Everything you need to know about design principles | by Billy Frazier | Sep, 2021

As a designer who has worked in the tech industry for over a decade, I’m shocked to see designers still having trouble when it comes to organizing around the work we do, especially when it comes to working with other designers.

This isn’t to say the work we do is easy — far from it. It (usually) involves organizing chaos, translating the wants and needs from various, dissimilar groups of people, and yes, even the occasional PowerPoint prettification.

As a group of professionals who have a myriad of different frameworks, exercises, and toolsets at our disposal, we designers are usually some of the better organized groups within an organization.

This is why I scratch my head whenever I come across a group of designers who don’t know how to work together.

Sure, sometimes a design practice is brand new and lacks the maturity it takes to operate smoothly, but other times, they simply haven’t implemented certain guardrails that makes working together even easier.

After working with dozens of teams of varying sizes over the past decade, I’ve come to realize there is one type of guardrail that can help a design team more than any other.

Enter design principles.

According to the Nielsen Norman Group (world leaders of research-based user experience), design principles are value statements that frame design decisions and support consistency in decision-making across teams working on the same product or service.

In other words, design principles are words or phrases that act as a shared checklist for designers who are designing the same thing. They tend to be more valuable when used by larger teams, but they can still be useful to a single designer who needs a little guidance while working on their own.

Think of them as guardrails that help keep things consistent when you’re designing multiple parts of one experience.

Creating order out of chaos

Whether you’re a lone designer working with freelance clients or one of many at an international company, you will inevitably face a lot of noise from a lot of different sources: user feedback, business requirements, client input, technical considerations, and by far the worst, subjective opinions from higher-ups who have a tendency to “swoop and poop.” Design principles can help wade through all of this noise and zero in on the signal.

Working faster and smarter

Because you will have a lot thrown at you, design principles help create creative constraints that make daily design decisions easier, quicker, and more informed. Design principles help take some of the guesswork out of these decisions by allowing you to choose the “right” tradeoff. For example, if one of your company’s design principles is “Minimalism,” then you may opt to take out some unnecessary content in a certain view. In this case, you are trading detail and potential clarity for simplicity.

Designing with intention

When left to our own devices, designers can end up overthinking almost anything. Without guiding principles, we can sometimes iterate ourselves into oblivion (think paralysis by analysis, but with pixels). When we spend time and energy upfront to create thoughtful design principles, they can help us move forward with purpose. It one of those “Move slow so you can move fast” sort of things.

Promoting consistency

Whether you’re working with a pre-established design system or designing things from scratch, it can be hard for multiple designers to create a consistent experience across one product, service, or experience. Each person may do things a little differently which, applied to countless design decisions across days/weeks/months, can mean a hodgepodge of experiences within a single product. Design principles help cut down on variability while still giving each designer some amount of autonomy. After all, we’re talking about humans here — not robots…yet.

Increasing influence

Even though design principles are typically made by designers for designers, they can be extremely useful when communicating what you do to other non-designers on your team or across your company. Planting a flag and sharing what you value can set a great example for how other teams and departments can organize and communicate their work. Design principles can also communicate the value of what you do to other co-workers and help you move past answering the one question you will always be asked: “Can you make it prettier?”

Make them memorable

By this point, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the phrase, “Move fast and break things.” If you haven’t, you probably don’t work in tech. For those of us that do, we’ve heard these (in)famous words echo through almost every hallway and chatroom over the past decade. This company mantra came from a very young, very immature Facebook as it was first getting off the ground and can be considered as one of their first design principles. Now, many could argue these words have led to some fairly irresponsible decisions that have led to the spread of white supremacy and other hateful ideals, but you can’t deny these five simple words stick with you. I’m sure these words stuck with each and every product designer as they helped build Facebook into the behemoth it is today. This principle told them to focus on speed and always ask for forgiveness instead of permission.

Avoid truisms

Truisms are statements that are obviously true and say nothing new or interesting. A great example of a truism in design is, “Make things user friendly.” This makes for a poor design principle because any designer on any team should strive to make their design easier to use. Period. Sure, there are cases where part of the experience should include a few safety guards, but overall, a user should be able accomplish whatever it is they set out to do. If a design principle isn’t taking a stance, then there’s a good chance it won’t be as valuable when you need it.

Be literal

Imagine sitting down at your desk, diving into your design work, and coming across a decision. For example, let’s say you have to design an error pop up and you’re not sure what it should say. This is the perfect time for you to pull out your handy handy list of design principles and see if any of them address this issue. If you work for Asana, one of your principles just happens to be “Increase confidence through clarity.” Using this as a guide, you opt to include a message like, “Sorry, the promo code you entered has expired. Please try another one.” This gives the user a lot more clarity than, “Invalid promotional code. Try again.”

Revisit them early and often

Like many things in corporate America, design principles are only as useful as you make them. At their best, they can become a list of checkboxes that give you or your team of designers a “definition of done” for the design work that needs to be completed. On the flip side, design principles can become yet another set of empty words a team drafts, puts on the shelf, and leaves to collect dust. Like most strategic tools a team creates, design principles should always be reviewed and updated so that they can stand the test of time.

Credit: LinkedIn

A German-born industrial designer by trade, Dieter Rams was one of the first to indentify and share his list of principles that define good design. Even though his focus was on physical products, each and every one of his principles can be applied to digital design today.

  1. Good design is innovative
    The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
  2. Good design makes a product useful
    A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
  3. Good design is aesthetic
    The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
  4. Good design makes a product understandable
    It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.
  5. Good design is unobtrusive
    Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
  6. Good design is honest
    It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
  7. Good design is long-lasting
    It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years — even in today’s throwaway society.
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail
    Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.
  9. Good design is environmentally-friendly
    Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
  10. Good design is as little design as possible
    Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
Credit: Airbnb Design
  1. Unified
    Each piece is part of a greater whole and should contribute positively to the system at scale. There should be no isolated features or outliers.
  2. Universal
    Airbnb is used around the world by a wide global community. Our products and visual language should be welcoming and accessible.
  3. Iconic
    We’re focused when it comes to both design and functionality. Our work should speak boldly and clearly to this focus.
  4. Conversational
    Our use of motion breathes life into our products, and allows us to communicate with users in easily understood ways.
Credit: Asana
  1. Allow users to focus on their work without interference.
    A user’s focus should be in their control, only distract users with changes that are personally relevant.
  2. Increase confidence through clarity.
    Within the application, and more broadly within teams, it is unambiguous what is happening and why.
  3. Foster productive and emotionally satisfying interpersonal dynamics.
    Users feel like they are part of a team, where they can count on each other to do their part, and feel like they’re moving forward towards a common goal.
  4. Design for fast, effortless, and intentional interactions.
    Simple and common tasks should be frictionless and obvious; complex tasks should feel efficient and delightful. But, speed should not lead to inaccuracies.
  5. Empower everyone through progressive discoverability.
    Everyone at all levels of experience with Asana should feel like they know how to use the product, regardless of how many features they use.
  6. Be consistent and standard, and innovate when it’s worth it.
    Users should feel like Asana is familiar, yet modern.
Credit: Facebook
  1. Universal
    Our mission is to make the entire world more open, and this means reaching every corner, every person. So our design needs to work for everyone, every culture, every language, every device, every stage of life. This is why we build products that work for 90% of users and cut away features that only work for just a minority, even if we step back in the short term.
  2. Human
    Users return to our site to be surrounded by friends and other people near to them. This is a central promise of our product, that the people you care about are all in one place. This is why our voice and visual style stay in the background, behind people’s voices, people’s faces, and people’s expression.
  3. Clean
    Our visual style is clean and understated, to create a blank canvas on which our users live. A minimal, well-lit space encourages participation and honest transparent communication. Clean is the not the easiest approach to visual style. To the contrary, margins and type scale, washes and color become more important as we reduce the number of styles we rely on.
  4. Consistent
    We invest our time wisely, by embracing patterns, recognizing that our usability is greatly improved when similar parts are expressed in similar ways. Our interactions speak to users with a single voice, building trust. Reduce, reuse, don’t redesign.
  5. Useful
    Our product is more utility than entertainment, meant for repeated daily use, providing value efficiently. This is why our core interactions, the ones users engage daily, are streamlined, purged of unnecessary clicks and wasted space.
  6. Fast
    We value our users time more than our own. We recognize faster experiences are more efficient and feel more effortless. As such, site performance is something our users should never notice. Our site should move as fast as we do.
  7. Transparent
    Users trust us with their identity, their photos, their thoughts and conversation. We reciprocate with the utmost honesty and transparency. We are clear and up front about what’s happening and why.

As you can see, design principles come in all shapes and sizes. It’s up to you to decide how much context you need in order for each principle to be valuable. A list of a few words may not be actionable enough, but a few paragraphs may muddy the waters and dilute the message.

As with most thing in the design industry, design principles can fall into the same trap, one where we designers tout them as yet another silver bullet for doing “good” design work as a team. Remember, these aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Design principles are more like training wheels for the designers on your team to put on their bikes so they can all pedal in the same relative direction. This also means you may need to change them out once you get far enough along. The principles that got you from there to here won’t necessarily get you from here to there.

Design Kit from Ideo.org — Overview and step-by-step exercise for creating design principles.

Design Principles — An open source collection of design principles and methods.

Interaction Design Foundation — Further reading and resources on design principles

Ten Principles for Good Design — The home of Dieter Rams and his philosophy on good design.

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