Design Principles & why they matter (a lot)

Design Principles are one of those key ingredients that shape the actual perceived usability & vision of a certain product under the hood, and that at a first glance could almost appear as the output of a bunch of meaningless marketing jargon but whose real purpose goes so far beyond that.

I was initially able to reflect on the understated importance of Design Principles during my internship with Mailchimp in Atlanta about two years ago, which marked a significant point in my career as a Front-End Engineer.

As a matter of fact, being able to see how such an established company thinks about its product & the Design aspect connect to it is absolutely fascinating, and I gotta say that I truly learned a lot from that experience.

Design Principles encompass the whole philosophy that defines & surrounds a certain product, they act as a framework for decision making, they become collaborative tools to bridge the communication gaps with other teams & stakeholders, and ultimately shape the whole look & feel of the product with their values.

They also help to establish a common vocabulary across different teams/squads, which can serve as a helpful tool during internal product meetings.

A great example of Design Principles

Let's take a nice example of great design principles and analyse them, so to better understand their intrinsic purpose and value.

  • Content First
  • Be Alive
  • Get Familiar
  • Do Less
  • Stay Authentic
  • Lagom

These principles are so specific and precise in their intent, and they clearly communicate what Spotify values in a User Experience.

They tell a lot about the way Spotify thinks about product, how they want to present content, personalisation, not over-engineering and being very intentional about what they’re putting forward.

The last principle "Lagom" is actually a cool Swedish word for "just enough", which is like a common way of life to indicate the need for the perfect balance when it comes to things.

If we were to point out what makes for great Design Principles we could confidently borrow Alla Kholmatova's principles as an interesting starting point (they're included in her book "Design Systems. A Practical Guide To Creating Design Languages for Digital Products").

Great Design Principles

  • They're specific.
  • They're actionable.
  • They're impressionable.
  • They have a point of view.
  • They're living.

Specificity is probably the most important aspect to keep in mind among those 5 principles when it comes to conceptualising new Design Principles, as having a clear picture in your mind about what the brand wants to convey to its end-users and preserving the unicity of the core values is vital.

Actionable refers to the fact that new Design Principles need to be concrete and practical in their intent so that you can effectively act upon them to make a real impact.

Impressionable because a design principle needs to have a soul, a well-defined motif that gets stuck in your head whenever you think about it.

They have a point of view because of course they need to be opinionated somehow, otherwise they wouldn't be able to properly reflect the brand values and would defeat their own effective purpose.

They're living because they need to be flexible enough in order to accommodate any new tension points and discoveries related to the brand. They have the capacity to evolve over time and renew themselves.

What about you? Have you ever taken part in the brainstorming process for new Design Principles in your company? How did you decide what was important in shaping those principles?

Please feel free to share your experience & thoughts about this topic down in the comments!