The need to define our design principles came about as there were various teams doing different brand work. We needed a set of guidelines, something we all could adhere to when approaching our design work.
The intended outcome
The going to creating a set of principles was to walk away with a set of guidelines for doing brand work. This would help ensure alignment between the work produced by the various teams and their respective disciplines.
What determines good design can be subjective, this would give us something solid to defend our work against.
The Design Principles process was started by calling for us to workshop a set of guiding principles to adhere to. It outlined the purpose and intended outcome mentioned at the start of this article along with some homework.
Here’s an extract from the email that went out:
“…In preparation for the design principles workshop on Thursday, I have a little homework for you.
In your mind — write down the design principles you think we should adhere to and bring them with you.
Try keep this to only a few, perhaps 5 as a limit.
Check out these sites if you need some inspiration:
This will be an interactive session, so bring your ideas and opinions…”
I felt it was important that some thought be put in beforehand, I wanted to avoid concluding with a set of principles that had not been carefully considered.
Teams are busy
Teams can have a great deal on their plates, so asking people to do additional proactive work is a big ask.
For us, defining principles was very much a team effort. Diverse opinions matter, and I wanted everyone attending the workshop to feel part of the process. In an email reminder the day before the workshop, I was sure to also mention the following:
“…Please bring the list of principles I asked you to create previously to this workshop, if you have not had the time to do this, don’t stress, please attend anyway…”
1. What are design principles?
Design Principles are a set of considerations that form the basis of any good design or product.
2. Why use them?
Design Principles help teams with decision making. A few simple principles or constructive questions will guide your team towards making appropriate decisions.
3. Who uses them?
Organisations, individuals and product teams have benefited from writing and following their principles.
The purpose of having design principles is to align people around what really matters.
We all have a shared sense of what’s important and true to us.
Principles move us away from superficial things like what “feels right” and what “looks good” and gives purpose in the things we create.
5. Dieter Rams: 10 Principles for Good Design
Back in the late 1970s, Dieter Rams was becoming increasingly concerned by the state of the world around him — “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.”
Aware that he was a significant contributor to that world, he asked himself an important question: is my design good design?
As good design cannot be measured in a finite way, he set about expressing the ten most important principles for what he considered was good design. Sometimes they are referred as the ‘Ten commandments’.
Here they are.
- Good design is innovative
- Good design makes a product/service useful
- Good design is aesthetically pleasing
- 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
Dieter Rams had a big influence on Jonny Ive, an English industrial designer who is currently the Chief Design Officer (CDO) of Apple and chancellor of the Royal College of Art in London. This influence is evident in some of the products he helped create at Apple.
Design principles can also be specific to a certain context, for example, Apple have put together a set of 6 Design Principles specifically for the iOS 11 version of their iPhone platform software.
7. What are good design principles?
This quote does a good job of summarising it:
“Good principles are solid. There is a weightiness, a certainty behind them. What looks right, what feels good — these are superficial things. A great designer defends her work based on principles that last, past one decision, past a thousand, that aren’t carried by whichever way the wind blows.”
— Julie Zhuo
8. What defines your brand?
Now that you have an understanding of what design principles are, it’s time to look at what defines your brand. Reflect on the various purpose and mission statements put forward by your business to date. Hold onto these and stay true to them as you embarked on your journey of developing Design Principles you’d like to abide by.
9. Exercise 1 — What feeling do you get from your brand?
With each person armed with a pack of post-it notes, write down what feeling they got from your brand. Try sticking to between one to three word answers only. Write each feeling down on a separate note the have everyone proceeded to stick these up on a board/wall or window. Group the most popular phrases together at the top of the board, filtering the less commen ones lower down on the list.
This can be rather insightful and help to clarify some of the perceptions team members have about your brand.
9. Exercise 2 — What are the brand’s character and values?
Follow the same process, again sticking to between one and three words to describe the brand’s character and values. Once again, arrange the notes on another board.
To help guide both exercises, put up a few slides with random words that everyone could draw inspiration from. This also helps to keep each exercise to shorter intervals.
10. Reflect on both exercises, and confirm your truths
Now put on the lense of the outside world, how do you want your brand to be perceived? Looking at the results of both exercise one and two, ask if there is anything you want to change, then add or remove those items from the lists.
The results from these exercises will help you to form an understanding of the outcomes you’d like your principles to achieve.
11. Design principles
After reflecting, ask everyone to re-look the design principles they jotted down in their homework and write down the ones still important onto post-it notes.
Move around the room with each person sticking their principles up on the wall with a brief explanation of why they think it should be considered. As each person gets up and reveals their principle list, group similar ideas together, you’ll start to see a pattern forming with some clear themes emerging. These are the pillars that will form your design principles.
When done, discuss each theme and try to capture a title for each one. These are your design principles. Use the collective group of notes below the titles to formulate and describe what each of these principles mean or represent.
Brand or design? Something to think about.
During the process, you may find some people talking about brand, and others talk about design. Ultimately, you need to create alignment between everyone.
The way I think of it, design principles align to brand principles, and therefore, brand comes first. Design principles should reflect the brand, so if you have very specific design related principles on your lists, may I suggest grouping these ideas into a guiding principle that enables those design ideas. The aim is to create a list of principles, that when read, have context for both brand and design.
The descriptions you put to those principles, inform how you look at or execute design. Interrogate your list and ask if they are principles, or just objectives.
12. A practical checklist for strong principles
Use this checklist to evaluate your list of principles. If they don’t tick all these boxes, you still have some work to do.
- They are authentic and genuine — Give them meaning
- They are practical and actionable — Offer guidence
- They have a point of view — Priority and balance, don’t try to be everything for everyone
- They are relatable and memorable — Referred to in everyday conversations
13. Assign hierarchy
Its important to assign a hierarchy to your final list of principles. Eveything you do going forward, needs to be evaluated against your list of principles. You’ll need clarity on which principles should be taking preference.
13.1. Stacking order
Let’s assume “Clarity” and “Consistency” are two principles you abide by. You feel that by being consistent and aligning the established design patterns sacrifices clarity in your application. Should clarity trump consistency, or is consistency more important? There could be valid argumants made on both sides, but with a hierarchy of principles, it’s clear which principle takes preference, and there is no debate.
Number each of your principles starting at one. Principle number one has the highest priority and trumps all others on the list, number two has the second highest priority, number three the third highest and so on.
13.2. Hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states the following:
People are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on.
Sticking to principles takes dedication, and in some cases, certain principles may not be achievable due to the nature of the project or a ridiculously short deadline. You should always strive to align to all your principles, but if you can’t, this is where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes into play.
Group your principles into a tiered pyramid like in Maslow’s law of basic need, psychological needs and then self-fulfillment needs.
Jessie Chen wrote a great article on how she used this tool aligned to the metaphor of building a burger or sandwich. Basic needs are the bread, psychological needs are the ingredients, and self-fulfillment needs are the sauce.
We’ll use this metaphor for example. You can’t build a burger without the bread, similarly the base tier contains those principles that are non-negotiable, every piece of work needs to adhere to the principles in this tier or it cannot go out.
Ingredients then go on the bread, likewise, the next stack of principles go on top, you should strive to always adhere to the principles in this tier.
Lastly, the sauce, it pulls the entire sandwich together, not 100% required, but it stops the meal from being dry, it adds flavour. The last set of principles are the same, if left out, you be okay, but using the principles in this tier will help help pull everything together.
Here is a link to Jessie’s article:
14. How to apply in practice?
Few teams seem to do this, but I’d suggest adding a section below your final set of design principles that give examples of how to apply these principles in practice. Earlier in this article I mentioned thinking about brand versus design principles, you could list some of those design specific principles as examples.
Let’s assume one of your principles is to make sure everything is “aesthetically pleasing”. A practical example to include here could be something like “embrace white space” or “stick to a simple colour pallet”.
Examples simply help to make each principle richer, but are not necessarily rules that need to be applied.