The Devil in the Details

You’d be hard pressed to find a designer who would argue against the importance of design principles, and for good reason. Design principles help designers do their jobs, and that’s just for starters. Usability and design expert Jared Spool has written that “Great design principles help designers learn more about their design and make critical decisions about what they’re building.” 

And, in a recent article in  Smashing Magazine, Dave Schools opined that “A company proves that it has a strong creative process by developing successful products repeatedly. … [and] with invariable dedication to design principles, a company distinguishes itself by following a creative process led by a skillful team of product designers and engineers.”

Indeed, without design principles, you and your team would have no yardstick against which to measure how your designs align with the company goals and vision. Plus, maintaining consistency and quality without principles and guidelines is virtually impossible -- and in that guideline-free world, everybody from the company to the designers to the customer loses. As Luke W. points out, design guidelines are necessary on a purely practical level in order to “keep the pieces of a project moving toward an integrated whole.”

But it’s all well and good to agree that design principles are important. Clearly,  though, not all principles are created equal. There are great ones, good ones, not-so-good ones, and downright terrible ones. So how do you know which ones are useful? How do you judge which ones will help you create successful designs? After all, if just any old principle would do that, there wouldn’t be so many poorly designed products out there.

It seems like a less-than-great design principle would be easy to spot, and identifying a truly bad one would be child’s play. Everyone would agree that a principle such as “When in doubt, add more color!” is pretty terrible. But in reality, what distinguishes a great from a not-so-great design principle is not as obvious as you might think. Sometimes it’s even counterintuitive.

Case in point: There don’t seem to be any obvious problems with Facebook’s design principles. And in fact, they’re pretty decent:

  • Universal: our design needs to work for everyone, every culture, every language, every device, every stage of life.
  • Human: our voice and visual style stay in the background, behind people’s voices, people’s faces, and people’s expression.
  • Clean: our visual style is clean and understated.
  • Consistent: reduce, reuse, don’t redesign.
  • Useful: meant for repeated daily use
  • Fast: faster experiences are more efficient and feel more effortless.
  • Transparent: we are clear and upfront about what’s happening and why.

After all, it’s hard to argue with organizing principles that dictate a design should be useful and clean. And who doesn’t love fast effortless experiences? Indeed, there’s nothing inherently wrong with striving for any of these goals.

But there is an issue here. How are you as a designer supposed to gauge whether or not your designs conform to these principles? In other words -- where’s the actual instruction in these grand ideas? If you were a Facebook designer, how could you use these principles as a foolproof yardstick for your designs?

Simply put, you probably couldn’t, and therein lies the problem. Facebook’s design principles are pretty good, sure, but because they are so broad, they fall short of being great. Great design principles need something more: They need specificity. As Luke W. puts it:

That is, they should be specific enough to help groups of people choose between different design options. Unfortunately, many team's first tendency when creating design principles is to go too broad. Principles like 'make it easy to use,' 'keep it fast,' or 'put the user first' are usually some of the most common ideas that spring to mind.

And there’s another issue with these principles -- they border on universality. (Indeed the very first principle is “Universal.”) Now, you may be thinking: “What’s wrong with universality? Isn’t it great that a principle is timeless, and applies to all people everywhere?”

The thing is, timelessness and universality are great when it comes to enduring themes in a great work of literature or art. But in this context, striving for universality is conflating best practices with actual design principles. Take, for example, German industrial designer Dieter Ram’s Design Commandments:

  • Good design is innovative
  • Good design makes a product useful
  • Good design is aesthetic
  • Good design helps a product to be understood
  • Good design is unobtrusive
  • Good design is honest
  • Good design is thorough to the last detail
  • Good design is concerned with the environment
  • Good design is as little design as possible

It’s hard to argue with these as ideals -- honesty, thoroughness, innovation are laudable design goals, to be sure. But these are so universal that they are in fact best practices, not specific design guidelines that could help your team stay on message with a product. While best practices can be broad and universal, design principles, to be actionable and useful, must be narrow and specific to your company and product, and yours alone. 

Let’s break it down. 

Great design principles:

  • Offer guidance. If you’ve just created a design you should be able to check it against your company’s design principles and know with certainty whether this design does or does not conform to the product mission and vision
  • Are not open to interpretation. While it seems like being open is a good thing, it isn’t when it comes down to making a decision about whether or not your design align with the product vision. That’s why, for example,  “Choose sans serif fonts” is a much better principle than “Choose pretty fonts.” Broad principles are too open to interpretation, and as such can’t do the very job they're meant to do.
  • Help you say “no.” Sure, saying “yes” might feel better but it’s not going to make your designs better, and broad principles don’t help you say “no. ” In fact, Jared Spool points to this as one of the most important qualities of a great design principle. He advises, “As a rule of thumb, a great principle should make the team reconsider two-thirds of the designs that came before them. It helps the team say “This idea isn’t completely baked yet. Keep pushing on it.” It becomes the razor between good and great.”
  • Differentiate you from your competition. Because they could apply to any product, broad guidelines can’t distinguish you from the competition, another quality Spool cites as necessary for a great design principle. Broad guidelines aren't specific to your product or your mission. They don’t reveal anything about what makes you unique, and, in that sense, they’re generic and could probably apply to just about anything.

Remember: while how one responds to a completed design may be subjective, design guidelines shouldn’t be -- they should be objective ways to evaluate a design.