back to school

More than 20 years ago, I packed up my favorite things and headed to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA, to dig into my interior design degree. I was loaded up with tropical fish, bedding and rolled-up Andre Agassi posters. After the education and some interior design experience, if I had it to do over again, I’d do my best to not only personalize my room but maximize its usefulness, too. Here are some ideas I’d take with me as inspiration.

Furniture + Color

A dorm room isn’t really the place to let out your inner design diva, but it’s definitely worth the effort to work with your roommate toward a design scheme for the whole room, rather than just your side of it. Complementary colors, fabrics and accent pieces go a long way toward making that small space feel bigger, less cluttered and more like home. If you’re allowed to paint the walls, consider adding that personal touch. Stick with light, cool colors to enhance the sense of space and serenity, but don’t be shy about a bold accent to add some definition to the space.

dorm room essentials

You don’t have a lot of choice with furniture in most dorms, but if you can swap out beds for futons or sofa sleepers, entertaining friends becomes a much more pleasant affair. Whatever you do, make sure you consider a variety of configurations to create a functional and inviting space for you and your visitors.


Let’s face it: Most dorm rooms are tiny spaces with bad lighting and poor ventilation. Start by bringing in more light and air. Add a couple of lamps to keep everyone and everything looking their best by supplementing that old-school overhead fluorescent lighting. In a dorm setting, lighting does double duty–you need it to study, but it can really enhance the look of a drab space after the books are closed.

dorm room lighting

Choose a stylish LED desk lamp that really lets you focus on your work and serves as a dramatic splash of light after hours. LED light bulbs throw off a specific beam of light, so they have the added advantage of giving you great task lighting while still allowing your roommate to sleep while you study.

Floor lamps are another inexpensive way to personalize the space with ambient mood lighting–and you can pick up a fresh and fun shade that complements the rest of your space. You may consider compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs for this–they’re both effective and efficient. CFL bulbs are here to stay, and for all the right reasons: Not only do they last a long time (“forever” could be taken the wrong way), but they can now be dimmed, and the coloration has improved. One CFL bulb can get you all the way through college.


fanEven if you’re lucky enough to get a roommate you love, sharing such a small space makes it all the more important to clear the air. A small, enclosed space filled with laundry and bedding is bound to result in some stale air. You actually can find portable and personal fans that work as great accent pieces, with styles from funky and industrial to bold and bright.


storage bins

Finding effective ways to keep clutter to a minimum and keep everything important to you nearby can make all the difference in terms of peaceful cohabitation:

  • Simple wall shelves are easy to install, and keep most of your storage off of the floor and out of the closet. Put books and school supplies, as well as your favorite photos and mementos, within arm’s reach and eye level.
  • Storage bins come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Get some big and boxy bins–all in one color to complement the rest of your design scheme for off-season clothes or schoolwork from last semester, and sleek and simple sliders that roll right under the bed for more personal storage. Choose one color for the shelving bins to give your tiny space a streamlined look, and save the see-through storage for closets and under the bed.

Final Thought

Our clients often are more grateful for effective design in smaller spaces than they are where space is not a concern. Just because you’re in college doesn’t mean you can’t have great design.

An interior designer who, yes, once had the personal experience of living in a dorm room during college, Kerrie Kelly now writes for the Home Depot on many topics, including dorm room décor. She gives advice on such things as furniture selection and which light bulbs to use to achieve the right task lighting. To view a selection of LED light bulbs that Kerrie suggests in this article, visit