Creating Good Scale & Proportion in Design

October 08, 2017

 The elements of design include:

  • Scale
  • Proportion
  • Balance
  • Rhythm
  • Emphasis
  • Harmony

There is a close relationship between scale and proportion: Scale usually refers to two or more pieces of furniture, fixtures or equipment and their relative size in comparison to one another.  Proportion refers to the size relationship of the components within a single piece to one another and the whole.  The secret to scale and proportion is a mixture of different heights, shapes and sizes to help the room look good: not too stuffed and not naked, either.


One of the objectives in interior design is to choose furnishings that are in scale with one another.  This implies a similarity of objects in overall dimensions or in mass (density), in pattern, or in other forms of visual weight.  When items within a space are not in scale with one another, they are not appropriate or harmonious selections. Scale deals with actual and relative size and visual weight.  It’s generally categorized as small (light), medium, large (heavy), or grand (extra-large.)

Although the actual dimensions of two pieces may be similar, one may be visually heavier in scale than the other because of its weight or mass and the selection of material.  For instance, a “ghost chair” (below left) and a similarly-sized upholstered dining chair made of wood, pictured below that are not considered the same scale, because one can see through the chair on the left, thereby visually scaling it down by comparison.




Pattern and ornamentation...

...also visually determine scale.  A pattern with large motifs may appear visually heavy or even grand, while a pattern with the same overall dimensions filled with small motifs and empty spaces between them will appear smaller-scaled overall. 


...can also affect our view of scale.  Bright bold colors will appear larger than light or pastel ones.  To a lesser extent, warm colors such as yellow, orange and red and pink will appear larger than cool hues such as blue, some violets and aqua even when their tint, tone and shade are equal in value.

The scale...

...or mass, of architecture will often determine the size of furnishings: smaller scale furnishings are used in smaller interiors and large-scale furnishings are used in large or lofty interiors.  This guideline can be ignored when one desires a dramatic or exciting affect, like a large sectional in a small living area.  It also makes the space feel even smaller, however.  Using a small scale in a large interior space might look tailored and may visually expand the space even further.


Probably the most important matter when selecting pieces is that both very large and very small scale often makes people feel a bit awkward.  Scale is most appropriate when it fits and complements the average human form.  If you feel like Edith Anne, the character Lily Tomlin played years ago on TV, then the chair is too big.

On the other hand, if you feel like the piece of furniture you are trying to sit on belongs in a child's playroom, “Houston, there’s a problem!”






Proportion also deals with the shapes and forms and their dimensions.  When a sofa’s seat, arms, back or base are in appropriate size relationship to one another, it is said to be in good proportion.  The evaluation of proportion is based on ratios, and the final test is function: can you and others sit comfortably on the couch?  If a dining room table is more than 42” wide, it becomes difficult to pass food across it.
Much of our beliefs about pleasing proportions have come from the ancient Egyptians, and later the classical Greeks.  Golden proportion refers to a line (horizontal or vertical) being divided in two unequal parts somewhere between one-half and one-third.  Examples include a chair rail on a wall, a tie-back on a drapery.
A golden section (or the Fibonacci spiral) refers to proportions of more than two parts in a given piece.  The progressions: 3 to 5 to 8 to 13 to 21 and so on are considered pleasing ratios or proportions.  Much of what we learn about proportion comes from studying historic architecture, furnishings, and great works of art.  


Here's an example of 3 to 5 ratio.


In conclusion
Did you imagine that there’s so much to designing a space?   What questions do you have related to this or the other Principles of Design?  We’d love to receive your photos of a room that feels (or never feels) just right.   Next week we'll discuss another principle, Balance. Check out this website at  if you need help with your space.  We always make time for our readers.


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