9 Designer-Approved Rules for Lighting a Room (and When to Break Them)

Dining room and seating area with varied lighting

Land and Sky Designs

While most interior design images are taken in bright daylight to show off the natural contours of a room, lighting design plays a huge part in how a space is received in real-time. As Stephanie Lindsey of Etch Design Group says, “Lighting, [or] the balance of dark and bright, can completely change the vibe of a space."

We turned to the experts to find out how to light a room, which lights work best, and what so-called rules we should keep in mind for our favorite places and spaces. Before that, though, one thing's for sure: Every single designer we spoke to agreed that one rule is paramount—never rely on just one light source to light a room.

  • 01 of 09

    Lighting Sets the Tone

    Living room by Etch Design Group

    Etch Design Group

    “Consider the feel you're going for before you decide on lighting,” Lindsey says. “In a living room, for instance, the goal is often comfort and coziness. You'd start with an eye-catching fixture in the middle of the room and then add warmth with floor lamps and table lamps. Accent lights are also a must if the room's design contains art—it draws the eye.”

  • 02 of 09

    Note the Room’s Style, Aesthetic, and Time Period

    Eclectic living room lighting by Dazey Den

    Dazey Den / @dazeyden

    If you’re going for a specifically stylized space, the lighting rules may vary, because your light source needs to match the aesthetic. Otherwise, it’ll stick out like a sore thumb.

    “Are you a maximalist who gets lost in the dripping reflection of a glass chandelier, or more of a minimalist who prefers a 1920s style globe drop chandelier? Or [do you prefer] the more modern approach of a surreptitiously placed LED tape or spotlight?” asks Lizzy Laing of @renovationHQ. “Period properties with modern extensions give lots of opportunities to play with a multitude of lighting styles, too.”

    But while one or two of these styles might co-exist well depending on the space, mixing too many light source styles is just going to make a mess.

    Case in point: This eclectic living room by Dazey Den boasts unexpected lighting fixtures that match each other, thanks to the curved shades and silver metallic accents, while furthering the playfully eclectic feel of the room.

  • 03 of 09

    Hide Your Bulbs

    Kitchen with LED and under-cabinet lighting

    Perla Lichi Design

    Perla Lichi, Owner at Perla Lichi Design, says, “Lighting fixtures should be seen, but the bulbs should be hidden and light should not be directly head-on.” One space this is often a problem but easy to combat is in the kitchen, where Perla suggests using under-counter and LED lighting.

  • 04 of 09

    Dimmers Are Your Friends

    Bedroom with dimmable lighting by Courtney Sempliner

    Courtney Sempliner

    “I want almost everything to be on dimmers,” says Heather McKeown of Land and Sky Designs. “Controlling the lighting in a space is of paramount importance in regulating the various functions and ambiances in any given room. You do not need the same amount of light when you are lying in bed reading as when you’re washing the floors and dusting the room.”

    Designer Courtney Sempliner agrees: “They really help you adjust the ambiance of your home for the different times of day and for various occasions, like entertaining. This is one item that I strongly recommend to all clients—it makes a huge difference.”

    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    Mix and Match Your Light Sources

    Dining room and seating area with varied lighting

    Land and Sky Designs

    “Smaller spaces can be warm and inviting with just a few floor and table lamps, while larger spaces often require light overhead,” Lindsey says.

    No matter what, Lindsey always advises using multiple light sources. “Using only one source often results in a room with light that glares or shadows that dull.” It’s also why she tells people to beware of overdoing it with overhead lighting.

    McKeown has the same warning. “Overhead lighting should not be the main source of light. While it does provide ambient, even lighting to a space, it casts shadows that will inevitably not make you look or feel your best.”

    Instead, she says it’s all about layers: “There is not a simple cut and dry formula for [how many light sources you need in each room], but rather an alchemy that is created when light is layered and integrated seamlessly into a space.”

  • 06 of 09

    Consider Your ‘Shade’ of Lighting

    “There are different shades of lighting that can affect the entire room,” Lichi says. “Some have softer and more white light, and [others have] adjustable three-way lighting that can be good for nightstands or even reading lights at an end table.”

    McKeown is particularly systematic about selecting a bulb tone. “One of the first things to consider when selecting a light bulb is the color temperature of the bulb,” she says. “Color temperature refers to the amount of whiteness of the light and is measured in kelvins, with low kelvin light appearing warm and high kelvin light appearing cool. To put this in perspective, daylight at noon is about 5500 Kelvin. For residences, I always stick to around 2700-3000 Kelvin so that the light feels warm and inviting.”  

    “Another important measurement of the light quality of a bulb is the CRI, or color rendering index, measured on a scale of 0-100,” McKeown says. “This derived measurement describes how well the bulb renders colors true. For residences, we try to ensure that a CRI of at least 80 is being used in the lighting so as not to distort the colors used in the design of the space.”

    Lindsey agrees: “We love warm-white shades. They make a space inviting. Avoid blue-white—it gives off an industrial look.”

  • 07 of 09

    Make Sure Your Lighting Isn’t in the Way

    Entryway with table lamp by Light and Dwell

    Light and Dwell

    If you’re lighting a room from above, make sure your light source isn’t blocking anything integral to the space. “Avoid lighting that gets in the way of room views, such as ocean or mountain views,” Lichi says. 

    Similarly, your light sources should work with the flow of your room. “Make sure [your lights are] also not in the way of walking space,” she adds.

    Entryways are typically lit by overhead lights, but that's not always an option—which isn't to say that you're resigned to tripping over a floor lamp with every entry. This charming entryway by Light and Dwell uses a table lamp on a tucked-away console table to illuminate the space.

  • 08 of 09

    Switches Are Important

    “Lamps can be a very versatile and soft way to express your personal style, just make sure you have some well-placed switches to power them,” Laing says. “Playing with light switch finishes can also be lots of fun. Are you a brushed nickel fan, or is brushed brass more your bag?”

    Considering you’ll use the light switch every day, it makes sense that you’d want this tiny detail to fit the flow of your space, too.

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Think of Lampshades as Fun Accessories

    Living room by House of Harvee with distinctive lampshade

    House of Harvee

    “Shades on lamps can be a great way to express yourself and compliment your interior decor and color palette,” Laing says. “Whether that’s through a pale linen shade or a more stylistic abstract shade, it’s a perfect way to reflect your personal style in your home.”

    Take this living room by House of Harvee: The lampshade on the pendant light is bursting with character, tempering the pink of the sofa and giving the room a natural. feel.