How to Design a Living Room

Want to create a living room that looks like it was designed by a pro? We have a spoiler for you: If you have the creativity and home improvement show consumption under your belt, you don’t need design qualifications to make it happen. You heard it here first, folks!! 

Our five-step guide of design tips will walk you through how to make your big living room ideas come to life. And remember, every interior design misstep is just another opportunity for a good laugh. Try not to get too tripped up over how much you know vs. don’t know and just jump in to do your thing.

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

Establish your foundation

Image Credit: Homes to Love

They say the kitchen is the heart of the home, but we think the living room (or the family room) comes pretty close. Between endless days cozying up on the sofa, movie nights, and everything in between, creating a living room that you love will be the gift that keeps on giving. There’s an endless amount of living room ideas out there, so we recommend starting with the basics and establishing your foundation (think inspiration, inventory, color direction) before getting started. 

Find your design style inspiration

We love to champion individuality and unique design perspectives, but if we’re being honest, we’re not big on labels. We don’t often cite design trends or styles because they make us feel pigeonholed (and we all know we are more than just one thing!), but we’re mentioning it here because understanding design styles can be a helpful guide to educating you on what you do or don’t love—especially if you’re starting from scratch.

Flip through your favorite interior design magazines to find living room decor ideas that speak to you. Your inspiration can be less literal and more descriptive too, like the snug feeling you get when you walk into your neighborhood’s dimly lit cafe.

Once you have a decent amount of inspirational images saved, make a mood board, and start writing down what you love about each photo. Is it older furniture whose paint is chipping that looks like it’s lived many lives? Or hardware with the perfect amount of patina? If you answered yes to those questions, then you probably love antique and vintage furniture. If you lean more “out with the old, in with the new,” then maybe you want a more contemporary or modern living room. 

PRO-TIP: If you still can’t pinpoint what inspires you or what your design style is, take our interior design style quiz. We designed it to help you better understand what the blend of your home and personality is. 
living room mood board mid-century modern
A living room mood board designed by Courtney White

Take inventory of what you have

If you’re starting this home design completely fresh, then there might not be much inventory to take, but if you’re re-designing your space, chances are you have more furniture and living room decor than you can count. Take inventory of everything you have in your living room—the good, the bad, and the things you are on the fence about—and ask yourself what you can donate or sell. Decluttering your living room will free up space (and give you more budget if you do sell) to incorporate new home decor pieces that you love.

EXPERT OPINION by
Natalie Ron
"There's always more you can declutter at home, and donating whatever you decide to let go of is a great way to feel good about letting go of your belongings."

Determine your room’s purpose & focal point

Before you start designing your new living room, you want to get to the bottom of what it will be doing for you, aka defining its purpose. Will it be used for entertaining? Do you need a pull-out sofa for guests who spend the night? Or maybe you need your living room to double as a home office because you work a remote job. Whatever the purpose of your room is will dictate your design decisions to come—like a focal point!

A focal point is pretty much what it sounds like—an area that your eye naturally focuses on in a room. Every room in your home, whether it’s a living room, bedroom, or dining room, should have a focal point. The more the merrier, as long as they’re not competing against each other. 

If there’s no obvious focal point already in your living room (like a fireplace), it’s time to create one and find the star of the show. That stunning stone coffee table you’ve been losing sleep over? Let your friends and family lose sleep over it, too, and make it your living room’s It Girl.

Go big, go bold, and most importantly, go for something that sparks joy when you accidentally stub your toe on it.

Play with color schemes and palettes

Always use color to your advantage. Your color scheme can make your room feel like a serene oasis or a chaotic carnival. In all seriousness, choose your colors wisely and lean on color psychology to tell you how your room will actually make you feel.

Neutral tones offer a minimalist, calming vibe, while bold colors bring energy and personality. The key is to choose a palette that resonates with you, even if that means pairing pastels with neon accents for an eclectic carnival vibe. 🎪 (Don't be surprised if your guests leave with an unexpected craving for cotton candy.)

PRO-TIP: When in doubt, turn to the 60-30-10 rule in design. It suggests that, when designing a room, you should pick three core colors and then distribute them in those three percentages to keep the palette balanced. In other words, 60% will be the dominant color (likely a neutral, though certainly not always!), 30% will be something a bit bolder, and 10% will be the accent color (often the boldest color).

cool color palette
Color palette created by Ally Schellong (via Spoak)

Keep in mind that your color palette doesn’t have to mean bright paint colors on the walls; you can do a neutral (or white wall) and let the brighter, dominant colors shine through a piece of art or books on your bookcase. 

Step Two

Visualize it

Image Credit: Brittany Preister (via Spoak)

Take a breather, and then roll your sleeves up because it’s time to visualize what everything will look like in your space. While planning what your living room layout will look like might not sound as exciting as sourcing and styling, we promise it can be just as fun.

Create your room’s layout

Layout planning is one of the biggest, most satisfying creative challenges of interior design. So, we hate to break it to you, but it doesn’t make sense for us to get in the business of telling you exactly how to do it because that misses the point entirely! One thing you’ll need to get started is measurements (check ‘em twice! Three times if you need to!)

Once you have those measurements handy, input them directly into a floor planner tool to create a to-scale floor plan, or layout, of your room. This will help you visualize your room’s layout and plan your furniture layout precisely—and it’s a very important step if you have a small living room (looking at you, New York apartments!).

PRO-TIP: If your living room resembles more of a postage stamp than a massive estate, try not to stress, it can be a fun design challenge. Get creative about bringing in furniture pieces that have dual uses. A sectional sofa can offer ample seating and hidden storage compartments for all those things you can't find a proper place for.

Visualize your space through a mock-up

Now that you’ve nailed down your living room layout, it’s time to start visualizing your space through a mock-up. Find an easy-to-use rendering tool that will let you see what your living room looks like in the blink of an eye.

EXPERT OPINION by
Hilah Stahl
"Use your mock-up as a digital scratchpad to test different living room design ideas. Play around with your seating area, move your sofa(s) around, rinse, and repeat until the space feels just right. Create as many different options as you want so you can get a good comparison of what everything will look like in your space."
Step three

Source, purchase, install

Image Credit: Studio DIY

It’s time to drop until you drop… er, we mean, shop until your budget tells you can’t anymore. We didn’t include budgeting as a step here but know that you’ll need to create one to keep you on track with your purchases. A good project management and budgeting tool will do the work for you and pay itself off.

Now, let’s talk about what else you might need to “Add to Cart.” 

Throw in an accent chair and table (or two)

If you weren’t able to splurge on an XL sofa, try sprinkling in an accent chair and side table to add extra seating and more conversational zones to your living room. When you have guests come over, the function of your design lends space for enjoying each other's company.

Don’t forget to go bold with the style and patterns of your accent furniture. Who said your living room furniture can't be both posh and eclectic? You make the rules!

DIY a gallery wall

Add in wall decor, but make it personal. It takes time to curate a solid art collection, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t have big pieces. You can start small. 🙂 Use personal mementos and photographs as artwork. Frame a letter that a good friend sent you. Press florals in a new picture frame. Or skip the new frame altogether! Pick whatever's on sale or at the thrift store—mismatched frames add character.

EXPERT OPINION by
Lisa Galano
"Placing your art 60” up from the ground to the center of the wall art piece is a good number to start when hanging your artwork. You can eyeball it from there to see what feels right. If you’re placing art above furniture, a good range is between 10”-18” from the top of the furniture piece. Again, use your eye to determine the best placement. Your design eye knows what’s best!"

Use built-in bookshelves for storage and style

Bookshelves are the lovechild of functionality and aesthetics in a living space. Use them for storing your ever-growing coffee table book collection or displaying your favorite knick-knacks. Bookshelves can be particularly useful in small spaces where you want to utilize vertical space to make things feel less cramped. If your style leans mid-century modern, emphasize that with beautiful floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves and create that perfect lived-in library look a la Frank Lloyd Wright.

Step Four

Make it cozy

Image Credit: Giovana Mantovani

The key to making your space feel cozy is by adding in texture, and a whole lot of it. 

Layer in rugs and other textiles

Hardwood floors are beautiful, but let's be real, keeping them scratch-free is difficult—and layering area rugs is like giving your feet a vacation. You can add area rugs in your living room to help differentiate areas in the space or, even better, make it feel warm and inviting. The more layers, the cozier—it's a scientific fact!

PRO-TIP: If it’s possible, try and have all of your furniture pieces “live” on the rug in your living room. If your rug doesn’t really allow for that, then at least have the front legs atop the rug. This will make sure your furniture doesn’t look like it’s floating in the room.

Your sofa and chairs could use some texture too! Throw cushions and blankets around like confetti. Use upholstery to give your seating options an extra oomph to them. Your living room should be so cozy that hibernation becomes a viable life choice.

Create a lighting plan to warm things up

We don’t want to be dramatic, but lighting is one of the most essential aspects of good design. The right lighting can promote productivity, comfort, and relaxation—all things you want to achieve in a living room. It can also help define spaces, create intention, and even bring people together.

To be frank: Lighting is the queen of ambiance. 

PRO-TIP: More light is not always better! It’s about quality, not quantity. In a living room, make sure you have at least 2-3 light sources to create the perfect glow. You can mix overhead lighting, like a chandelier, with decorative light fixtures, like table lamps and floor lamps, and wall lights through sconces. Whatever you do, please always use warm lightbulbs (your guests will thank you).

Take note of the natural lighting in your living room. If you get too much lighting in one area of the room, you can use window treatments to dim out certain spots.

EXPERT OPINION by
Step Five

Add in final touches

Image Credit: SFGirlByBay

At this point, your living room is well on its way to being the cozy, safe haven you’ve always dreamed of. Now it's time to add those personal touches and do some zhuzhing. Put flowers on your coffee table, display your favorite oddly shaped tapered candles in a colorful vase, karate chop your throw pillows. It's not clutter—it’s called styling, people!

Don’t forget to keep things harmonious

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we’re all for championing individuality, so if balance is not your name, that is okay! Generally speaking, though, every piece of furniture and decor you’ve selected, every color choice you’ve made, it should all play together harmoniously. It's the Goldilocks approach to living room design: not too much, not too little, just right. Your living room should echo that. 

If we can leave you with one final sentiment, it’s that we’re not striving for perfection; we’re striving to create a space that makes you sit back, relax, and maybe question your design choices. 😉

EXPERT OPINION by
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