Design principles set the foundation for consistently articulating design choices and prioritizing trade-offs across the design team and the wider organization.
☕ Design principles set the foundation for good design
The pursuit of consistency and coherence in design becomes a paramount concern for design teams as they work on their products over time. This encompasses not only the manifestation of design artifacts such as user interface and user experience design but also extends to the underlying decision-making processes. In other words, it involves the systematic evaluation and prioritization of design preferences and trade-offs and the clear articulation of these choices. This becomes an even more critical factor in the quest for attaining a level of good design.
Even with the best process, designing products is messy. There is a stream of trade-offs to consider between various insights, design choices, technical execution, and business goals. There are also constant feedback and ideas from the rest of the product team or the wider organization to filter through and act on. Under time pressure, fast decisions have to be made.
Creating design principles is usually an attempt by the design team to create a reasonable foundation for articulating these design choices and trade-offs.
Design principles help in making these decisions not just faster, but also more consistent and aligned to what design quality the team wants to reach. This also allows designers to get more proactive on incoming feedback - what should be considered (and why) and what shouldn’t. Additionally, having the principles in place lets the design team act on their vision and strategy and connect those to the design decisions made by the team members.
Principles can be formulated on multiple levels, for example as an alternative phrasing to team values (team principles) or a description of how the team intends to work (process or culture principles). Design principles (product design principles or experience principles) focus on the quality of the output and outcomes the design team, or more broadly the product organization creates. They should be closely connected to the user’s experience, so created with a human-centered mindset.
To create design principles, some teams just sit down to describe some aspirational values. This almost always results in a vague and ultimately unhelpful list. Just consider, how many teams have a variation of “simple” as a design principle.
Great design principles need to be specific (to the product), emergent, and collaborative.
Specific to the product means the design principles should reflect what the product strives to achieve, how that is expressed in the product, and what the design strategy aims at. And particularly what the users want to do with the product. Design principles need to be based on insights we collect via user research.
When starting out with design principles, the design team probably has a vague idea of what needs to be achieved. This might come down to the personal preferences or tastes of the designers and the learning from past projects. Collecting what worked well in the past, or trying to create design principles for individual projects helps better to understand the goals for design principles than any outside inspiration or definition. Bottom-up, emergent design principles are more grounded in team members’ reality and are easier to adopt.
Even if design principles are just used by the design team, creating principles should be a group effort, as they will ultimately affect everyone working on the product. This establishes ownership and diversity of thought in the creation process.
Finding the right words to formulate design principles is also not easy. Even if there are content designers or writers on the team, the words need to be iterated, discussed, and polished to closely capture the shared intent. I prefer the even-over method but added a few more ways for the creation below.
Great design principles are also more than just a few nice phrases. To illustrate the discussions behind, additional rationale, examples, dos and don’ts help. These are also useful when sharing the principles with a wider audience or when onboarding new team members.
One practice I found very useful in the past is the ranking of principles. Design principles are about qualities the team wants to prioritize, which means certain design choices might be at odds with each other. Setting a clear order clarifies how they should be applied.
Once design principles are created and shared, they can be used in a few ways:
- Describing intent (what constraints principles have on design projects).
- Inspiring new solutions.
- Articulating choices (when prioritizing or presenting design decisions).
- Providing design critique.
Design leaders can use design principles to improve the shared understanding in the team of what good looks like and scale direction. It’s also a good tool to talk about design goals in the wider organization and express what good design looks like.
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Liked this design principle use case from Gusto: How to Create Design Principles You’ll Actually Use by Jason Marder. Describes a lot of nuances and the thinking that goes into such a process. Also has good examples of how to involve design team members beyond brainstorming. The idea of collecting existing examples for the MVP principles sounds like a great way to establish precedence.
Maria Rosala writes about the general definition of design principles in Crafting Product-Specific Design Principles to Support Better Decision Makingand gives a simple framework to create your own. The steps are:
- Identify core values (for the product the team is working on and may come from vision and mission).
- Consider how these values impact users (to make sure design principles are user-centered).
- Identify any common tradeoffs (describe common conflicts that need prioritization).
- Write, compare, and iterate. She also gives some ideas on how to make principles known in the wider organization.
While creating design principles might be tricky enough on its own, deciding if they are great principles is another story. This is where Jared Spool’s Creating Great Design Principles: 6 Counter-intuitive Tests helps. As the article writes, high-level and overly aspirational design principles are not useful and effective, it’s better to have more specific phrases. The six tests each describe an aspect the principles should fulfill. They are:
- Does it come directly from research?
- Does it help you say “no” most of the time?
- Does it distinguish your design from your competitors’?
- Is it something you might reverse in a future release?
- Have you evaluated it for this project?
- Is its meaning constantly tested? Great design principles should get a yes to all of these.
What makes a good design principle? is an excellent article by Matthew Ström that I found very helpful in formulating principles in the past - or more generally formulating any sort of decision guideline. He gives four criteria to evaluate design principles, they should be memorable, help to say no, be not truisms, and should be applicable. He also describes a simple shortcut to apply these criteria by using “even over” statements.
There is a lot to learn from this case study, Creating Etsy’s Design Principles by Magera Moon. Their principles are about design excellence and while initiated by the design group, it’s co-created by collaborating with other disciplines too. This way principles can and will appear beyond the design team’s conversations.
Jerome de Lafargue writes about how corporate design principles seem to converge in In the future, design principles won’t be about design. As design principles become more general (like “Simple”), they don’t apply anymore to a single product or to a portfolio of products, but to all possible products on the market, thus convergence is inevitable. So they are not much better than just using the principles of good design. The article also gives some points to what makes a good design principle (opinionated, applies to own context, and establishes trade-offs). The conclusion about convergence is, that as good design is generally adopted in a given industry, design principles need to be focused more on users.
Design Principles FTW by Meetod is a vast collection of design principles (“921 and counting”). While adopting design principles from other organizations is not recommended - context differs after all -, it’s great to explore for inspiration. Most sets also have links that provide more context or describe how teams defined their principles.