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Small, Medium, Large ... the Key to Good Design

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

I have a friendly challenge for you. There’s no prize at the end other than a growing awareness of what constitutes good design. The challenge is to view images through the lens of scale and proportion. The next time you’re looking at shelter magazines or online, home-design and decorating sites, try to identify the small, medium and large elements in the space. Also, try to note in which order you identify them. What? It’s better if I explain with an example.

Let’s say you’re looking at a beautiful bedroom in Elle Décor magazine. (Let’s assume it truly is beautiful and not featured because the designer is a blood relative of the editor.) Even if the actual style is not your cup of tea, you still appreciate it. What makes this bedroom a design success? I guarantee that the answer lies, in large part, to the designer’s use of scale and proportion. There are small, medium and large components in the room.

To explain further, the room is successful if you first notice it as a whole, in its entirety. You next notice the furnishings and then, lastly, zoom in on the accessories. If your eye looks at the space in this order, from large (the overall room) to medium (the most significant pieces) to small (the accents), it is well-designed.

Look at the image again and dive deeper. Notice the use of color. There are probably three that you can easily identify. Blue and white with yellow, or beige and white with black, or dark green and light green with silver, for instance. Whether the colors are in fabrics, rugs, paint, or furniture, and whether patterned or solid, one color will be dominant, the second will be used to a lesser degree, and the third will be used as a little punctuation.

Speaking of patterns and solids, scale and proportion also apply when selecting fabrics. As an example, this bedroom might have large floral draperies and matching bedding. The upholstered headboard, chaise, bench, or rug could then be solid or a small pattern. There might then be an accent piece with a medium stripe. The idea is not to have two patterns the same size. When in doubt, use a solid – solids can be used multiple times.

Take a look at the accessories. It is likely that there are different groupings of small, medium and large objects – usually noted in their heights. Does a pair of matching vases (same height, color and pattern) contradict what I’m saying? No, because I’m fairly certain that they’re on a dresser and flank a mirror. Or, they’re on nightstands and flank a bed. In these cases, the entire vignette, the dresser and mirror (or nightstands and bed), and the vases are the large, medium and small components (in that order) that I’ve been describing.

You can apply this principle of good design to anything. Try it when you next look at the architecture of a building, classical art, or a landscape. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll start applying it to everything – even the cover of Elle Décor magazines. These covers usually grab one’s attention with a photo of a room. That’s the “large”. If the cover’s color is the next noticeable characteristic, then the text would be the accent. It’s also possible that the reverse is true where the text takes up more space than the color. Either way, these are the “medium” and “small” attributes.

To take this exercise further, look at the text. I’d bet a year’s subscription that there are three sizes, three different colors and three different fonts. There’s a good chance that there’s even more variety but they fit into the three basic categories – small, medium, and large. How can I be so sure? Because Elle Décor is a beautifully, well-designed magazine and, ipso facto, recognizes the value of good scale and proportion.

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