5 Essential Design Tools to Visualize Your Next Project

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By Kate Reggev
Consider these five design tools the next time you’re embarking on a new design project.

Taking on a new home project, whether it’s big or small, can be an intimidating challenge—especially if you’re someone who has trouble making decisions or visualizing a space. Fortunately, design professionals have a range of tricks and tools up their sleeves—for both their own use and their clients’—so that everyone is on board and can "see" what the end result will be. From in-person visits to digitally created imagery, these tools will work for everyone from the tech-savvy to the analog-inclined.

Showroom and Site Visits

Often a designer or client may start their search in an inspirational place like a showroom or a project they love and admire. Showrooms are spaces (and sometimes entire stores) that are used to display goods for sale by specific companies. In a tile showroom, for example, you’ll likely see a range of sink, bathroom, shower, and even kitchen setups created to look like real, functioning rooms. These simulations can help express ideas of scale, lighting, and texture that might be difficult for some to understand otherwise.

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Luminaire curates thoughtful vignettes composed of furniture by celebrated designers.

Luminaire curates thoughtful vignettes composed of furniture by celebrated designers.

It's also a good idea to visit other projects the designer has completed, or other projects the client appreciates. Site visits can help clients and designers understand a space the way it is actually used, instead of a facsimile of what someone might use. This helps to better gauge expectations—showrooms are often designed with only two or three walls for easy viewing, but of course rooms in a home are actually enclosed and give a different spatial sense.

Over 100 clay candle holders designed and produced by studio director Tung Chiang are on display at the Heath showroom in San Francisco.

Over 100 clay candle holders designed and produced by studio director Tung Chiang are on display at the Heath showroom in San Francisco.

Material Palettes and Samples 

The next step many design professionals take when working on a project is to develop a material palette. Material palettes are comprised of a range of material samples including—but not limited to—paint colors, wallpaper, tile, flooring, fabric, window treatments, carpets, and snippets of other items that help convey the colors, textures, and vibe that a room will have. Designers will often update or change these palettes as they further refine the design and gain a better understanding of what materials are available and on budget. 

Hella Jongerius / Jongeriuslab in Berlin

Hella Jongerius / Jongeriuslab in Berlin

Samples are a critical part of creating the material palette, and they can be obtained through a range of sources. Showrooms often offer paint chips, individual tiles, or swatches of fabric for potential customers to take home. It's also usually possible to order samples online for a small fee. It can really be worth it to view a countertop sample or paint color in the natural light of its intended space—it can look completely different than it does in the lighting of a showroom!

Canal, Moraine and Gravel textiles by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Kvadrat were on display at Milan Furniture Week.

Canal, Moraine and Gravel textiles by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Kvadrat were on display at Milan Furniture Week.

It’s also important to note that when it comes to natural materials like wood and stone, there are often variations in color, pattern, and texture. This means that what you see in a small 4" x 4" sample might not be completely representative of what you would ultimately receive. You may consider asking for a larger sample or for multiple samples so that you understand the range of colors and patterns.

Mood Boards 

Another similar tool that designers might use is a mood board, which seeks to convey the feeling or vibe of a space with images instead of the exact fabric or colors that will be used in a space. A mood board abstractly conveys inspiration, ideas, and connections that would otherwise be hard to explain using just color or words.

From a 1921 Shukhov radio tower to a postcard from a Nordic bakery, Pritchard’s storyboards offer a lively mix.

From a 1921 Shukhov radio tower to a postcard from a Nordic bakery, Pritchard’s storyboards offer a lively mix.

Architectural Drawings 

One of the most classic ways to understand a space is through an architectural drawing, which can take the form of a plan (a flat aerial view of a space) or an elevation (a flat view of an interior wall or exterior side of a building).

Résidence Esplanade Floor Plan

Résidence Esplanade Floor Plan

Together, these two typical views can help you understand the layout of a space as well as the vertical organization—where shelving might stop, the height of a sink, or the distance from a dining room table to the dishwasher. The critical thing about these architectural drawings is that everything is to scale—unlike in a rough hand sketch—so you know that items will actually fit as drawn, so long as the measurements are correct! 

The section shows the simple, efficient interior elevation. 

The section shows the simple, efficient interior elevation. 

Renderings 

On the more high-tech end are renderings, which were historically done by hand but now are often done on a computer. Whereas architectural drawings provide a flat, orthographic view, renderings provide a more three-dimensional understanding of a space. Renderings can really help those who have trouble visualizing spaces, because they can be so refined and carefully done that they almost resemble photographs. On the other hand, they can be more abstract and artistic to convey a feeling or mood.

ANACAPA architecture designed a communal pavilion for AutoCamp Russian River, a boutique camping experience featuring classic Airstreams.

ANACAPA architecture designed a communal pavilion for AutoCamp Russian River, a boutique camping experience featuring classic Airstreams.

Renderings are also particularly useful when trying to decide between two different materials, colors, styles, or furnishings, because it can be very easy to digitally swap out a texture, color, table, or other option and then compare.

According to Wilson, the Hunters Point project represents an opportunity to protect and enhance the City’s biological diversity.

According to Wilson, the Hunters Point project represents an opportunity to protect and enhance the City’s biological diversity.