The basics

A design principle is a fundamental idea about how something should work. It’s a kind of abstract concept. It will certainly not give you an exact recipe on how to do something but rather what direction you should move in. It can provide some restrictions on where you can go and help you know when you’re heading in the wrong direction.

In the case of design principles for a product, they often describe the core values of the product. The ones that differentiate the product from others, making it stand out from the competition.

In the case of more general design principles, they point out the core aspects you should focus on to create a great user experience.

“Design principles are like a north star to help you sail the ship of design.”

– Leah Buley

I like to think of design principles as guardrails on a big road. Within those guardrails, you are free to explore different approaches and solutions. They help keep you and your team in the right lane and aligned with the core values of your product and the overarching strategy.

A beloved child has many names - Swedish proverb

The term Design principle is the most commonly used word for it but sometimes other terms are used for what is essentially the same thing.

Here are some terms I have seen used:

Product principles

In my work at Boards on Fire, we’ve opted to call them Product principles. It made more sense for us to call them that since they don’t just influence the design of the product but also pinpoint what problems the product should solve. Take this principle, for example:

Creates movement
By transparently managing information at various levels within the organization, Boards on Fire fosters engagement and movement. We bridge the gap between management and operations and open up communication among silos within the organization.

– From Boards on Fire’s Product Principles

Experience principles

I once discussed design principles with Peter Merholz and he explained that they used the term Experience principles in their work for clients while he was still at Adaptive Path. They reasoned that the focus was on the experience people should have when using the service.


Some principles are more general in nature than others and might be called Heuristics, or Rules of thumb. We will come back to an example later in the article.

A note on the confusion with Design patterns

One thing that I’ve noticed is that some people confuse design principles and design patterns.

Let me try to clear up the confusion.

Design patterns are reusable formulas for specific solutions to a specific problem. In other words, they are a fast way to solve standard design problems consistently. This saves time since you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you need to solve commonly occurring design problems. One really simple example is the ubiquitous link. The established pattern is that links are either underlined or have a different color for other text. That’s an established pattern, or convention, if you like, that makes it easy for a designer to craft and easy for users to understand and use.

Design principles, on the other hand, are much less concrete. They exist on a higher level of abstraction, as they don’t propose a specific design solution but rather set a frame for approaching a problem. What aspects to focus on and what aspects not to focus on.

Different principles for different purposes

Design principles come in different flavors, and one of them is their specificity. They can be placed on a scale ranging from very general to really specific.

General principles

Some design principles are more general. They aim to give guidance when designing virtually any product or experience. One example is 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design by Jakob Nielsen. Most of them are universally applicable to whatever interactive system you’re creating. Take, for example, this principle:

Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user's memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

– From 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design by Jakob Nielsen

Specific principles

Other principles are more specific. These are the ones that you most likely want to create and use. They do not apply to all interactive systems but are tailored to the unique experience of a particular product or context. Take this principle, for example:

Optimize for the wrist
Help people complete tasks on the watch within seconds to avoid ergonomic discomfort or arm fatigue.

– From Design Principles of Android Ware

That principle is definitely not applicable to all interactive systems. It’s only relevant to the specific form factor of an Android Smartwatch.

How do they fit into the bigger picture?

Design principles are just one tool in your toolbox, and they help bridge the gap between UX strategy and the more concrete artifacts of design. They will guide the decisions you make when creating user flows and deciding which features to focus on.

I like to think in terms of abstraction levels when speaking about these things. In my talk on UX strategy, I use the slide below to describe the different levels of abstraction as meters above sea level.

At the top are the visions and strategies. As we descend towards the surface, things get more and more concrete. At sea level is the actual UI design. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find design principles as a way to make the vision more tangible and to guide you when you apply the vision to the actual product.

So what’s their use, then?

Design principles can be a useful tool for individuals, but perhaps more importantly, they are a crucial tool for organizations trying to create unique and compelling experiences through digital systems.

For the individual

For individuals, design principles help them focus on the most important aspects of a design or experience. It might be a UX designer creating a user flow, a UI designer crafting an interface, or a developer implementing a design. In these situations, there are thousands of tiny decisions that need to be made.

Being clear on the overall direction narrows down the options to the ones that align with the overarching vision and the design principles in place. This saves time and ensures that what is produced fits better with the overall user experience.

For organizations

As we saw, design principles are helpful for individuals, but the more people involved in the process, the greater the value they provide.

If you’ve been involved in any organization creating a digital product, you’ve probably been in situations where there’s constant arguing over what aspects or features a product should have and what the main focus should be. Lack of alignment across stakeholders and team members makes it hard to decide where that focus should be.

This is where design principles can help. They minimize some of those arguments since they help create alignment. And the more you can align all people involved with the core values, the more time can be spent on meaningful work.

“Building a visionary company requires one percent vision and 99 percent alignment.”

– Jim Collins and Jerry Porra

In my experience working as a UX consultant, lack of alignment is a big problem in a lot of organizations. It derails progress and prevents people from pulling in the same direction. Precious time and resources are wasted on endless debates, and it often results in an incoherent experience for the end customers.

Lack of clarity on the vision, the core values, and the strategy is something that makes it hard to do good work. I have therefore always made an effort to get better alignment and clarity. I’ve done this by interviewing stakeholders, doing user research, and facilitating workshops around common goals and focus areas.

Design principles have been one of the tools I’ve used to achieve that. They are not all that is needed, but they are one important piece of the puzzle to get closer to getting people to agree on the same direction.

In summary

Design principles are a semi-abstract concept that can help bridge the gap between vision and actual design. It helps in creating alignment between all people involved in the creation of products and services. If constructed properly, they capture the essence of what a product/service/interactive system should be and guide all the small decisions individual contributors have to make to create a great user experience.

What do you think?

What’s your experience with design principles? Is it something you’ve used or come in contact with before? If it’s all new to you, do you think they would add value to your situation? I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic!