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Interior Design

How to Design to a Concept Instead of a Theme

Concept vs. Theme. Maybe you’ve never thought about the difference between these approaches to design. Maybe you didn’t even realize they were related to design! The difference is subtle, but being able to tell them apart could be what keeps you from taking your design vision to an unpleasant extreme.

October 6, 2022

Do you ever walk into a space and something about it just feels “off”? Did your friend recently redo their bedroom and, instead of their beachy room feeling peaceful and relaxing, it feels like a roadside gift shop in a beach town? If so, this is because of a simple yet powerful tool in the design world that will change the way you approach a project: concepts.

Concepts are the basis of almost all design projects.

No matter the project type, a concept is an abstract, overall idea or feeling that can be implemented into a space. Using a concept as the driving force behind all design decisions leads to a cohesive and pleasing design.

In contrast, a theme is meant to convey a specific setting and often ends up feeling forced or kitschy, like the aforementioned friend’s beachy bedroom. When people follow a theme, they’re likely to take the physical elements of a setting or idea they like and apply them in a literal way.

A table scene of beach-themed items and the word
A Beach Theme Extreme

There’s a time and a place for a beach theme, but it’s probably not in your home. If you focus too much on a theme, you can find yourself in a space that feels forced, not an authentic reflection of your style.

To break down how to determine a concept, start thinking of places or ideas that you’re interested in. Let’s stick with the example of the beach. To use the beach as the concept for your design, break down the elements that make up what a beach is and feels like.

Physical Elements

When thinking of the physical elements of a place or idea, start with the tangible aspects of the experience, like what you might see, colors, textures you might encounter, and the overall experience of being in a place.

For the beach, that might mean some specific physical elements.

  • Glistening blue ocean against the crisp blue sky and white clouds.
  • Grainy yet smooth sand.
  • Natural textures like beach grasses and driftwood.
  • Shiny blue and green sea glass.
  • Smooth rocks and pebbles.
  • Rough, pink and orange seashells and starfish.
  • Vast, open space.

Feelings & Sensations

Next, start thinking of the intangible experiences of a place and the finer sensory experiences, like how you feel, and what you might hear, taste, or smell.

The beach might inspire some specific feelings and sensations.

  • The soothing sounds of waves crashing on the shore.
  • Comforting warmth from the sun.
  • Relaxation and rejuvenation.
  • A gentle ocean breeze.

How do you turn these ideas into a concept?

After you’ve considered the essential elements of your concept, you can flesh it out with tangible design ideas like colors, textiles, finishes, and materials.

Puget Sound Bluff Home – Cape Cod Style Remodel of a Historic Home with Water Views
Designing to a Concept

Taking the time to explore a concept can lead to a sophisticated space like this one, where a coastal vibe is evoked without the too-obvious details.

The concept of a beach will lead you toward items that provide the feelings, sensations, and overall experience of being at the beach rather than the beach itself.

  • Overall neutral tones like sandy beiges, whites, and creams.
  • Accents of different shades of cool blues and greens in paint, drapery, art, and décor.
  • A mixture of textures to emulate sand, driftwood, and grasses, like a sisal rug, linen pillows, and worn wood furniture or beams.
  • Natural materials like wood floors and natural stone.
  • Glass tables or décor to recall the glistening ocean and sea glass.
  • Textural art or abstract art.
  • An architecturally open floor plan and ceilings to give an airy, open feel.
  • Furniture oriented towards any optimal views and sources of natural light.
  • Wispy white curtains for a breezy effect.

In contrast, designing to a theme might leave you with bowls full of seashells and starfish, photos of the ocean on the walls, and a sea-creature-design comforter. A theme will have you following a specific subject in a more literal way. A concept will have you following an abstract idea or thought that looks at something from a broader perspective and can be applied to many things.


By breaking down a feeling you want to achieve, a space will feel intentional, cohesive, and comfortable without having to add a wooden “BEACH” sign in every hallway to evoke your favorite vacation spot.

Starting with a concept will take your project to the next level and will even help to take away the stress of decision-making. When we have one central idea to base decisions on, it is much easier to know what the best approach to the design will be.

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