Corporate culture is everywhere these days: It's discussed at length in blogs, articles, and seminars. The web is exploding with information about how to foster a great culture at work. If you've seen any of these articles, you'll already know that a great culture facilitates growth, improves employee well-being and promotes customer success. In a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture,” author John Coleman cites vision, values, practices, people, narrative, and place as the fundamental building blocks of a stand-out corporate culture. And these six components of culture, in some version or other, are still the most explored, discussed, and debated aspects of culture.

Notice something missing? There’s nothing about the nitty gritty of design. Taken together, what the well-meaning authors of all these blog posts and articles seem to be saying is: How you design a product has nothing to do with your culture. Meanwhile, articles devoted to design generally focus on how to make things pretty, or sell-able, or cool, or speak of design principles in a self-contained bubble.

But stop and think for a moment: What’s the end result of design? It’s your product, of course, and what could be a more tangible manifestation of your culture out in the world than the product you’re selling to the public?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of these -seemingly disparate- aspects of your company -- vision, mission, values, design principles, customer success -- as separate components, each in its own “box.” But maintaining a separation between those lofty ideas about culture and the on-the-ground work -- like design -- is a dangerous separation.

The truth is, everything -- every department, every concept, every guideline and process -- is (or should be) part of the organic whole of your company. If these moving parts don’t relate to one another, then each separate part is weaker. When each component is understood as a part of a whole, however, then every single part contributes to the overall good. (Yes, it’s a bit like the Borg.)

Core values and design principles: Separate at your own risk.

Core values are an important part of culture, yes, but they aren't (or shouldn’t be) abstract. Sure, some companies pay lip service to their values, or have some generic values that no one cares about hanging up on the wall. That’s akin to building your house on a foundation of sand. Take Ulta Beauty's core value of “Do What’s Right.” It’s a bit generic, and judging from the scathing reviews written by employees on Glassdoor, it may not, in fact, have been written from a place of deep thought and intent.

Simply put, great core values are high-level strategy. According to strategy guru Michael Porter, “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.” Compare this L.L. Bean core value statement to Ulta Beauty’s: “ Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more.” And unlike Ulta, L.L. Bean is on the Forbes list of 100 Best Places to Work.

Design principles should be a natural extension of these types of solid, specific, and unique core values. Where core values speak to high-level strategy, design principles are about on-the-ground tactics. Great design principles are a natural extension of your unique core values. They aren't random, separate guidelines. They have a purpose other than making something pretty. Design guidelines are there to ensure that the tangible face of your company — the product — aligns with your values.

That means it all has to start with a good set of values — values that express your mission, your approach, and your strategy. This must be in place for the design guidelines to make sense. After all, a solid house needs a strong foundation.

Good core values matter because:
  • They are strategic
  • They are high level
  • They’re about setting your course

Your core values are the “what” part of the equation. What do you hope to accomplish with your product in the world? What do you want people to say about you and your company? What do you want people to think of and do with your product? What do you want your product to do for them? Ultimately, the core values address the strategic question “What do we hope to accomplish?”

Design principles matter because:
  • They are tactical
  • They express how you, on a day-to-day-level, are going to accomplish your high level strategy.
  • They’re responsible for the public face of your culture and mission: the product

Design principles are the “how” to the “what” of core values. Design principles are tactics, and they should answer the question: “How are we going to accomplish what we want to accomplish?”

In the real world, vague and generic statements can’t really serve as high-level strategy in any meaningful way. Salesforce, for example, lists “Wellness,” “Fun,” and “Transparency” among their 8 core values. While admirable traits to be sure, there isn’t much of a framework for action here, and as a result their design principles are similarly broad. For example, “Clarity — Eliminate ambiguity. Enable people to see, understand, and act with confidence,” is nonspecific and doesn’t describe how to achieve anything from a tactical standpoint.

Asana’s core values, on the other hand, are unique to them as a company, and clearly answer the strategic “What.” Take this Asana core value: “A fundamental problem with modern work is that too much time is spent trying to figure out what’s going on. We try to make it as easy as possible for teams to have the information they need to excel at their work.”

What do they want to accomplish? To make it easy for teams to excel at their work.

How will they accomplish this through their design principles? In their words: “Allow users to focus on their work without interference. A user’s focus should be in their control, only distract users with changes that are personally relevant.”

How will they make it easy for teams to excel at their work? By not distracting people with irrelevant changes.

Remember, your product is the public face of your company, and that means design principles are very much a part of your culture, and to reflect your culture accurately, they should flow from your strong core values.