Understanding Design

The downside of being an interior designer is that no one wants to have me to their place. “I could never have you over to my house! You’re an interior designer! I’m afraid you’ll judge me.” Of course I’ll judge you – for about 5 seconds. Everybody judges everybody, whether it’s the car you drive, your choice of dog companion (we have a Chihuahua), a body that stops traffic, a cute outfit, great hair, or even my personal weakness — shoes!

Look, I don’t do what you do. Whether you’re a bartender or an attorney, what you do isn’t my calling. Interior design is my calling and my passion. It’s all I do every day and I’ve been blessed to do it for many years. I appreciate that your interests lie elsewhere, and that you may be intimidated by the process. After all, it’s unreasonable to be expected to be fabulous in every aspect of life!

As a designer, my job is to teach clients about design and guide them on how to make the wisest choices while considering everything from lifestyle and architecture to budget. The ultimate goal is to create that intangible feeling of delight we have as we enjoy our homes and have a place that we love. And more importantly, to create a home that we would be proud to share with anyone.

The fastest way to get into trouble when designing a place is by not knowing what you want. Aside from the wealth of choices that make our heads spin, we may be unaware of the solution right in front of our faces. This lack of knowledge slows us down and usually means mistakes and a project that is far over budget. The best way to avoid this is by doing a little homework. The more we know, the better the choices we make. With that in mind, here is a primer on how to get started creating a game plan:


I grew up with a household that had lots of stuff. We weren’t hoarders, but clutter tended to rule in most rooms. As a result, I like stuff. I am my mother’s son, and my partner and I have knocked heads about all the knick knacks. He was a minimalist until he met me and is now reformed. So, start by asking yourself, “What grabs me?” Is it spare and modern? Traditional and refined? Casual and worn? Colorful? Neutral? How do you live now? Are you tidy and put away or do you like a more rumpled lived-in place? While the questions may seem endless, don’t get discouraged if the answer doesn’t appear right away. Design is an evolutionary process, and the more you know the better your choices will be.


The best place to begin is with magazines. Tear out pictures that have an emotional appeal to you. (If you’re at your doctor’s office and the receptionist is watching like a hawk, I would avoid this tactic and simply take a camera shot of the page and download it later. It can avoid an awkward moment – trust me!) Create a design file that includes images of everything from cabinet knobs and paint colors to furniture, window treatments, or even display ideas. Most designers use this technique when working on a project to convey an idea to a client. One of the benefits of creating a design file is that it can clear your home of the multitude of magazines that collect over time. The greatest benefit is that it narrows down the many options that attract you to a few that are now easily accessed.


Focus solely on what draws you in regardless of cost and appropriateness. Even if something is outside your budget now, there is often a way to get the look you want for less. A modern chair at Design Within Reach may have a knockoff online. Trust me; the good stuff always gets reinterpreted. For inspiration, there are a multitude of publications that focus on home design and décor. The national publications I recommend are Elle Décor, House Beautiful, Better Homes And Garden, Traditional Home and Dwell magazines. Local oriented publications I like are Oregon Home, Portland Monthly, Gray, and Sunset magazines. Use them to find what makes your heart sing, and set to work. Be sure to look at the “resources” section. Often, manufacturers are listed so you can track down a specific item. It is better to pull more ideas and narrow your focus once you’ve become more informed. By the way, this technique is one I ask my clients to do. Often they have no idea of what they want so I make them show me pictures. One of my favorite things is when they go overboard and give me a three ring binder with plastic sleeves, sorted by subject!

I know this sounds horrible to some. Personally I have a shopping addiction, so if someone gave me this assignment I would do a happy dance. If you aren’t so inclined, be smart when you plan a shopping trip. Set out with a specific time limit and a goal. Or you can be more casual and find a store here, a shop there – or do a power shop and hit every store within a certain radius. When you’re shopping, do the same thing as when you searched magazines. Find what grabs your heart. Purple sofa? Great! Industrial chic? Go for it! At this point you’re only taking pictures for your design file – and again, bear in mind that you will sort this all out later. (Here is a tip: Take a full-on picture of the item and then a separate picture of the price tag. It will make budgeting and remembering the store much easier.) The goal of shopping is to discover what you really want, and it’s also an education in pricing items. It’s always a shock to most people what things cost.


Pay attention when you’re out and about. Portland is filled with amazing places, talented architects and gifted designers. I love looking at open houses – nothing makes me happier than walking into a nicely designed and furnished home regardless of how much is spent on furnishings. I’ve seen bungalows that are better designed and decorated than mansions in the West Hills. Do you love the interior of a certain hotel? How about your favorite restaurant? Most of us are now blessed with a digital phone that can easily take photos. It may be a lighting fixture, window treatments or simply the way a room is laid out. Is it a bathroom you like? (Note: You may want to make sure that the bathroom is empty when you photograph – yet another awkward moment.) Use these images to create your dream room and inspire you to make informed choices.

A final source of inspiration for me is the internet. Use search words that have come up in your homework. “Chandelier,” “Upholstered chair,” “Stores like…” As we all know, the Internet is an enormous resource and is invaluable in getting information. Not only will it help you find local stores, often the online catalogs carry far more items than can be shown in a retail space. Remember that chair you saw at a store and couldn’t afford?
The Internet has become so competitive that almost any search item will come up with multiple suppliers. What’s more, larger retailers’ photos show rooms that are merchandised in a way that can provide additional inspiration and give you a sense of how things can be used together in ways you may not have thought about. Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn have mastered their online sites and re-invigorated store catalogs
as well. You almost need a bottle of wine to get through Restoration Hardware’s 600-page tome.  Or perhaps that’s just me.

Whatever your approach to getting started, your design file will save you a lot of work. Something as simple as a picture to show a contractor, store clerk or interior designer is the best way to communicate a concept. As you sift through the huge number of ideas that you have accumulated while doing your homework, you are getting an education in interior design. I call this enlightened choice. It brings you to a new level in  understanding design that will allow you to proceed with confidence to create the dream that you envision.

And if you ever meet an interior designer, be sure to invite them over. I’ve been known to work for food.

Jonathan Hopp

About Jonathan Hopp

Based in Portland, Jonathan Hopp has worked as a residential interior designer for over 25 years designing homes all over the U.S. In 2011, he published Interior Bliss: How To Decorate Like A Pro Without Breaking The Bank. A regular personality on Portland's AM Northwest, Jonathan shares tips and trick of the trade to create a home that will be a delight for years. jonathanhopp.com. Write him at JonthanH@JustOut.com


  1. Love the tips! I think the internet is great to utilize to get inspired and come up with ideas!

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