Our Step-by-Step Guide to Making Your Dream Room Design a Reality

The Real Simple Method of decorating will help you navigate a redesign.

decorated living room

Jay Wilde

We’ve asked a lot of ourselves and our homes in the last few years. Family rooms became classrooms; dining rooms are now offices. Work-life balance has been tested, and family togetherness redefined. These happenings, some in our collective rear view and others enduring, mean the most important rooms in our homes are due for renewal. (Like us, they’ve been through a lot.)

You may find yourself examining your spaces with not only new eyes but also new needs—and perhaps a desire for a well-earned fresh start. Knowing you want change is one thing, but figuring out where to begin—and how to finish—is where it can feel daunting.

The Real Simple Method isn’t about chasing trends or buying a leopard-print sofa because someone said you should. It’s about finding your personal style (which can actually be an enjoyable process) and bringing it into your home a little...or a lot.

Getting It Done

Small changes can offer big results. A family room can feel entirely fresh if you simply rearrange the furniture, hang new window treatments, and bring in a throw blanket and some pillows that make you feel good. One step further might be painting an accent color on one wall. Or maybe you’d finally like to add built-ins for a home office setup and a media center. Perhaps now is the time for the sink-into-it sectional that fits your growing family.

Regardless of your budget or timeline, start by identifying your room’s decorating hero—whether it’s a piece of art that deserves pride of place or an amazing textile you brought home from travels years ago. Or maybe your hero is adding essential storage and shelves to properly display your book collection. Or it could be a dining table that can withstand laptops, crayons, and pasta dinners. This element can both inspire and inform an entire transformation—from color scheme to furniture layout to final flourishes.

The path to invigorated spaces can be surprisingly simple or delightfully involved, whether you tackle it on your own or bring in professionals—or both. You can follow design rules or break with them and go with your gut or a wild whim. Simply put: Your home is yours.

With insights from design pros, we’ve created three basic phases of redecorating to help you reimagine rooms that suit your needs now, and into the future.

Get Inspired:

Gather ideas for room updates from digital sources, like Houzz and Pinterest, or decorating magazines and home furnishing brands' websites.


Jay Wilde

Step 1: Assess and Envision

Give yourself time to peruse, plan, and play, and let colors, layouts, and ideas swirl.

Narrow Your Focus

Changing up unrelated rooms all at once can lead to decision overload, diluting your efforts and delaying completion of any of them. “Focus on one room, and finish it before moving onto the next space,” advises Chicago-based interior designer Paula Rodriguez.

Contemplate the Space

Getting started begins with questions: Will the purpose of the room remain the same, change entirely, or combine different needs? “Who will use the room and how it will be used goes into the design,” says Rodriguez.

Embrace Reality

How do you and your family live in the space? Do you need places to stash things for easy pickup? Do you have kids or pets (or both) and need washable surfaces and hard-wearing fabrics?

Consider Budget

Think about what you can take on before you dive in. If you’ve dreamed of new French doors but the cost swallows your budget in one gulp, new window treatments can bridge the gap for now. “There’s relief in changing direction when it’s not proving attainable and redirecting your money and energy to exactly what is,” says design-build contractor Daniel Kanter.

Assemble Your Team

An interior designer will help with room layout as well as furniture and fabric choices. A carpenter can add architectural details, a wall of built-ins, or a window seat. An upholsterer can give your furniture a new lease on life.

Shop Really, Really Local

Before buying new items, tour your home and take stock of what could be reinvented for your refreshed space. Could that antique sideboard live a new life as a media console? Do you have artwork—old favorites, a quirky postcard, a child’s sketch—that can be framed (or reframed) and put together into a wall of visual delight? “Those unique pieces bring history, personality, and context to a space,” says architect Allison Hogue.


Adam Albright

Step 2: Gather and Consider

Get out your tape measure, order samples, and visit stores, zeroing in on what will bring your vision to life.

Play With Layout

Think about what a new furniture arrangement can provide: access to a view you love, a larger dining table, a corner reading nook. Online design tools abound, but paper and tape is still a terrific way to play. Or use painter’s tape to mark dimensions on the floor and get a better sense of what furniture will fit.

Finesse With Fabric

Bringing in new window treatments, upholstery, or pillows? Choose a “hero fabric” as a starting point for the entire space and then select a couple others that share some characteristic. “Generally, the hero fabric is the most impactful pattern,” says designer Sarah Richardson. “If it has multiple colors, I use it as a tool to pull together all the other colors in the palette, then I like to combine a variety of patterns and designs,” she explains. “A combination of large, medium, and small patterns, plus a few solid textures, will help create a layered and dynamic finished scheme.” Visit fabrics stores or order samples to pull a selection together.

Look Up

Ceilings are increasingly getting the attention they deserve. It’s an opportunity to get creative, often with an unexpected dash of color. “Pale blue, yellow, and pink cast a flattering glow,” says interior designer Courtney McLeod. A flat finish will hide imperfections, but she recommends high-gloss paint to truly bring your ceiling to new heights.

Think About Wallpaper

It’s on the rise—up the walls and on the ceiling—and it can inform your entire space. Patterns are nearly endless, in old-school mount and newer peel-and-stick. “Pull out the smallest color and use it as the most prominent color for the sofa, rug, or window treatments,” says McLeod. “This helps focus the eye on the subtleties of the wallpaper and creates a cohesive design.”

Add Architecture

Enhancing walls with molding or other architectural elements is easier and more affordable than you may realize, whether that means a weekend DIY project or hiring a carpenter. “Architectural detail can add visual texture and subtle pattern,” says Kanter. Your inspiration photos may already include great examples of board-and-batten or a free-form geometric design made out of flat trim.

Get Stuff Out the Door

With visions of the space taking shape, plan for items you want to sell or donate (online swap groups, curb alerts, and local charities make this easy).

Free Advice

Many home furnishings companies offer in-house (or remote) design services to their customers at no cost. This is a great opportunity to have a professional help you with your space. From creating a floor plan (some even in 3-D) to suggesting fabrics and accent pieces from their collections, professionals who know the possibilities of their products best can pull your space together. (Keep in mind, they probably won’t assess your whole room unless you are buying multiple pieces.) If you prefer to fly solo, the websites of your favorite home stores often have “get inspired” galleries that showcase, room by room, their furnishings in finished spaces.

Step 3: Fine-Tune and Commit

You’ve determined what will make the transformation a reality. It’s time to make your final decisions and create your action plan.

Swatch Your Paint

Once you’ve zeroed in on a color family, swatch up to three paint samples at a time, each in three locations: by windows, doorways, and floors. “And surround with white, not the existing paint color,” recommends Rodriguez. Lighting matters too. “Observe at different times of the day, natural morning light into late afternoon,” says color consultant Jody Suden.

The Gift of a Color Consultant

Picking paint can be the most frustrating element of designing a room. You find the perfect shade, but the sample on the wall isn’t even close, or it looks OK in daylight and all wrong at night. Enter the color consultant. Paint is all they do—they’re supremely skilled in color theory and the forces in each space that play upon it. “I pull out the secrets of the fan deck to give my clients what’s in their mind’s eye,” says Jody Suden, a New Jersey-based consultant. The affordable little secret? They charge by the hour or by the room, so it may cost less than you’ll spend swatching 11 shades of gray in your living room, trying to get it right.

Float Your Furniture

Floating furniture away from walls is a game changer. “It gives it room to breathe, creates shadow lines, and allows the eye to see the contours of the piece, which can ultimately make a room feel roomier,” says architect Allison Hogue. She recommends seven inches off the wall for a great effect.

Call, Order, Drop-off

Finalize the items that may take time to arrive and place orders. Take your grandmother’s chaise and the new fabric to the upholsterer. Take art to the framers, whether for framing or custom mats for stock frames. Schedule the painters.

Let It Evolve

You don’t need to have every last piece pinned down to have your vision realized. There is joy in adding and subtracting as it suits you. Our homes can change right alongside the people who inhabit them.

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