When you're working on objectively evaluating your design guidelines, be aware of those sneaky-yet-appealing design principles that aren't actually principles at all. They’re all style, with very little, if any, substance to back them up. They read like marketing copy, or catchy product slogans you’d see in a magazine or on a billboard.

Such principles are, in a word: Fluff.

Sure, fluff might make you feel good, or even inspired ... for a little while. But, just as you get hungry a few hours after eating fast food because your body still wants nutrition, fluff will eventually leave you craving more. They sound great, but when you think about them, or try to apply them, they aren’t really meaty or actionable. They more closely resemble propaganda than actual concrete guidelines to help you maintain quality, consistency, and vision.

And there’s another -- arguably even bigger -- problem with fluff. Fluff sets up a cognitive disconnect between expectation and reality, both for design recruits and for the customer. Design recruits, for instance, may get super-excited about a fluffy-sounding principle and think: “Yes! That’s what I want to do!” only to discover, once hired, it isn’t actually how things are done. It couldn’t be, as fluff doesn’t really offer true guidance.

And customers could easily get hyped about a fancy, fluffy sounding principle, only to discover that reality is, by necessity, a wee bit different. (After all, reality never lives up to the promises of propaganda.)

In practice

The guidelines in both columns, below, are taken from companies who purport to have thought about their design philosophy and principles. Those in the left column, however, read like marketing ad copy. They feel great … but it’s hard to imagine that those catchy words and phrases offer real day-to-day guidance to the design team. Perhaps things operate differently -- by a more concrete set of rules -- behind-the-scenes, which is a recipe for cognitive disconnect.

The principles on the right, on the other hand, aren’t quite as slick as those on the left, but they are focused and specific, and clearly offer the means by which members of the design team can gauge their work and create consistent products.                                           

Concrete, useful design principles may not be as sexy as fluff. They may not make you want to jump up and salute ... but they will make your products better because they’re substantive and proscriptive, realistic, and do-able. 

And most importantly, real design principles are created, agreed upon, and can be followed by the whole design team. Which ultimately feels even better than the temporary high conferred by fluff.