proportion in design is harmony that pleases the eye. The proper application of proportion is to devise the most pleasing relationship of one part of an object to another part; or between or among one or more other objects. Understanding the principle of proportion involves a discussion of the Golden Ratio and its derivative in the 60:30:10 Rule. Similar, but not related theory and practice, are the Rule of Thirds and Rule of Threes.

Proportion is the ratio between the size of one part of an object to the size of another part, or to the whole, or between different objects. This is a design concept rooted in ancient theory and practice with the Golden Ratio and the 60:30:10 rule.

The Golden Ratio – Φ (PHI)

The Golden Ratio is also known as the golden section, golden rectangle, golden mean, or divine proportion.

Some 2500 years ago the Greek mathematical school of Pythagoras defined the Golden Ratio or Phi as 1:1.618. Since then it is a rule that has been applied in mathematics, art, architecture, and design. Phi is the perfect relationship between the smaller and the larger.

A simple example of this ratio in the world of interior design would be a dining room table that is 45” wide and 72” with these dimensions in the ratio 1:1.6.

Stated mathematically, (a + b)/a : a / b = phi, or the golden ratio. In simple geometry it looks like this:

golden ratio line illustration

Below: Line segments in the golden ratio, illustrating the formula –

color golden ratio line illustration

Below: A golden rectangle with a longer side and shorter side b, when placed adjacent to a square with sides of length a, will produce a similar golden rectangle with longer side a + b and shorter side a. This illustrates the same relationship as in the line segment example opposite.

squared image

We see from the above that a golden rectangle has the property that, if a square with sides equal to the short side of the rectangle is marked off, the remaining form will be another golden rectangle. This process can be repeated in either direction, by addition or subtraction, ad infinitum. This brings us to the Fibonacci series. Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa) lived in the 13th century.

The Fibonacci series is an outgrowth of the Golden Ratio. It is a sequence or progression of whole numbers, where each number is the sum of the preceding two (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…).

The Fibonacci spiral is created by drawing arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in a Fibonacci tiling of Golden Rectangles. This one uses squares of sizes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and 34.

Composition of Golden Rectangles and the Fibonacci Spiral or Sequence

fibonacci diagram

Harmony in Nature

This aesthetically pleasing harmony is found in nature. We see this spiral in the shell of a Chambered Nautilus. We see it in a Hurricane. We see it in a Galaxy.

chambered nautilus  hurricane fibonacci   fibonacci galaxy

See also this short but enchanting video – Nature by Numbers:

Given the evident universality of the Golden Ratio in the natural order, we had better pay attention to it in the design of our remodels. Phi is all around us, so it stands to reason that utilizing Phi in our designs and compositions will naturally lead to improved communication with the observer and a harmonious result.

However, also given the constraints of an existing structure, someone embarking on a remodeling project has rather limited the opportunity to apply the Golden Ratio when laying out space. However, it has a great effect when applied to the furnishing, decorating, and accessorizing of a completed room.

The 60:30:10 Rule

The 60:30:10 Rule is an informal derivative of Phi and the Fibonacci Progression, in which a rectangle or spiral progresses smoothly from small to large and vice versa. It is a rule of composition used in art, photography and design, including interior design, to achieve a pleasing whole through a smooth, proportionate progression of elements. The rule is applied to room design, furniture layout, colors, and accessories.

Here are examples of how the rule works in practice:

  • Overall: 60% provides a theme; 30% provides contrast; 10% provides an accent.
  • Paint selection: 60% of a dominant color; 30% of a secondary color; 10% of an accent color. See our piece on Color in Design.
  • The room’s relationship to color of contents: 60% of the room’s color is the walls; 30% of the room’s color is the upholstery; 10% of the room’s color is in accent pieces.
  • No more than 60% of the room is filled with furniture/accessories, leaving plenty of “white space” to relieve the eye.

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds has nothing to do with the proportions of the Golden Ratio. Rather it is a compositional rule of thumb mainly applied in art and photography. It states that every composition can be divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines.

rule of thirds |

The convention is that the most important elements of the composition are placed along these lines or at the four points of intersection. This creates tension, energy and dramatic interest. The elements of the composition that are its focus should not be placed in the center of the composition.

In interior design, the obvious practical application of the Rule of Thirds is in the placement of artwork on walls.

Rule of Three

In interior design, the Rule of Three, also known as the Rule of Odd Numbers, has applications in progression and spatial composition, color and fabric schemes, arrangements of furniture, and groupings of accessories.

The basis of the rule is that details and objects that are arranged or grouped in odd numbers are more appealing, memorable, and effective than even-numbered pairings. For additional interest, there should also be variations of height, texture, shape, or color within the groupings.

Using and Breaking the Rules of Design in  Remodeling

Understanding the elements and principles of design and using them in a remodeling project takes some effort but is necessary for achieving a satisfactory overall result in a remodeled home. If the result actually achieved turns out to be less than pleasing, it is usually because one of the rules of design has not been followed. If this happens, a review of the rules will likely identify the problem and indicate an appropriate remedy.

Can one break the rules of design in remodeling? Absolutely, you can do this. But do it deliberately and for effect. The key is to be aware of what you are doing. For example, breaking the rules of harmony can result in charming eccentricity and eye-catching intrigue.  But make sure the effect is not discordant.

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