How to Design and Then Arrange a Room

We’ve had to recently learn some of the best practices about how to arrange a room. Having just moved, we wanted — as much as possible — to know what we are doing as we get furniture for rooms that didn’t exist in our prior house.

We are probably a bit odd here — a lot of people probably just wing it or somehow automatically know how to do everything. I do not fall into the category of people that can figure out how to do any new thing perfectly, simply by following their gut, in 5 minutes.

So I have some type of unavoidable impulse to do a bit of research before embarking on any new ground or endeavor so that I can do it on the basis of effective principles, rather than just following my gut. Hence, I’ve even researched things like how to organize my closet (perhaps I am the only person on the planet to do that!; but I want everything humming along smooth, with minimal drag); how to design a room is the latest example.

This is not comprehensive, because we just didn’t have the time to figure this out in full. But, here’s a collection of the best insights we’ve found, pulled together loosely into an overall process.

Designing a Room

Here are the steps for designing the room. By the way, the first three correspond to the “define purpose and principles” and “outcome visioning” components of the natural planning model. The fourth corresponds to the “brainstorming” step. I then leave it to you from that point to carry out the “organizing” and “identifying next actions” components.

1. Define the Room’s Function

Determining the purpose of something is central to everything you do, whether it’s design a room or manage a project (or figure out your life).

You can have multiple functions in a single room (see, for example, the work by Sarah Susanka and one of her books, like Not So Big Solutions for Your Home). If you do this, you just need to designate the primary function versus secondary functions, and create alcoves for the secondary functions.

2. Define How You Want the Room to Make You Feel

Rooms are not merely utilitarian. They should make you want to be in them and even be somewhat inspiring.

3. Define Your Style

This relates to the prior step, obviously; it is really a way of fleshing that out more. HGTV (hate to admit it, but we’ve been watching it lately) has a helpful show called “Find Your Style” which follows a useful process here. The approach centers around figuring out your style (their website gives 10 Tips for Finding Your Style and gives examples of various styles as well) and then identifying four elements to design the room around. I’ll let you check out their website or the show if you are interested in more details here.

4. List the Furniture You Will Need

The specific pieces you need will flow from the function of the room (step one); the style of the pieces will flow from how you want the room to make you feel and your design style (steps two and three). If you need to do some painting or change carpet to get the room to reflect your style, note that here as well.

5. Think Unconventionally About Some Rooms

By the way, also remember to be creative. For example, if you have a dining room: Do you ever use it? We’ve turned our dining room into a den / kids play area. We love it. Heidi has her desk in there (one that looks decent and doesn’t make the room feel like an office), and then we have a neat cube bookcase from IKEA and a small table for the kids.

Right next to this is our living room (another room that we wouldn’t have chosen to have if it had been possible, but which is working out for the best), and it is fun to hang out in the living room while the kids play in the what-was-supposed-to-be-dining-room.

Together, the living room and den (former dining room) have become a fun place to hang out as a family, away from the TV (which is over in the family room). I see it as a much better use of evenings to hang out over here with the family and do constructive things, rather than defaulting to watching TV.

That’s not rocket science, I know. The thing is this: the design of your house makes certain behaviors more likely than others. Having turned the dining room and living room into rooms for family interaction away from the TV makes it more likely for us to default to constructive things in the evening rather than TV. Some people, of course, would say you can also accomplish this by not having a TV at all. I see value in the TV; I just don’t want it to be our default.

Arranging Furniture

When it comes time to arrange the furniture, here are some of the key principles we’ve found. These principles should probably also affect the way you go about deciding on what furniture to buy in the first place, and in fact are probably iterative with all four steps above — so think ahead to this stage when you are in the design phase.

These five principles summarize the article How to Arrange & Design a Room, which I found to be a helpful perspective on this. I’ve added some of my own thoughts, plus principle two.

1. Place the Largest Pieces First

The article notes: “TheĀ  major piece for the primary activity of the room must be considered first — the sofa in the living room, the bed in the bedroom, the desk in the office. This piece in most cases should face the focal point of the room.”

2. Know the Focal Point of the Room

Since the furniture should be arranged in light of the focal point of the room, this means that (a) every room should have a focal point and (b) you need to decide what that is. There can also be secondary and tertiary focal points. The furniture should be arranged to focus on the primary focal point, however.

3. Then, Place Pieces Relating to the Main Piece

This gives a helpful ordering of priorities: Place the main piece(s) first, then the pieces relating to it. Note that it relates to purchasing furniture as well as placing it. You identify and purchase the main piece of furniture (say, the couch) first because that gives guidance to the rest of what you do.

Often times there are many different directions which you can take when it comes to the secondary pieces. You are going to feel scattered — and the room will probably lack unity — if you try to obtain those pieces before knowing the color and style of the main piece.

When placing the secondary pieces, remember whenever possible you should “keep pieces of similar scale together” and “try to balance pieces of furniture opposite one another.” For example, “a pair of upholstered chairs is visually more balanced across from a sofa than a pair of small scale occasional chairs.”

4. Add Accent Pieces for Secondary Activities

Examples would be a reading corner in a bedroom or a kids play area in the family room or an office area in kitchen (or dining room or front room).

5. Place your Furniture Where it Looks Best

Well, that’s a bit too obvious. Sorry!

6. Guide Traffic Patterns Through Furniture Arrangement

You can set up the furniture to create the traffic patterns you want to have. Also, “leave a minimum of two and a half feet for walkaways and avoid flowing traffic through a conversational grouping if possible. Guide the traffic around the room’s perimeter to create a less disruptive environment.”

Helpful Articles

Here are two helpful online articles:

Here’s a helpful book that covers various aspects of room and house design: Not So Big Solutions for Your Home.

And here’s how to Find Your Style over at HGTV.