The mechanisms of blade row interaction affecting rotor film cooling are identified in order to make recommendations for the design of film cooling in the real, unsteady turbine environment. Present design practice makes the simplifying assumption of steady boundary conditions, despite intrinsic unsteadiness due to blade row interaction; we argue that if film cooling responds non-linearly to unsteadiness, the time-averaged performance will then be in error. Non-linear behaviour is confirmed using experimental measurements of flat-plate cylindrical film cooling holes, main-stream unsteadiness causing a reduction in film effectiveness of up to 31% at constant time-averaged boundary condition. Unsteady computations are used to identify the blade row interaction mechanisms in a high-pressure turbine rotor: a ‘negative jet’ associated with the upstream vane wake, and frozen and propagating vane potential field interactions. A quasi-steady model is used to predict unsteady excursions in momentum flux ratio of rotor cooling holes, with fluctuations of at least ±30% observed for all hole locations. Computations with modified upstream vanes are used to vary the relative strength of wake and potential field interactions. In general, both mechanisms contribute to rotor film cooling unsteadiness. It is recommended that the designer should choose a cooling configuration which behaves linearly over the expected unsteady excursions in momentum flux ratio as predicted by a quasi-steady hole model.