Published on August 11, 2018

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Aaron Bengochea

Despite all the hours spent watching your favorite design shows, scrolling through the most inspo-worthy Instagram accounts, and pinning trendy rooms to Pinterest boards, we can’t all quite call ourselves interior designers just yet. And honestly, that’s okay. Designing your first place on our own can seem like a daunting task, and making mistakes is part of the learning process. Even if you are no longer in your 20s and have stopped buying regrettably large or inexpensive furniture and are still looking for ways to get rid of your non-adult decor, we’re all prone to making a few design decisions we wish we could take back.

But in an effort to avoid some of those errors, we polled a few of our favorite designers for their expert advice. With their experience,  they shared some of the most common first-time design mistakes, plus tips on how you can avoid them. Take a look.

DO: Set up a plan

Take it from designer Jacquelyn Clark: “Don’t ever start anything without establishing a solid game plan. “It can be all too easy to dive in and start buying things willy-nilly when you begin decorating your first place, but taking inventory of what you have, what you need, and what you want is a great place to begin planning. There are also tons of resources online worth looking into if you’re feeling overwhelmed or totally don’t know where to start.

If you’re tackling your very first place, try looking for something like this first apartment checklist or, if renovations are in your design future, here are a few things you should know before you get started. Map out what you want and how you’re going to achieve that. Are you starting from scratch? Just looking for a fresh update? Do you have a budget you’re trying to stay within or certain pieces you’re aiming to design around? It’s all about smart, strategic planning, which will save you the headache (and design regrets) later.

DO: Take scale into account

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Designer Katrina Blair Sullivan says, “Buying a piece of furniture or rug that’s too large or too small can throw the look of the room off.” If you don’t where to start on scaling, Heather Bullard suggests doing some spatial planning by measuring and laying out rooms and furnishings—specifically by using an online tool or grid paper to make sure whatever you put in the room fits and flows with the space. Even our design pros never leave the house without a tape measure and their room’s dimensions on-hand, so keeping in mind your space’s square footage should really be one of the first things you take into account. And it doesn’t just apply to furniture, for example, having an area rug that is too large or too small for a space can have a huge impact on your living room. Here, a Domino writer talks about how the difference selecting low-profile and smartly-scaled furniture made in his tiny space.

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Aaron Bengochea

If you’re shopping online, state-of-the-art tools and technology are your friends. There are now lots of smart design apps that use augmented reality to help you visualize the way a certain piece of furniture or decor will look in our space. Just be mindful: you’ll still want to check out those dimensions before you go ahead and place the order.

DO: Stick to a budget

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of a new design venture, but there’s also something to be said about creating a realistic budget and sticking to it. If you’ve already set aside an amount or populated your automatic savings so that you can afford a splurge or two, go for it. If not, there are plenty of affordable places to shop for home decor—even mid-range shops that aren’t Ikea— that are worth a browse. When you make a conscious effort to stick within your means, you’re that much less likely to have buyers remorse. It’s all about balance.

DON’T: Rush into the design

Even though it can be tempting to snatch up the first furniture items that catch your eye, it’s important to take your time and find the pieces that really speak to you. Amber Lewis believes some of the best finds are discovered when you’re not looking for them. “Trust me, this is a process that takes time. I truly scour every inch of the planet to find the right pieces for my clients. Patience is key!” she says.

Shavonda Gardner agrees. The SG Style blogger says, “I think the biggest mistake first-time decorators make is rushing it. Trying to decorate a space before living in it for a while can be costly and frustrating. Once you get a feel for the space and how you use it and how you need it to work for you then start investing in decorating it. That way you make intentional purchases that will be long-lasting. ”

DON’T: Buy everything from the same place

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Courtesy of Ikea

Yelp’s Home Editor, Lauren Makk, an interior designer and real estate expert, makes a valid point in saying that your home shouldn’t look like a showroom. Instead of snatching up everything that’s on sale at Ikea because you need to get furniture in a room, curate your pieces from different retailers, thrift or antique shops, and local hotspots.

 “Once you get a feel for the space and how you use it and how you need it to work for you then start investing in decorating it. That way you make intentional purchases that will be long-lasting. “

DON’T: Play it too safe

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Cody Guilfoyle

Sarah Wittenbraker says, “I think first-time decorators play it too safe. Don’t be afraid to make a statement. Dip your toe by selecting a bold paint color. It’s easy to change and instantly gives the room a dramatic vibe.”

To that same point, often times when approaching the design of your first space, it seems easiest to make everything match. Stephanie Watkins of CasaWatkins notes that this is a classic first time decorating mistake: “Furniture, pillows, or art doesn’t have to match. Mixing items can grant you longer usage since old items can coordinate with newer pieces. Definitely, a mistake I’ve made myself.”

Domino digital editor, Anna Kocharian can relate. She names one of her top design regrets as taking those matching colors too far. “I tend to go overboard with the monochrome look and don’t use enough color in my space,” she says. “Even though I know there should be a delicate balance between the two, it’s hard to resist.”

When it comes to taking risks with design, we get that it can be daunting. But the important part to remember here is that your space can evolve with you, so nothing is too permanent. Adding punches of color and personality can diversify your monochrome, all-white room.  Even if it’s starting with a few vibrant throw pillows, there’s something to be said about a space that feels a little less cookie-cutter and a little more avant-garde.

DON’T: Make too many bold statements

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Cody Guilfoyle

Claire Zinnecker is the queen of pared-down design. Take her advice and don’t try to make too many bold statement moves in one room. “Edit, edit, edit!” she says. “Let your eye be able to rest in a space.”

Joy Cho of color-friendly Oh Joy! Agrees. Though it can be tempting to go with a dark, bold color just because it was a named the trendy, color of the year, think first about what will work best with the space and furniture you have. “Some people often go very bold with color when trying to make a change,” says Cho. “Whereas instead, they should look to wall colors that will complement, but not overwhelm, the room and bring in additional color through accessories.”

DO: Think about your lifestyle needs

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Aaron Bengochea

Last but not least, think about and envision yourself actually living in the space. This isn’t a magazine page or Pinterest board. Robin Wilson makes an excellent point by saying that many first-time decorators do not listen to their clients (or their own) needs when it comes to lifestyle.

“They’ll suggest things that will not work for an active family (light rugs or upholstery) or serious cooks (white marble),”  says Wilson. “And they forget that the foundation of the home (roof, flooring, plumbing, structure) should be done first, because it does not matter how pretty it is if there is a leak spot on the ceiling.”

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Aaron Bengochea

Tackling decor, determining your style, and finding what will work in the space and with your life can be a lot to consider when it comes to turning your space into a home. But it’s definitely worth taking the time to think about what you want to accomplish before you dive into the design process. Instead of making these mistakes yourself, learn from them.

For interior and textile designer Caitlin Wilson, designing her own Portland home was a feat that involved planning and learning. “Even for a designer, the entire process is a labor of love,” she says. “It takes time and layers and strategic solutions, but it can be done—even if you’re on a budget.”

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Aaron Bengochea


“Even for a designer, the entire process is a labor of love. It takes time and layers and strategic solutions, but it can be done—even if you’re on a budget.”

Get more helpful tips from the design pros:

8 Design Questions You’ve Always Wanted to Ask, Answered
Designers Dish On Their First Apartment Must-Haves
9 Trends Designers Are Secretly Craving Right Now

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