Design Principles

Strong principles are the foundation of any digital system. It is the best way to be sure that the purpose of the product or company manifests itself in the design. Depending on the company, they may be more focused on culture, brand or the design process.

Design Principles are rules that guide and support the purpose of the product team, act as tools to make decisions and help create a distinctive character.

Larger companies sometimes have separate principles for UX, brand, marketing, and product. While this may work for some companies, the preferred method is to have one common set so as not to create a fragmented system.

'It is one system. The principles are there to connect the dots.' - Jurgen Spangl, Head of Design at Atlassian

Qualities of good design principles

They are authentic and genuine

What makes principles helpful is knowing exactly what the words mean to you, your team, and your company. Therefore, the more unique and concrete they are, the easier it will be to interpret and put them into practice.

'Simple, useful, enjoyable'. They are not genuine at all. Can you imagine a product with principles such as 'complex', 'unuseful' or 'boring'?

They are practical and actionable

They should offer some kind of guidance in how to make decisions and solve problems. Think about them as something that gives you advices when building your product.

For example, one of TED Design Principles is 'Be timeless, not cutting edge', This helps designers make decisions in their day-to-day work.

They help you prioritise

Principles help give priority to one thing over another when there is a difficult decision make. Should this page be more visual, or more functional? Should this section be more serious or more playful? Good design principles help prioritise and balance, especially when there are conflicting factors to consider.

Salesforce have 4 design principles ordered by priority: 'Clarity. Efficiency. Consistency. Beauty'. This means that clarity is more important than consistency, efficiency, or beauty. Ordering principles is a great way to always remember that.

They are relatable and memorable

The number of principles and how they are written is very important. To be memorable, the principles must be in constant use. They should be in day-to-day conversations, in presentations, even on the walls if necessary. Try to have between 3-5 principles so ensure they can be remembered.

Spotify, for example, uses an acronym to help the team to remember their 4 design principles. 'T.O.N.E.', which means 'Tone, Usable, Necessary, Emotive.' These kind of tactics are great to ensure teams remember and use the principles.

Action / Defining your principles

  1. Start thinking about the purpose of your company or product.

  2. Organise a workshop with key members that represent different disciplines and projects in order to align on principles that authentically represent the brand and team

  3. Focus on your audience. Who is going to use those principles in their day-to- day?

  4. Keep testing and evolving. Don't worry to define the perfect principles on the first try—start with a good set, observe and shift if necessary.

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