How to Find Your Design Style (Hint: Not Through A Quiz)

If you're looking for a quick 10 question quiz you've come to the wrong place. But don't worry. There are plenty of those online. A few more clicks and you'll find one. And at the conclusion of a series of spiritually empty questions that you find yourself struggling to answer due to the fact that you can't understand what the photo is trying to communicate,  it will tell you if your style is "French Eclectic","Farmhouse Chic" or "Modern Traditionalist."You'll have all the answers in the palm of your hand and can effortlessly move forward with confidence in all your decorating decisions.

Yeah, right.

The big problem with these quizzes is that they don't really help anyone. Sure it's fun to take a quiz. We plug in a bunch of answers to some questions sprinkled with pretty pictures hoping in excitement that a miraculous discovery about ourselves will be made. That, somehow, the magazine page or computer screen will have access to our deepest, most intimate thoughts and will be able to give us something useful - some sense of identity. A greater understanding of who we are and how we relate to our homes.

I took a few of these quizzes the other day. I wanted to see who they thought I was. One quiz confused me with it's photos. I liked a picture of a dog so I selected it. And I also liked a photo of a dad and son playing outside in the grass, so I picked that too. And there was a shot of a bedroom that had bold colors. I liked the color combination. At the end of the quiz I was defined as having a predominantly "Asian" style (their words, not mine.) There is definitely nothing "Asian" happening in my place. Another quiz deemed me "French Eclectic." I'm not quite sure what that meant and wouldn't have the faintest idea how to create it. Besides, I can't pronounce French to save my life. Maybe that's the "Eclectic" part?

This is just one of the many rooms I found that calls itself "French Eclectic." Pretty, but not really me. Where's the color?

I could go on and on about these quizzes and how I think they do more harm then good, confusing us with labels, and perpetuating the useless idea that we all need to fit into some sort of style mold. But I won't, because the topic of this post is "How to Find Your Style." And I personally try to keep my posts on topic so you, the reader, can get what you came here for.

So, how do you go about finding your design style? If you don't have any quizzes to take, and no labels to attach yourself to, how can you possibly figure out who you are?

1) The first step is to slow down. No one finds their style in 10 minutes. You might realize you like a color in a few minutes, or a new textile design. Or you might page through a magazine and fall in love with an image of the most beautiful room you've ever seen. But these are only pieces. And our personal design styles are made up of many, many pieces. Pieces of memories and experiences and color preferences and travels and relationships - all those little things that make us individuals. The truth of it is, our design styles are as unique as our DNA.

2) The second step is to forget about trying to label yourself. Because we have such unique, individual styles there is no way we can all be defined by 5 or 10 different variations of design themes. Don't feel obligated to call yourself "Urban Chic" just because some quiz labeled you as such. These labels are pretty useless. They might help you search for and pull images for a blog post, but they don't define you. Nothing defines you but you.

3) The third step is to look inside ourselves for the answers. This might seem a little granola-y, but it's the truth. No one can tell you what you like or don't like. That's the beauty of design! You get to decide for yourself. You really do hold the answers to your own style. Trust yourself. Tune out the outside noise and listen to your inner voice. It knows more about your style than any quiz.

Finding your own design style isn't always easy. That's probably why so many of us don't do it. It takes time and fearlessness - two things many of us often struggle with in our day to day lives. But it really is the only way to create a home worth living in. And, who knows? Maybe you'll come up with your own label someday that accurately depicts who you are and how you live. Just promise me you won't make up another style quiz about it. We have enough of those.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Paint Store

Ok, so it wasn't really on my way to the paint store, it was actually once I got inside the paint store, but that's really beside the point.

Yesterday I went to Gray's Paint, my local paint store that carries Benjamin Moore, to pick up a couple of pints of paint colors to test for a client. (If you haven't heard of the pint-sized samples yet, they are great! Smaller than the traditional quart, but large than those tiny sample pots, which, to me, are just too small to work with. They cost about $6.) As I explored the paint chip section to see what super-hyped up color marketing material has recently been sprung upon us, I couldn't help but overhear the commotion at the paint mixing counter. At first I tried not to listen, but how could I help myself? Some lady was completely frazzled by color.

I kept my distance for awhile, figuring she would wrap things up soon. I could kill a few minutes of time while her perfect colors were mixed, she would pay, leave and then I would go to the counter to get my samples. It's a pretty small store, and I didn't want to overwhelm the guys at the counter - they had their hands full. And, if I hung back, I could hear all the juicy details. (People's color problems to me are just as juicy as the latest celebrity gossip on Perez Hilton. Weird, huh?)

So, about the lady. She was, hmmmm....maybe mid-forties, sandy blonde hair cut into a longish bob (hard to tell, cuz I think she had taken out some of her paint color issues on her locks), glasses, a black shirt, and, well, that's about all I remember. Does this really matter? No. Just thought you'd like to create her character in your head to make the story more interesting.

She had a frantic-ness about her. From my hideout I could hear her say "it's too green...and this one's too orange. I want taupe. Mix me taupe. You know, kind of pink and tan. That's what taupe is, right? A sandy, beachy color?"

The guy behind the paint counter didn't really respond. And I don't blame him. How the heck do you respond to that? She was asking him what taupe is. And telling him to mix it for her. Good luck.

A minute or two later, she ordered "just give me 50% of this one and 50% of this one. I'm bossy aren't I? Well, once we get these colors right you won't have to see me for another 16 years."

I had to stifle my laughter. But, really, I felt sorry for the guys at the counter. They happen to be young guys working in this store - really nice, and get the job done, but, honestly a little too nice with a customer like this. I wondered how many hours she had been at that counter...and how many trips she had made from her home to the paint store and back. And how many painters were waiting for her at home while she struggled to pick the right colors.

Seeing that her transaction wasn't going to be completed anytime soon, I made my way up front. I think one of the guys working was relieved that he could help someone else. I asked him for two pints - one Chestertown Buff, the other, Cork. I tried to give him sympathetic eyes. I hope he didn't think I was hitting on him.

While my paint was being mixed, I found myself practically elbow-to-elbow with the frantic woman. She appeared even more frantic up close, and seemed heartlessly taunted by piles of brochures advertising "The Perfect Color Combinations for Your Home." She had that wild look in her eyes that someone gets when they've stared at paint chips all day. I peered down at her little brush-outs. They were about 2-inch by 2-inch samples, and I wondered what was the point? She appeared to be trying to select colors for her interior - one sample was a medium orange-y brown, the other a greyed-down minty-ish green. She had this teeny-tiny strip of fabric that she was trying to match the green sample to. Seriously - this piece of fabric was about the size of a french fry. There was no way she was going to be able to match a paint color to that! Not to mention the horrible fluorescent lighting overhead. It was a total disaster.

I struggled as I stood at the counter. I wanted to help her. I really did. But, she was not my client, and I'm not one to bombard random people with unsolicited advice. Wait - who am I kidding? I KNEW it was a total disaster, I had no quick and easy solutions to her color problems - didn't even know what the color problems were - and I knew, if I tried to assist her, I might be at that counter for a very, very long time. I had stuff to do.

Paint Guy finished mixing my samples, and while he was ringing me up, I reminded him that I was a designer so could he please give me my discounted cost? As I said the word "designer", I could see out of my peripheral vision the frantic lady's eyes make her way towards me. I smiled at the Paint Guy, and tried to ignore her. We hadn't actually talked yet, and, I figured, now that she knew I was a designer, maybe she would ask me a question? If she asked, I would try to help. Nope - she went right back to her pile of color mess. And somehow seemed even more irritated than before.

As I grabbed my things and started to make my way towards the exit,  I said "Good luck with your colors!" She glanced up at me, still frantic and I think might have said thank you. Then I calmly said, "I am a Color Consultant, if you would like a card."

She got really excited - not in a good way - and, although a lot of words came out of her mouth, the only ones I remembered were "Shoulda, woulda, coulda!" It was such a strange response. I think I then said to her "Well, maybe next time", which is an even stranger response because 1) I didn't give her a card, so she would have had no way to contact me and 2) she had very clearly stated that it would be 16 years before she painted again. I'm not waiting 16 years to help her.

I drove away thinking, what am I supposed to learn from this? How do I help people in this situation? Clearly, this paint selection process was about to send her right over the edge, if she wasn't there already. It doesn't have to be this way. Paint color selection should not be such a horrific thing to go through. I would have loved to give her some advice, but I don't think she was in a place where she wanted to hear it. She obviously just "needed" to get the job done. And any information I would have provided would have probably caused a major short-circuit in her brain. So, I chose to leave the frantic lady alone, hope for the best for her with her project, and blog about it. Maybe somehow, someway, someone will read this post and learn something from this story.

The Fear of Color

I am constantly amazed at people's fear of color. I can't tell you how many times, while selecting paint colors for a client's home, I've heard "that's too bright" or "that's too dark" or "I like it, but I could never use it in my home." I ask them why they think it's too bright or too dark or too whatever, and they rarely elicit a response that makes any sense. "It just is," is the usual reply. As a designer, I want to rip my hair out!

Of course I understand that everyone has color likes and dislikes. We make associations through color. I was just in a seminar with a woman who hated the color "ochre" because it reminded her of the chalk used by a teacher she hated in elementary school. And I personally really dislike forest green. On my fifth birthday, I was forced into wearing a very uncomfortable forest green turtleneck. I’ve never really gotten over that experience.

Color likes and dislikes aside, people still seem to be afraid of using even the colors they love when painting their homes. There is this strange perception that "neutral" colors - meaning tan, beige and off white - are safe. That these colors create a "safe" environment. One where we can separate ourselves from the chaos of the outside world. One where emotions are under control. One where we can feel a sense of calm and not be distracted by something as brazen as color.

I recently paged through a copy of a popular home magazine and ran across this quote from a featured homeowner:

"I like color, but not bold color. Color evokes strong emotions, and I want my house to feel calm."

What is it that we are really afraid of? Why this need to feel "safe"?

Perhaps it is not the colors themselves, but the emotions within ourselves that create the most fear. Color is extremely psychologically powerful, and in using it we need to be comfortable enough with ourselves to accept whatever emotion it may evoke. Obviously, color can be used incorrectly and can create many unpleasant emotional responses. But, think about the most beautiful things you have ever seen. Most likely you will imagine something designed by nature.

A rich red rose.

A shimmering turquoise ocean.

A rainbow.

All of these designs have one thing in common: color. Very seldom will your vision of beauty be something beige. Now think about the emotion you feel from those images. A feeling of amazement? A sense of peace? A burst of excitement? If we can translate those feelings into our homes, why not? A beige wall paint can be fine. It IS safe. It goes with almost everything. But it can also be dull and uninspiring. And to me, a color that is dull and uninspiring is anything but safe. I would rather take a leap and try something new because, really, my biggest fear is not color, or even the emotions they may evoke, but rather the idea of living in a world with no color...and no emotion.