The rules of design: obey or not?

by Patricia Cove
Posted 4/7/22

But no matter the age, or the season, or the social atmosphere, I have always felt that rules are important.

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The rules of design: obey or not?


Being a traditionalist at heart, I guess I am a stickler for “the rules.”  You know the ones I mean: not wearing white after Labor Day; the man walking on the street side of the woman;  the not so popular rules of grammar and the even less popular rules of etiquette that just seem to get less and less popular with each passing day. I really have to bite my tongue, especially when I am with my family, when I detect a grammatical error in the presentation of a news correspondent. And I would not even dare mention a breach of grammatical correctness caught in an exchange with a niece or nephew.  I just keep quiet, and often berate myself for even entertaining this critical thinking in a time where any kind of “correctness,” political or otherwise, just does not seem to be the way people conduct their lives anymore.

But no matter the age, or the season, or the social atmosphere, I have always felt that rules are important.  Even if they are not liked, someone along the way figured out that they would be good to have, and would serve us all for some important reason. After all, if there weren’t some rules, we would just have chaos and bedlam. Rules underlie decorum, and provide order in so many areas of our lives.

Historically, in the design profession, there have always been rules too. Really attractive rooms, the ones that grab your attention and draw you in as you walk by always followed rules. 

Some of the rules were obvious. Were the colors coordinated and the patterns complimentary? Others were elusive. Did the room have balance?  Were the furnishings in proportion? Was there symmetry or asymmetry?  What was it exactly that made the room successful?

Then, of course, there were always my own rules. These were those rules that not all designers agreed with, but that created spaces that appealed to me. 

These were things that just seemed to make the room more comfortable, like making the most important things in the room stand out, whether through placement, or color, or pattern. 

This was done primarily through contrast.  For example, wall colors that served as a backdrop to important furnishings were highlighted through a contrasting color.  Why make a wall’s color stand out, when you have a beautiful piece of furniture to have as a focal point? Subtleties like this are those elusive rules that come together to create the most inviting and enduring spaces.

So, maybe it is due to my age, or due to the fact that the application of design rules always resulted in successful projects, that I still tend to rely on those rules even today. 

But as I started out saying, rules do not seem to be that important anymore.  Even more astonishing, maybe they never were really important, except to designers!

They may always be reliable, and a safe way to make our rooms correct, but I am almost afraid to say that nowadays, the ones who are breaking all the rules are the ones getting all the attention!

So I will leave you with one final thought: when it comes to design, keep the rules in mind and make sure the man always walks on the outside of the sidewalk!

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design, and can be reached through the web site: