Design principles are a great tool to keep people aligned when working on a product. They help minimize conflicts on what aspects of a feature to prioritize and help both designers and developers make good decisions when working on the details of a design or an implementation.

But how do you create design principles that work? Principles that are useful, memorable, and provide the clarity and guidance that they are supposed to do? In this article you will learn what goes into creating a design principle that not only works – but also gets people excited about applying it in their daily work.

Begin with a title

The minimum information in a design principle is its title. Creating a good title is an art in itself, it needs to be short enough so it is fast to process, while also holding the gist of the design principles meaning.

Some titles are just one word, for example “Inclusiveness” or “Coherent”, but more often they are a short sentence or a few words such as “Only present a few choices at a time” or “Reduce short-term memory load”. If the principles are only used by a small team that is very familiar with the principles you might get away with a one word title. But if the design principles are meant to be used by others new to, or outside of, your project it is most likely better to make the titles descriptive.

The title also needs to be memorable. Ideally, a design principle is something that your co-workers will be able to use in conversation with fellow designers, developers, or stakeholders. If it’s shorter to say, it will be far easier to use in conversation.

Some examples of a good title

Key takeaways

Provide more context with a description

It’s almost always useful to provide more context. When you get a new team member or if someone outside of your organization wants to understand the principles, they will need more than just a title.

The description should expand on what the title says. Some keep it to just one sentence, and others write several paragraphs. It all depends on the complexity of the design principle and how it will be used.

Here’s an example from Android Wear. Think smartwatches:

Zero/low interaction

Staying true to the strengths afforded by a smaller form factor, Android Wear focuses on simple interactions, only requiring input by the user when absolutely necessary. Most inputs are based around touch swipes or voice, and inputs requiring fine-grained motor skills are avoided. Gestural, simple, fast.

Android Wear principles

In this example, they provide a rationale for why you should keep down the interactions. They’ve chosen to keep it fairly short with just a couple of sentences.

Here’s an example from IBM that is a lot more comprehensive.

Get Started

Invite users in and show them what they can do.

Initial experiences create lasting impressions. People are quick to form opinions when introduced to something new, especially if it is something we expect will improve their lives. Create thoughtful initial experiences to positively influence opinions of the product, service and brand. A careful attention to detail sets expectations for future interactions and forges enduring, emotional bonds between users and products. Good design of the initial experience can also result in reduced support costs, improved customer satisfaction and increased sales.

Like any good party host, your product should greet users and give them a tour. Let people set their own pace by allowing them to skip any steps that slow them down. Provide users sample tasks in order to demonstrate the capabilities of your product in a safe and familiar place. Give users the option to watch a sample task being performed or to interact directly with the product.

The best experiences seamlessly move a user into productivity with comfort and ease. Get users to their work fast and show them personally relevant ways to get value from your product. Charm them with unexpected moments to show them you thought of everything, just for them. Never underestimate the little things; users are instantly gratified when you save them time, attention, hassle or even space on their desk. Encourage users to experiment by showing them a focused idea of what they can learn and do.

Like discovery, getting started often requires many stakeholders to deliver first business value. For cloud-delivered services, this might include the people who have to prepare user registrations or load data into a system. For on-premise products, this includes the people responsible for setting up and configuring systems. For both types of products, there might be tasks like integration with LDAP or other enterprise systems.

First use isn’t finished until personal or business value is delivered. First use is not satisfied simply by putting an overlay on the screen that shows where to click or touch. Think about it as, “How can I easily deliver some business or personal value for the very first user of this offering?” and “How can I easily deliver some business or personal value to each subsequent new user that is added?”

IBM Six UX Guidelines

Here, they’ve chosen to expand extensively on the meaning of the principles. I’ll admit that this can be useful in certain contexts, but I would advise keeping the description a lot shorter than that. You have to be quite invested to bother to read all that text. Especially considering it’s just one of several principles with equally long descriptions.

If you feel the need to elaborate extensively on the meaning of the principle, I would advise you to have a short version for quick reference and a longer version for when it’s required.

Provide some examples

For some, the concept of principles is easy to grasp and apply. For others, it’s much harder. I therefore think it can be useful to provide some examples of how to apply the principles to an actual design. This is especially useful if the ones that will use them are new to the concept of design principles or not used to thinking about design in more abstract terms.

Let’s look at an example! If the principle is “We Simplify” (from PayPal Design Principles), some examples might be:

By providing examples, you not only show how the design principle could be used – you also get the reader thinking and imagining how they themselves might apply it in different situations.

Bonus: Illustrations

It is by no means necessary to illustrate design principles, it can even be pretty hard to find icons or images that convey them in a meaningful way. It is however useful if you plan to distribute the design principles in any way.

A great way to spread your design principles to others, while also keeping them alive, is to create posters, blog posts or even brochures. Images and icons can make these presentations more visually captivating, communicating your design principles more effectively.

Microsoft, for example, uses iconography to illustrate its design principles for responsible AI. From Microsoft Principles for Responsible AI.

Another example is from the Firefox UX Team, which uses both color and icons to illustrate their design values. From Firefox Design Values.

Android Wear is another example where, instead of icons, they use mockups to illustrate the design principle. This image is for the design principle: “Better together” from From Android Wear Design Principles.

In summary

Crafting a great design principle isn’t rocket science. But there are some things to keep in mind when crafting it. It should, at a minimum, have a title, but preferably also a description that expands on its meaning. Additionally, you can add examples of how to use it in practice and add an image or icon to make it even more memorable.

Be wary of making them too elaborate, though. They should ideally be easy to digest and understand, otherwise, you will have a hard time getting people to embrace them.

Closing thoughts

Of course, a single design principle can only do so much. Usually, you need a few more to cover all aspects of your product. You also need to ensure that the people who are supposed to use the design principles are aligned with and feel ownership of them, otherwise, they will fall flat and the principles will not be used in practice. But that's a topic for another article.