I recently decided to explore the world of corporate design principles. Seeing more and more teams adopt guidelines such as simplicity and consistency as part of their design language got me thinking.

What exactly are design principles? What are they for? Are they useful? How? What makes a good design principle?

Convergence

In an attempt to answer those questions, I pored over the biggest collections of design principles on the internet [1][2], and came to the following conclusion: corporate design principles are a set of shared guidelines that reflect the core design values and vision of a company. They are meant to remind teams what kind of user experience they should be striving for, and help them make decisions. Here are some examples from some well-known brands:

In the Future, Design Principles Won’t Be About Design

You may have noticed that the companies above use the same guidelines. In fact, by digging deeper, I found that almost all companies use one or more of the following:

In the Future, Design Principles Won’t Be About Design

What’s interesting is that these rules don’t apply to a specific product in a specific market. They apply to almost all products in all markets.

Saying that you believe in these 10 design principles when building products is the modern day equivalent of saying you believe in the principles of good design.

Of course, it’s important to value good design and it can even be the key to success. But for experienced designers, these principles are the bread-and-butter of their craft—subconscious truths, working away behind the scenes.

It seems as though design principles have reached a point of convergence. Almost everyone is saying the same thing: we care about crafting simple, user-friendly and delightful experiences. And we don’t want to leave anyone out. We care about design. If these principles are intended to help design teams build the right product, they’re no longer serving their purpose.

Divergence

Not all companies use generic design principles. Some define values tailored to their users, values that help their teams build the right products. These kind of rules reveal how a company’s approach is different from their competitor’s. They don’t say we value good design, they imply it. What they do say is this is how we make decisions. This is what our users need.

In the Future, Design Principles Won’t Be About Design

Manage and upgrade

Upkeep and receiving the newest improvements should be as elegant and predictable as using the product every day.
In the Future, Design Principles Won’t Be About Design

Direction over choice

We purposely traded layout, type, and color choices for guidance and direction. Direction was more appropriate for the product because we wanted people to focus on writing, and not get distracted by choice.
In the Future, Design Principles Won’t Be About Design

Authentic

We value the familiarity and trust placed in us. We acknowledge the BBC’s heritage of iconic design and broadcasting history with subtle references.

So what makes a good design principle? There are some good questions to ask:

  • Is it possible for a fellow designer to disagree with it?

For example, no one (hopefully) would say no to user-friendliness.

  • Does it apply to your product and your users, in particular?

This means a good principle is based on user research. For example, in choosing direction over choice, Dustin Senos and the early Medium team clearly thought about their users: people that want to write uniquely good stories, as opposed to making them look uniquely different.

  • What are you trading off?

Establishing that an app should be fast and beautiful doesn’t require you to sacrifice anything. It’s not a difficult decision to make. A good principle should be a tradeoff, a choice. For example, deciding that your app should be fast over beautiful is a better principle. Next time you have to decide whether or not to include that amazing 3D animation that happens to double your page’s load time, you’ll know what to do.

Finding principles for which you have answers to all the above is challenging. But doing so can help you define principles that ensure your users’ needs are constantly prioritised. Principles that make your product better. Principles that serve their intended purpose.

What’s next

If they aren’t as useful, then why is it that so many companies repackage and promote the fundamental principles of good design, over and over again?

One possibility is that design thinking — the fundamental idea that “good design is good business” — is still not mainstream enough. To many people, it’s still not obvious. Some designers still need to justify why what they do is important. Some managers still have to explain to their CEO why they need more product designers.

And some companies still need principles to communicate—internally and externally—what good design is, and why it matters.

But there’s a catch. Far from being black and white, exactly where a principle lives on the spectrum of we care about design to this is what our users need can be ambiguous. Take something like fun for example. It’s a commonly held opinion that cute animations and microcopy entertain, engage and retain users. But how commonly? Is it applicable to all products, users and markets? Is it a hallmark of good design or a response to specific user behaviours? I believe the jury is still out. Not only is design’s role in business evolving, but so is design itself.

So are design principles still serving their purpose? Are they useful? It all depends on what your principles and purpose are. If your organization wants to spread awareness of design best practices, then generic principles may make sense for the time being. But as the industry evolves and concepts such as simplicity, consistency and accessibility become unquestionably valuable, design principles will be more about users, and less about design.

In the Future, Design Principles Won’t Be About Design

[1] principles.adactio.com

[2] designprinciplesftw.com

Thanks to Jeremy Keith [1], Marcela Machuca and Gabriel Svennerberg [2] for putting these resources together!

And thank you for reading 💛

When I’m not pondering the future of design I’m building zeroheight to give every design team a design system 🎨 🚀

Note: Thanks Jerome for contributing to our blog with this article.