A guide to design principles & why you should be using them
6 minutes read
“In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock”.Thomas Jefferson
What principles do you try to live by? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Don’t be afraid of failure? Don’t be like Donald Trump?
What about when it comes to design? Just as principles can help guide everyday life, design principles can help guide and steer a design. Find out what design principles are, why you and your team should be using them, and how to go about deciding on a set to follow.
What are design principles?
Ben Brignell, creator of the awesome Principles.design website describes design principles as, “A set of considerations that form the basis of any good product”. In other words, design principles are the foundation upon which good products are built.
Design principles come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be universal, company focused or product focused. Let’s look at some examples for each.
Universal design principles
Universal design principles can be applied to any design context. Examples include Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics, Whitney Hess’s 5 guiding principles for experience designers and the following from Dieter Ram’s 10 principles of good design:
- Good design is innovative.
- Good design makes a product useful.
- Good design is aesthetic.
- Good design makes a product understandable.
- Good design is unobtrusive.
- Good design is honest.
- Good design is long-lasting.
- Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
- Good design is environmentally-friendly.
- Good design is as little design as possible.
Company design principles
Company design principles are the most common type of design principles. They outline the principles that a particular company or internal design team hold dear. Examples include the BBC’s GEL (Global Experience Language) design principles, Microsoft’s inclusive design principles and the following from Airbnb’s design system:
- 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.
- Universal: Airbnb is used around the world by a wide global community. Our products and visual language should be welcoming and accessible.
- Iconic: We’re focused when it comes to both design and functionality. Our work should speak boldly and clearly to this focus.
- Conversational: Our use of motion breathes life into our products, and allows us to communicate with users in easily understood ways.
Product design principles
Design principles can also be for a particular product or service, such as the following from Google Calendar’s design principles:
- Fast, visually appealing, and joyous to use
- Drop-dead simple to get information into the calendar
- More than boxes on a screen (reminders, invitations, etc.)
- Easy to share so you can see your whole life in one place
For more example design principles check out Principles.design and Design Principles FTW (for the win). Both list a huge number of different types of design principles, from a wide variety of sources.
Why use design principles?
It’s no coincidence that some of the biggest technology companies in the world, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Airbnb and Microsoft have embraced design principles. Here are some of the benefits of using them.
Design principles help everyone to think about design
Design principles provide guidance and highlight important considerations for designers and non-designers alike. Design principles are especially useful for new starters to a company or team.
Design principles help to steer a design
Design principles help to guide and steer a design throughout the design process. At each point of the process it should be possible to consider and review a design in the context of a shared set of principles. Principles can also help to determine when a design is ready for release and to inform success metrics to track.
Design principles help to drive innovation
Design principles can be an excellent springboard for innovation. For example by forming the nucleus of ‘How might we…’ ideation sessions. We might ask, ‘How might we… create a better conversation with our users’ or, ‘How might we… create a more welcoming experience’?
Design principles help to establish what good looks like
Design principles not only help to build a shared understanding of what good looks like, but can be utilised when evaluating designs. Rather than asking, ‘is this a good design?’ a team can ask, ‘is this a good design in relation to our design principles?’. With multiple designs it’s possible to ask, ‘which of these designs is more closely aligned to our design principles?’.
What makes for good design principles?
Whilst there are no set rules as to what makes for a good set of design principles, in my experience the best design principles are:
- Small in number – Aim for 3-5 principles. This ensures that there isn’t too much to have to consider and remember.
- Concise – Aim for short and concise principles that are written in easy to understand language.
- Memorable – Aim for easy to remember principles. You can even think of your design principles as taglines or catch phrases.
- Actionable – If a principle can’t be obviously applied, then it’s not much use as a principle. Avoid very general principles, such as “Keep it simple” or “Easy to use”.
How to decide on a set of design principles
Hopefully by now you can see that design principles are incredibly useful and have a better idea of what they are and what a good set of principles looks like. But how do you come up with a set of principles in the first place?
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that there’s no set process for deciding on a set of design principles. To some extent it will vary from company to company, and from team to team. The important thing is that it is a collaborative endeavour. A set of design principles that are imposed on a team are unlikely to be embraced or used. Involving a team not only helps to get buy-in but also encourages the team to really think about what makes for a good product or service. The collective journey to a set of design principles is always more valuable than the design principles themselves.
A good strategy for deciding on a set of design principles is as follows.
1. Agree the type of design principles
Firstly, you should agree the type of design principles being drawn up. Are these general design principles, company specific design principles, or product specific design principles?
2. Collect example design principles to provide inspiration
3. Organise an initial design principles workshop
Set-up an initial design principles workshop with as many of the team and stakeholders possible. Don’t just invite designers, aim for a representative group.
4. Collate, compare and agree possible design principles
Introduce design principles, outline why they are important and then split the group up into pairs. Ask each pair to come up with their top 3 design principles, using the examples you collected as inspiration. Then ask pairs to join with another group, compare their principles and choose the best 3. Repeat this combining of groups and pruning principles until you’ve got 10 or so principles identified.
5. Vote for the top 3-5 principles
At the end of the workshop, or as a follow up activity ask everyone to vote for their top 3-5 principles. These votes should inform the eventual design principles but shouldn’t determine them. You want the best design principles, not necessarily the most popular.
6. Use your design principles
Having agreed a set of design principles it’s important to actually use them. Some ways to do this include:
- Writing a blog post explaining what your design principles are, and why they were chosen.
- Making a poster to remind everyone what the agreed design principles are.
- Covering design principles when onboarding new starters.
- Referring back to your design principles in design review sessions.
- Using design principles as thought starters for ideation sessions.
- Using design principles to inform your success metrics.
Design principles are a great way to build a shared understanding of what good looks like for a product and service. They can help everyone to think about design; can help a team to stay on the right design path and can provide a springboard for innovation. Why not join Google, Facebook, Airbnb and countless other tech companies by using design principles for your next design project.
Find out more
- Defining our design principles (UX Collective)
- Design Principles – a guide (cxpartners)
- How to create design principles that people actually use (UX Collective)
- How creating Design Principles helped us become a better design group (UX Planet)