The Best Design Tools For Improving Your Home

Wandering around your home hardware store until inspiration strikes is a terrible idea. If you've got a loose idea for a redesign, re-arrangement or physical improvement to your house, apartment or even just a room, we recommend these computer planning tools for the job.

What follows is a shortlist of digital tools for the job, with the features they offer, the jobs they're best suited for helping with, and their strengths and weaknesses. Most of them are free, or at least offer free versions, but we'll also note the pricing for each. We're leaving off tools like SolidWorks or AutoCAD/AutoDesk — if you have the time and licensing fees to get good with those, you're good to go already.

Room and Project Design

Google SketchUp

  • Price/availability: Free for standard SketchUp download for home/personal use; SketchUp Pro 7, with advanced import/export, presentation and printing tools, among others, is $US495.
  • Strengths: It's got many of the same 3D and solid object design powers as the commercial software used by engineers, but the interface is much easier to learn and get around. If you enjoy mousing your way though Google Earth, you can probably learn SketchUp's controls without too much pain. Our feature on planning improvements in 3D with SketchUp provides a basic tutorial.
  • Weaknesses: Unless you're a perfectionist willing to take pictures of your paint, fabrics and other designs and colours, SketchUp's visual cues are going to be a rough draft. Even if you do have images galore to use, figuring out how to stretch them across SketchUp's surfaces isn't exactly intuitive.
  • Best suited for: Physical projects needing a 3D view, and where colour/design play a second-hand role.

IKEA Planners

  • Price/availability: Free download, split into multiple downloads (Kitchen, Office, Bedroom) and a few online planning tools. (Note: That link contains newer, updated versions of the planner software than you might find in our archives, or by straight-up Google searching).
  • Strengths: If you're not a fan of measuring tape, you can quickly rough out your room shape, doors, windows, inner walls and other layout necessities by dragging items onto the layout. It knows the exact measurements of IKEA tables, shelves and other furniture, and lists of the stuff you'll need can be printed or uploaded to IKEA for reference at a store.
  • Weaknesses: This is, at best, beta-level software. You'll have to grit your teeth a few times to get things put into place, and entering precise measurements can be a pain. Splitting up the kitchen/office/bedroom planners into separate, badly labelled downloads is not all that helpful.
  • Best suited for: People who know their tastes run toward the minimal/cheap/functional IKEA realm, or can find cheap and similar substitutes for IKEA gear, and who want a rough look at what fits in their home.


  • Price/availability: Free, web-based product for personal use; Pro and Plus plans provide more storage, sub-domains, custom themes and multi-user tools.
  • Strengths: Accessible anywhere, because it's a web-based tool (though it requires Flash, so no iPad or smartphone doodling). Big, robust library of objects, structures and other stuff to insert into your home, but also offers single line/surface/object drawing. Easy to get started with in 2D or 3D.
  • Weaknesses: Furniture and standard designs look a bit, well, generic. Reliance on Flash leaves one concerned about unexpected crashes. Big plans can take some time to load, and switch between 2D and 3D modes.
  • Best suited for: Doing a "big picture" design of a room or visualising your dream house as a whole. (Original post)

Design Your Room

  • Price/Availability: Free to use as a web-based design tool
  • Strengths: If DyD happens to have the university you're attending in its fairly big database, you'll get a pre-sized floor plan to work with, and you can drag, drop and stack all manner of stuff into it to see what fits.
  • Weaknesses: If your school isn't in the pre-loaded list, it's on you to know the size and shape. If you don't like commercial come-ons, you're not going to like the sponsored items you can add to your room.
  • Best suited for: Students, obviously, who want to know the realities of fitting their life into half of a shared dormitory space.

Sweet Home 3D

  • Price/Availability: Free, Java-based web app.
  • Strengths: It's a detail-oriented delight, with nearly everything about your interior space — colours, object shapes, plant orientation — able to be tweaked. Shows a 3D preview while you work in the 2D space, and has a big inventory of pre-loaded objects.
  • Weaknesses: Requires Java to run. While there's a detailed user's guide and video tutorial, opening the app and looking at all the controls is overwhelming.
  • Best suited for: Those who like the fine-grained control of Google SketchUp, but need more pre-created furniture and objects and an interior design focus. (Original post)

Project Dragonfly

  • Price/Availability: Free web app, with enough free storage space to save a few layouts and designs.
  • Strengths: Very easy to get into, with a Sims-like design interface and object look.
  • Weaknesses: Interface is a little too simple and cartoon-styled for its own good — figuring out how to change and re-build things takes some guessing and playing.
  • Best suited for: Quickly sketching out the look of your room, without specifics or measurements in mind.

Colour Schemes and Paint Matching

Spacing, furniture and design are important, but nothing changes the look of a room so quickly as a new coat of paint.

One of the coolest tools we've seen for visualising how a room will look is ColorJive, pictured above. The web app asks you to upload an evenly lit picture of a room, and then changes the wall paint colour as you click on it and select new shades. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it feels like magic.

For picking out your own colour schemes and shades in a more abstract, professional manner, you can try the Color Scheme Designer 3 for a colour-wheel-based approach, or upload an image you love the look of to the Colors Palette Generator. We have covered many, many palette tools, and many of them seem interchangeable. What can you do to break through indecisiveness? Try learning a little basic colour theory from Smashing Magazine, or take commenter Mark 2000 up on his offering of an entire colour theory class condensed into a blog post.

What free or reasonably priced home design tools have we missed? How did you plan out your own recent home renovations or redesign? Tell us your take in the comments.


    The Ikea tools have a major weakness not mentioned - they don't run on Macs, boo.

    One thing you didn't mention about Sketchup is the ability to download other users modelled objects from the 3D Warehouse which makes up for the lack of in built objects... you will find most Ikea stuff has been made by other users.

    For Ikea tool...
    Minimum System Requirements
    1 gigahertz (GHz) equivalent or faster
    32MB Graphic card
    1024 x 768 Display resolution
    Broadband Internet connection
    Win XP SP2 or higher
    Windows Browsers: Internet Explorer 7.0 or higher/ Firefox 3.5.7 or higher
    Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard or higher(Intel only)
    Mac Browsers: Firefox 3.5.7+ / Safari 4.0.3+

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