Interior Decorating Help: How to Work with Color
Working with Color in Interior Decorating

Color plays an important role in every style of design. Color is not only used on the walls and floors of a space, but also with accessories, furniture, and more. Color can set the tone for an environment and make a design successful.

Article overview:

  • The science of color

  • Color wheel

  • Primary and secondary colors

  • Customized color palette

  • Color qualities

  • Contrasting colors

  • Color psychology

  • Color and feng shui

  • Color finishes

  • Color in design styles

Here are some basic color elements you'll want to explore further if you choose to become an interior designer:

The Science of Color

Before you even begin to learn about colors, it is important that you have at least a basic knowledge of colors. Colors are merely light waves that have different lengths and heights. Different wavelengths are processed by the eye differently, resulting in the perception of color.

For example, the color red has a long wavelength, and the color blue has a short wavelength. If you were to stretch blue wavelengths out, the eye's perception of the color would change to red. For this reason, if you combine blue and red, you get a new color – purple – as the wavelengths make a compromise.

Color Wheel

If you are going to pursue a career in interior decorating, it is important to invest in a color wheel. A color wheel contains each of the colors of the rainbow, as well as different variations of the main colors. Your color wheel will not only serve as a reference as you look for complementary and contrasting colors, it will provide you with quick insight into which colors might be best for a particular space.

Primary and Secondary Colors

Primary and secondary colors create the foundation for all other colors. Any color can be created using only the primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. If you were to create a triangle out of these colors, with each color appearing on a point of the triangle, you'd find that by combining one color with the one directly next to it, you'll get a new color. The new color is a secondary color. Here's how to make the three secondary colors:

Red + blue = purple

Red + yellow = orange

Blue + yellow = green

You can create any color by adding different amounts of each of these primary and secondary colors together. If you were to add equal amounts of all of the primary colors, you would get the color white. If you were to take away all of the colors, you would get the color black. There are limitless color possibilities in between.

Customized Color Palette

Designers use color palettes with complementary or contrasting colors when selecting colors for a space.

Decorators often design customized color palettes for a project. The color scheme on the palette will include a family of colors that complement one another and create a sense of balance. Complementary colors are found next to each other on the color wheel.

Complementary color combinations include:
  • Red and purple

  • Red and orange

  • Yellow and orange

  • Yellow and green

  • Blue and green

  • Blue and purple

When decorating a space, it is wise to establish a color palette in the beginning of the project and then decorating with colors from that palette. For example, when using one color palette, wall colors would not only complement furniture colors, but different wall colors throughout a space would complement one another.

Color Qualities

In addition to the basic colors in a particular color palette, a palette will also include specific hues, saturations, and tones, which describe the value and quality of a color. Working with hues, saturations, and tones can become very involved, so it's important that if you pursue a career in interior design, you take time to learn in-depth about each of these characteristics.

Contrasting Colors

Designers learn which colors complement one another, and which colors contrast with one another early on in their careers. On your color wheel, contrasting colors are those colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel. Many primary colors and secondary colors contrast with one another.

Contrasting color combinations include:

  • Red and green

  • Red and blue

  • Purple and green

  • Purple and yellow

  • Blue and orange

  • Purple and orange

In some cases, you may want to design using contrasting colors to make objects or spaces stand out. For example, if you paint a room green, placing a red sofa in the room would help to feature the sofa and create a balance between the colors.

Color Psychology Many studies have been done about color psychology. Color psychology suggests that each color helps to create a certain mood and may have a specific effect on people. For example, some studies indicate the color blue helps to curb appetites, and that the color green can be calming.

Colors can have a psychological impact on an environment.

Here is general information about how each of the primary colors may impact the mind and body:

Red: Stimulating, can increase metabolism and lead to anxiety

Yellow: Creates nervousness, may improve concentration

Blue: Effective in alleviating pain, soothing

Color psychology may not only address specific colors, it may also address specific families of color. For example, pastel colors may lead to relaxation, while fiery colors may generate passion and energy.

Two basic color families are: cool colors and warm colors. Cool colors are those colors perceived as calming, which lead to tranquility and peace of mind. Warm colors are believed to stir emotions, which may include anything from anger, to comfort.

Color and Feng Shui

Feng shui is a style of design that relies heavily upon color psychology and the energy generated by different colors. It is wise for all interior designers and decorators to understand at least the basic elements of color psychology and feng shui in order to provide the best possible service to clients.

When designing a space, it is important to think about the impact that color will have on the space, based on how it will be used, and based on the preferences of your clients. For example, if a client wants a bedroom to be a quiet and relaxing retreat, then it may be best to avoid fiery colors, like red and gold.

Color Finishes

There are many different finishes for a particular color. The most basic finishes include:

Glossy: high level of sheen, easy to clean, less likely to absorb moisture. Commonly used in bathrooms, kitchens, and some types of furniture. Reflects light and may cause glare.

Satin: medium level of sheen, commonly used on moldings, built-in features, window frames, and many types of furniture. Moderately easy to clean. Reflects a moderate level of light.

Matte: no sheen, absorbs light and moisture, commonly used on walls. Unforgiving, as nicks and marks can be easily detected. Difficult to clean.

Each finish has a different functional purpose and aesthetic effect. For example, glossy paint might be the best paint finish for a bathroom, as it may be less likely to absorb moisture. A matte paint may be best for a living room, as it will absorb light, rather than reflect it back or cause glare on the walls.

Different design styles may incorporate different finishes in different ways. For example, modern designs may feature very glossy and colorful furniture, while bungalow designs may incorporate furniture painted with a satin finish.

Color in Design Styles
Many design styles have colors that are specific to that particular style. If you are designing in a particular style, it is important that you incorporate colors from that particular style into the design –and it is probably wise not to stray from those color palettes.
Design Codes

Article overview:

  • Codes

  • National and international codes

  • State codes

  • Interior design certification and licensing

  • Legislation and advocacy


Interior designers need to be familiar with the many codes and restrictions that inform their projects. Codes and restrictions are established and enforced by local, state, and federal agencies for the purpose of ensuring human safety.

The International Code Council (ICC) develops safety and fire codes that are implemented and regulated throughout the U.S. and the world.

Codes that designers may have to know include:

  • Accessibility Codes

  • Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations

  • Building Codes

  • Electrical Codes

  • Elevator Codes

  • Energy Codes

  • Existing Building Codes

  • Fire Codes

  • Fuel Gas Codes

  • Historic Preservation Codes

  • Hurricane Codes

  • HVAC Codes

  • International Building Codes

  • Mechanical Codes

  • Petroleum Codes

  • Plumbing Codes

  • Pool and Spa Codes

  • Residential / Dwelling Codes

  • Your State Codes

National and International Codes

Many codes developed by the International Code Council (ICC) have become international safety standards. maintains resources for international building codes and standards, as well. On this website, you can purchase a Code Check book, which contains essential codes you'll need to know to successfully complete a project. These books are endorsed by the ICC. Separate Code Check books are available for different types of codes, including:

  • Building codes

  • California state codes

  • Electrical codes

  • HVAC codes

  • Plumbing codes

NAFFA International is a clearinghouse for information about building codes. It maintains a database of codes, regulations, and agencies that support them. You'll find plenty of resources on this site, including news updates about codes, as well as forums where you can discuss building codes with others. NAFFA also provides checklists that may be helpful.

Twenty-six states and Canadian provinces require that interior designers obtain the NCIDQ certificate. To get this certificate, designers need to study government restrictions pertaining to design.

State Codes

Designers in every state must adhere to international and national design codes, as well as codes for their particular states and local regions. Because codes vary from state to state, some states require that designers get certified specifically for their state.

The National Conference of States on Building Codes and Standards (NCSBCS) is a national organization that provides a forum for building code and standard discussion and information-sharing. The organization also provides building regulatory expertise and education to members. NCSBCS maintains a database of building codes by state, which you can access from their website.

To give you an idea of the breadth of codes you will have to be familiar with if you pursue an interior design career in California alone, take a look through the Environmental Design Library at the UC Berkeley. It maintains a comprehensive list of building codes and regulatory resources for the state of California. You can access these resources online. The library also maintains a list of codes by location in California.

Here is a great resource for finding building codes for specific areas of the country. The database is grouped by state, then city, then by the type of code.

In addition to the ICC – or I-Codes – interior designers also need to be familiar with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and related requirements.

According to the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) – an international organization that provides certificates for qualified designers – designers are required to successfully complete the NCIDQ examination for professional registration in 26 states and Canadian provinces that have NCIDQ licensing or certification requirements.

Interior Design Certification and Licensing

Interior designers may use a wide variety of licenses and certifications, depending on which state they live in, their practice areas, and the effort they wish to commit toward getting licenses and certifications.

Interior designers often use their licenses and certifications as titles, along with their names. For example, when you receive an email from an interior designer, you might see initials like LEED or ASID after the name. These initials denote a particular license, certification, or professional affiliation.

Individual states may have unique requirements for certification. For example, the California Council for Interior Design Certification (CCIDC)certifies interior designers in California. Take a look at the CCIDC Administrative Rules and Regulations to get an idea of what you might need to know if you seek a CCIDC interior design certification in California.

Legislation and Advocacy
The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) not only helps to connect interior designers with one another and with design resources, but the organization also participates in interior design legislation and advocacy.