Design principles

Design principles are rules that will help guide you and your team while making important decisions throughout your projects. Whether they’re high-level and universal, or specific to your project/product, they have the power to unify all your collaborators around what is most important to you and your users. Here, we’ll look more into what design principles are, why you need them, and when and how to write them.

What are design principles?

Design principles are a set of values that act as a compass for your product. They’re an agreed upon truth: the guideposts that keep your entire team on the same path as you move through the design process. Design principles should be specific, nuanced, and actionable.

Universal vs. specific design principles

Universal design principles are more general laws of design. They help define how users behave regardless of the specific context. In her article, So You Wanna be a User Experience Designer, Whitney Hess curates high-level directives like Understand the underlying problem before attempting to solve it and Make things simple and intuitive as part of her five guiding principles. She means for these to be broadly applicable: You could be designing an experience for a financial institution or a media company, and these would still be true.

The test for great specific design principles is that you can’t easily transfer them between companies or industries. They bring your user experience vision to life in a way that is unique to your mission and user base. You’ll know you have these right when you can validate them through research.

Why do you need design principles?

Design principles help you establish the values of your product, and then make decisions that uphold the integrity of those values. When you have a set of agreements to come back to throughout an iterative design process, your team automatically has a shared language and set of criteria to use while working together.

Design principles keep the research alive long after that phase is over

Daniel Miranda

Design Research + Strategy, The New York Times

New team members and stakeholders might come in to this project months or years after the research was done, and design principles help ensure the original intentions and needs of the users are documented and upheld.

In A Matter of Principle, Facebook’s VP of product design Julie Zhou says that design principles also allow for a democratic spread of decision-making and empowerment across big teams.

Instead of relying on gatekeepers to keep a high quality bar, better instead that everyone gets to agreement on a smaller set of guiding values, so that the best decisions get made in a consistent manner, scaling across many decisions, and even many designers.

Julie Zhuo

VP, Product Design, Facebook

Wondering what this looks like? Quartz, the digitally native news outlet, created design principles for their launch in 2012 and relied on them to make decisions during their 2014 redesign. Principles like Stay out of the users’ way and Let the stories shine are specific to how they think about their users’ experience—and are very different from other consumer news outlets.

Quartz’s senior editor Zach Seward told that those principles led them to prioritize reducing clutter on the site during their redesign. For example, they folded the left-hand navigation bar with top stories into a header bar that disappears when readers scroll down, and reappears when they scroll back up. This allows the reader to fully focus on the story they’re currently reading. It lets the stories shine.

Design principles are also important for giving feedback, among teammates but also with stakeholders or clients. Since you’ve already agreed on the principles up front, you have a source of objective truth to return to. Asking for feedback in terms of whether the design does or doesn’t meet the design principles is a helpful way to keep personal, biased, or subjective opinions out of the conversation.

When should I write design principles?

When following a human-centered design methodology, you’ll likely start with research to come up with revealing insights about human needs and behavior. Design principles are often formed after this and are the so what implications of how those insights will look, feel, and sound to an end user. You can think of this as moving from the concept phase to the build phase. It’s when you ask, how do we make this real?

Just like the design process itself, your principles will probably go through multiple iterations. Start early, with the awareness that you’ll be saving lots and lots of drafts. “I start thinking about design principles during synthesis,” says Daniel. “If one of our insights doesn’t feel like it sits at the same level as the rest, if it feels more narrow or directive, I put it aside for consideration as a design principle. But I don’t feel like they’re final until we’re past concept development and rounds of feedback.”

How do you write design principles?

Start by blocking off time with your team to facilitate a conversation. If you’ve just finished research, you can use thought starters like:

  • What lessons did we learn?
  • What ran counter to our hypotheses?

Or you can stay broad with:

  • How do we want our users to feel?
  • How do we want our design to be perceived?

If you’re at a different point in your process, try asking:

  • If we were to onboard a new teammate tomorrow, what are the most important things they should know?
  • What things are unique to our users that can’t be ignored when we design for them?

As you go around and share, you’ll likely notice a good amount of agreement, which is a great place to start. But here’s where you’ll need to make sure your specific design principles meet the criteria of being nuanced and actionable. Make it simple isn’t a great specific design principle on its own, for three reasons:

  1. It’s missing the why: Why does this specifically matter to your audience?
  2. It’s not nuanced: No one is going to argue with you that the product should actually be extremely complicated.
  3. It’s not actionable: Your teammates won’t know how to make a decision based on it.

If the principle included prioritization—Make it simple at the expense of robust functionality—then you’d have clear criteria to evaluate if a new feature belongs in the app or not.

Your most helpful and interesting design principles will be the ones rooted in tension. They will speak to prioritization. They will incite disagreement of interpretation among team members. As Daniel says, “the build phase is where compromises will definitely need to be made. Your design principles will help you understand and remind you what’s worth fighting for.”

For example, let’s say one of your design principles is:

  • Everyone wants to feel special, so we’ll always go above and beyond for our customers.

It would make sense to the whole team that certain interactions require high-touch person-to-person communication rather than digital-only submission forms.

Or if one of your design principles is:

  • People are usually multi-tasking when engaging with us, so keep every interaction as short and sweet as possible.

It would make sense when your team designs features that maximize time and efficiency.

Design principles are YOUR principles

As Stephanie Hornung says in her article, “Principles can vary widely. They can be broad and inspiring, specific and guiding, or seemingly simple and obvious.” The most important thing in the end, is that they reflect your culture and are useful to your team.

For examples of design principles from companies like Facebook, Apple, and Lyft, check out Anton Badashov’s great list here.

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