The Top Five Most Useless Interior Design Terms

There are a lot of terms that get thrown around when people discuss design. Many of these terms are necessities in the design process - communicators of what a space should look like, how it should feel and what sort of function it should perform. Other terms are completely meaningless. Their very existence relies upon an extremely passive approach to design, creating a mindless vortex in which we all can get sucked into if we aren't careful.

I'm not going to lie. I've been guilty of using these terms from time to time when speaking to design. But the more and more I see the following descriptors getting tossed around like croutons on a salad, the more and more I have begun to despise - yes, despise - these words and what we're supposed to think they mean. Why such strong feelings towards such seemingly harmless groupings of letters? Because these words don't help anyone. They don't help me, they don't help you and they don't help my clients. These terms are so vague, they only create confusion when applied to design and a sense of inadequacy for those who think they don't understand them. I am here to tell you that if you don't understand how these terms relate to your home, don't worry about it. You don't need to. And if you hear a design professional use one of these words, ask them what they mean by it. If they can give you a logical, cohesive, sensical answer and can go on to describe a space or a style on a deeper level, you've got yourself a good designer. If they start babbling nonsensical gibberish, beware. Good design starts with a good concept...and a good designer should be able to speak to that concept without making you feel like a deer caught in headlights.

Ok, on to...

The Top Five Most Useless Interior Design Terms

1) Timeless 
Also known as Classic. I see this one over and over again. At first glance, it might seem completely harmless. But when this word is used to describe an interior or a style I cringe. Timeless essentially means eternal, infinite, and ageless. Now, tell me, how exactly does this transfer to a design direction? Perhaps it's a brown leather club chair in front of a brick fireplace? Or a colorfully painted fresco depicting a biblical scene on your ceiling? Or maybe it's a stone cave carved out of the side of a mountain? It would be difficult to argue that any of these designs aren't timeless. So when a client tells me they like timeless design, which of these styles are they referring to? Exactly. We don't know. None of us know until we dig a little deeper.

2) Eclectic
This is a good one. I've certainly used this term myself and I'm vowing to eliminate it from my design vocabulary right now.

Here's the definition of eclectic design according to

noting or pertaining to works of architecture, decoration, landscaping, etc., produced by a certain person or during a certain period, that derive from a wide range of historic styles, the style in each instance often being chosen for its fancied appropriateness to local tradition, local geography, the purpose to be served, or the cultural background of the client.


Maybe it's a decent definition of what eclectic design is, but it doesn't help much when we are designing spaces. If a client tells me they have eclectic tastes, that's fine. I get it. They have different tastes and like to mix different things together. But what sort of different are we talking about? Eclectic can mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people. Is  it an art collection from the 1960s mixed with a Room and Board sofa? Is it a grouping of Arts and Crafts style pottery resting on grandma's sideboard? Is this really eclectic...or is it just authentic, meaningful design? Shouldn't all homes have a sense of being eclectic?  If we don't embrace eclectic - if we don't embrace the different - then we embrace sameness. And that's just boring. 

3) Clean 
I don't have much to say on this other than...what, do we want dirty? Clean is a state of not being dirty. It is not a design goal.

4) Ethnic 
Otherwise known as Global. This is a funny one to me. If the design style doesn't originate in our own backyards then it's ethnic. Usually we see this term describing anything that's overly colorful or filled with trinkets from far-off lands. I'm all for incorporating meaningful artifacts and artwork from a client's international travels...but usually these places have a name. If something is from Tibet or Mozambique or Singapore, why does it have to be ethnic? It just is what it is, and should be celebrated. Using the term ethnic really dumbs us down by allowing us to group together anything "foreign" into one big lump of design.

5) Transitional
My favorite. Or, rather, my least favorite. Can someone please tell me how I made it through three years of design school without hearing so much as a whisper of this "design style"? This is, in my opinion, the absolute worst word to use in reference to design. Transitioning from what to what, exactly? To me, this word represents all that is generic, uninspired and unthoughtful about design. The very nature of the word suggests that the space is temporary, in transition...transient. Maybe this is a a good design descriptor for a subway station, but not a home. When a designer uses this word to describe their work, I get very concerned. It is usually used as an attempt to be all-encompassing...and I know that some designers stand by this term whole-heartedly. But, I can tell you that if a client ever uses the word transitional with me to describe their design style, it gives me absolutely nothing to go off of. Does it mean crown molding and a Mission style dining table? Or no molding with a trestle style table made of reclaimed wood? Oh wait - now we're probably getting into Green Design. Geez. Even I start to get confused.

So, are you with me? Will you vow to stop using these terms to describe design styles and to define design goals? Or is there a term here that you just can't live without?

Is there any other Useless Interior Design Term you'd like to add to the list?