How to Design a Kitchen

Renovation shows make it look easy, but anyone who’s ever knuckled up to redesign a kitchen will tell you that it’s not an overnight process. Between permits, plumbing, and shipping delays, there’s no shortage of things that can go wrong, and that’s before you ever pick the tile for your kitchen backsplash. But since when has a little hurdle or intimidation stopped you from chasing your dreams?? Not then, not now! Just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean you can’t figure out how to do it. The good news is there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re going to help you see it.

No gatekeeping information. All the good (and bad), real stuff included.

Last updated
January 29, 2024
Table of Contents:
Step One

Make a plan

Image Credit: Plum (via Living Etc)

Your kitchen renovation is a lot like a wedding: if you’re lucky, you only do it once in a lifetime. And like a wedding, it’s also one of the most expensive renovation projects you can undertake. Lucky for you, it’s equally one of the most exciting projects you’ll ever do in your home.

Depending on whether you’re doing the work yourself (you brave soul you) or hiring contractors to make it happen, this process might vary slightly for you—but this first step applies to anyone: you have to make a plan.

Before you fully run off into interior design dreamland, remember that you need to balance beauty and function in the kitchen. What good will your kitchen be if it looks pretty at a glance but doesn’t have any storage or the optimal layout for your needs?

Your goal is to have the “perfect” kitchen (we put this in quotes because we all know there is no such thing as perfect) but also a functional kitchen that was designed with practicality in mind. Ask yourself what you need your kitchen to accomplish and create design elements that support that.

Nail down your inspiration and kitchen mood

If you don’t already have a vision for your kitchen, make a mood board of images that you’ve saved recently. The easiest way to find out what you love or don’t love about a space is by browsing through inspirational photos of different kitchen design ideas and mentally swiping yes/no on them as ruthlessly as you would on a dating app (we’re half kidding…). Then dig into what you like about each photo. Moody, black kitchens? Maybe you love them in other spaces but not yours. Stainless steel appliances? To your surprise, you don’t hate it. A bright, open kitchen floor plan? YES. Take note of what gets you excited and what gives you the ick, and stay as far away from the latter as possible.

EXPERT OPINION by
Hilah Stahl
"If you're having trouble nailing your kitchen inspiration, try this trick: Accumulate all of your inspirational photos, collage them all together, and start writing down any and all similarities you can find between the photos. Is it the open shelving in the kitchen? The natural light that seeps into the space? Maybe you lean more into the traditional kitchen style than the modern kitchen. By the end of that exercise, you should be able to tell what specific features are drawing you in."

Write a list of your must-haves and priorities

Once you have an idea of what you like stylistically, write down a list of things you want to have vs. things you need to have in your kitchen. Maybe you’re ready to retire from small spaces and want to open up your kitchen entirely for a big, communal gathering area while you cook for your guests. Or perhaps you don’t have too much space to change your kitchen layout, but you know you need more of a work surface to prepare meals. A kitchen island sounds right up your alley! While it’s a simple task, seeing everything down on paper will give you a clear vision of what you need to prioritize in order to get the best kitchen makeover.

Determine your budget

A lot of homeowners and renters cower at the thought of determining budgets, but this is ultimately what will set you up for the rest of your project. Even if you have a smaller budget, don’t let that limit you! Use your creativity to find a solution that will work for you and decide where you want to splurge vs. save. If you own your home and have more liberty to change significant features, you might decide that you want to spend more on the concrete kitchen sink you’ve been eyeing for months. As a renter, your money might be put toward more DIY projects like installing peel-and-stick tile in your kitchen.

PRO TIP: Use a budgeting tool to help you create your budget line items. Break it down by cabinetry, appliances, flooring, countertops, lighting, plumbing, electric, decor, and any other major categories that are relevant to your project. Then, determine whether the installation of these categories will be DIY’d by you or whether you’re going to pay someone else to do it. If you’re hiring contractors, make sure to add a field of labor costs. We recommend setting aside an extra 10% in case anything goes wrong, which you should mentally prepare to tap into. 🙂
Step Two

Design your layout

Image Credit: Caroline Osborn (via Spoak)

Beautiful spaces don’t happen by accident (unless you’re a magician with extremely good luck); they take time and lots of planning to come to life. They also take someone willing to look at two nearly identical paint swatches and decide which is superior. That someone, fellow reader, is you! While any design decision in your kitchen remodel can technically be undone or replaced, you’re spending a lot of time and money on this project, so your decisions should hold weight to them. (About as much weight as the granite countertops you have your eyes on…)

Consider your kitchen layout options and choose the best one

In order to determine what size appliances and kitchen cabinets (or lack thereof) you need, you’ll need to nail down your ideal kitchen layout first. Resist the urge to jump straight into decorating, as tempting as it may be, and find yourself a kitchen planner to test out your different kitchen layout ideas.

Start by identifying the different zones or areas you want to incorporate in your kitchen, such as the cooking area, prep area, storage area, and dining area. There’s no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen (🥁) unless you choose a layout that doesn’t suit your lifestyle.

Below are some of the most common kitchen layouts:

L-Shaped Kitchen

An L-shaped kitchen is exactly what it sounds like—a kitchen with two adjoining walls running perpendicular to each other to form an L. This is popular in a lot of homes and is great for entertaining since it leaves an open plan to the dining or living room typically. L-shaped kitchens have two workspaces, which is a big pro when you know you’ll have more than one person in the kitchen consistently.

U-Shaped Kitchen

A U-shaped kitchen is, you guessed it, shaped like a U, providing worktop space across three walls. This is the optimal layout for both small kitchens and large kitchens, guaranteeing a smooth work triangle.

PRO TIP: Let’s demystify the work triangle! The work triangle is an age-old concept that involves positioning the three main work areas in the kitchen—the sink, the stove, and the refrigerator—in a triangular formation. This allows for efficient movement and workflow in the kitchen with relative ease and minimal chaos (our preferred state when in the kitchen). 

Galley Kitchen

Galley kitchens are favored in small, narrow kitchen layouts. They provide two walls of workspace on opposing ends. Because of this, you’ll want to be mindful of where your appliances are installed to prevent any traffic jams in the kitchen. We recommend installing on opposing sides (for example: the stovetop/oven on the left wall and the fridge on the right wall) to have optimal kitchen space.

EXPERT OPINION by
Step three

Decision-making time

A kitchen product collage designed in Spoak

Bravo! Your kitchen layout is underway, and now it’s time to start deciding on what colors and materials you want to use and what other big-ticket items, like appliances or storage, you need.

Create a color palette to guide your next decisions

Never underestimate the power of a strong color palette. Your color palette will influence so many of the decisions you make from here on out! If you decide to paint your kitchen walls blue (which is great for creating a feeling of calm), then you’ll likely want to lean into a cool color scheme. If you think you want to go with lighter paint on the walls and bolder with your kitchen cabinet colors, make note of these things. You can always pair it up/down with your tile, flooring, or decor selections down the line.

Do your research on kitchen countertop materials

When it comes to countertop materials, the world is your oyster! Depending on how major your renovation is, you can use contact paper for a cosmetic upgrade or get a fully custom build. There’s a wide range of options from soapstone, butcher block, marble, granite, quartz, and beyond. Which option is best for you will depend on how you plan to use your kitchen.

If you’re looking for something that is beautiful and low maintenance, consider quartz countertops; they are durable, easy to clean, and offer a variety of veining that will have you oooh-ing and ahhh-ing almost as much as the pricey marble you love. If you want something you can cut your food on, you probably want butcher block over something like soapstone, which tends to scratch easily.

If you’re really feeling stuck on this decision, weigh out your options with a good ole pros and cons of each.

PRO TIP: When shopping around for countertop materials, ask for samples! All manufacturers have this option for you, and it’s usually free.

Decide on your hardware finish

Don’t overlook your kitchen hardware. Hardware is a huge touchpoint in homes, so choose something that is sturdy and shines just enough for your liking. For a contemporary kitchen look, choose stainless steel. For a space that leans traditional, try pewter or brass. Bronze will wear over time, pairing perfectly with a rustic-style kitchen.

Make sure you choose a finish that will complement your overall design style, not just what you think is most beautiful. When in doubt, you can always mix and match finishes. Word to the wise, try not to obsess on your faucet: it’s one of the easiest things to replace in your kitchen.

Think about your flooring

Flooring can make or break the look of a space. In kitchens, you ideally want to choose something that is durable and easy to clean. It doesn’t hurt if it looks good too. Below are some of the most popular flooring options, but like all things in design, feel free to carve your own path, even if it’s the road less traveled.

  • Hardwood flooring: Hardwood is a popular choice in kitchens, especially in the farmhouse design style or something rustic feeling. Although it’s not waterproof, it’s highly durable and can become water-resistant with certain finishing oils.
  • Engineered hardwood flooring: Engineered hardwood will get you the look of hardwood floors but with a protectant laminate on the top layer. This is waterproof and less likely to scratch up compared to real hardwood floors.
  • Tile flooring: Tile is extremely resistant in kitchens (and any other wet spaces) but can require some general upkeep over time.
EXPERT OPINION by
Daniela Araya
"If new flooring isn’t in the cards for you, but you still want to switch things up, try layering rugs in your kitchen to cover your original flooring up. Some might consider this a design faux pas, but I love the look of layered rugs to warm up a kitchen space."

Consider lead times for big-ticket items

Appliances can often take months to arrive. Having two working stoves won’t hurt you, but having one stove out while the other is still shipping means a lot of headache. Plan to order your major appliances as early as possible.

The same thing applies to any custom order, like handmade tile for your kitchen backsplash. Big-ticket items sometimes come with bigger lead times and price points. Mock up your kitchen plans with an online design tool to see items like appliances or tile in your space before they cost you an arm and a leg.

kitchen tile backsplash
Kitchen backsplash decision-making in Spoak; Image Credit: Daniela Araya

Whatever you do, don’t forget about cabinetry and storage

Not all cabinet transformations need to be expensive. Nowadays, there are many companies like IKEA and Semihandmade that offer unique solutions for getting kitchen cabinets that look good while on a budget. When in doubt, you can always ask our design community what they’ve done in the past.

When considering your cabinet options, keep storage top of mind. Storage is one of the most important things when it comes down to kitchen planning. You can get creative and rely on furniture or shelves to make sure you have enough space, but when it comes to having ample kitchen storage, you’ll want to bake it into your design plans if you have the flexibility to do so. Use built-in cabinets, pull-outs, and kitchen pantries to help you create your dream storage situation. If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then the kitchen pantry is what keeps the heart beating. 

Step Four

Start purchasing & building

Image Credit: Mel Fenning (via Spoak)

Whether you’re DIY-ing your kitchen renovation, getting a helping hand, or hiring a fully pro crew, this is where the action starts to happen. The most exciting part! Decisions have been made! Remember, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you start.

When you’ve decided on your major kitchen components, place your orders and enjoy the brief moment of pause between ordering and installation. If you’re managing your own renovation, consider using a project management tool that will help you keep all your lead times and ETAs in one place.

We always recommend referring to your installation manuals when installing kitchen items, and never hesitate to reach out to a professional if you have any questions. There’s no shame in asking for help.

EXPERT OPINION by
Step Five

Finishing touches

Image Credit: Haus Matter

You didn’t think the decision-making ended there, did you? Get ready for a few (or many) weekends browsing through your favorite design stores, searching for the perfect finishing touches. It’s time to put that big vase of flowers in the window, fluff the petals, and enjoy the results of your hard work.

Set the mood with your lighting

Light placement, intensity, and temperature can completely change the vibe of your kitchen. The last thing you want is to get your kitchen together and not like the way it looks under the lights. Go for ambient lighting in the kitchen to create a warm, hushed glow. Balance it out with task lighting by hanging a big pendant light over your kitchen island, for instance, to make sure you can actually see your work surface.

EXPERT OPINION by
Lisa Galano
“Every room should aim to have at least 2-3 sources of light to achieve a nice balance and that gorgeous ambient feeling. Don’t be afraid to throw in accent lighting in the kitchen. Even if it’s purely decorative, it still makes the space feel nice and cozy, like your favorite dimly lit restaurant.”

Add decorative elements to top it all off

The devil is in the details. Add the finishing touches to your new kitchen and get into interior styling mode by:

  • Replacing your dish towels. It’s a cheap upgrade that’ll make the new experience feel a little more luxurious.
  • Adding any non-functional decorations. Want to hang signs? Have a vision of magnet art? Your kitchen is finally yours—now make it feel like it with hand-picked decorations.
  • Using your favorite fabric to make a custom window treatment for your kitchen window. Cafe curtains are the perfect touch of whimsy in a kitchen.
  • Grabbing a large pizza from the closest pizza joint on your final night. You’ve worked hard, celebrate with a well-deserved night off. We recommend cheese with basil. 🍕
Great things take time. Even better things take an email.
Not ready to start designing yet? Sign up for our email list today to get regular updates on our latest and greatest design content. No spam, scout’s honor.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Please fill out all form fields before submitting.
Our mission is to make interior design easier and more enjoyable for everyone. 
Join Now
Start DesigningJoin Spoak