Collectively, design values and principles are the guiding beliefs and priorities that shape the design process for any design team, product or designer. But what should they be, and what’s the difference between them?
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash
We’re all different, and whether we’re aware of it or not we’re all likely to have our own, individual values — which will naturally evolve with us throughout our careers. As a team, though, having defined values and principles gives us a shared ethos to design by — a way to guide our ideas, minimise indecision and keep our collective north star squarely in sight.
Studies have shown that companies with clearly communicated and shared values perform better than those without. And the larger the team becomes, the more important they are. Without them, it’s easy to lose sight of what we originally set out to achieve, and how we set out to achieve it.
What’s the difference between design values and principles?
You’ll find some companies define their values as principles, some use the terms entirely interchangeably, and some see principles as a method of achieving values.
“Principles are rules or laws that are permanent, unchanging, and universal in nature, whereas values are internal and subjective, and may well change over time.”
So what does that mean for us?
Let’s consider our design values to be the things we care most about as a design team — think of them as the paths we choose to take. They should provide us direction and context, and although often quite high-level, they should always be clear, concise and relevant.
Although they shouldn’t often change, they should be reviewed periodically and updated if necessary to remain relevant.
The values our design team of multi-disciplinary designers follow apply to everything we do, and they guide us as we approach new problems:
To be more impactful, we move fast and we innovate quickly.
Collaboration makes us stronger, we share knowledge, experience and expertise between us.
Excellence is about finding the perfect balance which sits somewhere in between aiming for perfection and getting it done. Both in what we make, and how we make it.
Embrace and learn from your mistakes, whilst having empathy for each other.
Design principles are more like a set of rules or value statements describing the most important goals a product or service should deliver for its users and are used to frame design decisions. Think of them as the boundaries to our paths, which stop us being led astray. And unlike values, they shouldn’t change over time.
How should we define what our design values and principles are?
As principles exist lower in the hierarchy, and even reference our design values, it’s important we first define our design values. There’s no one right answer on how best to define these, although Gwenna Kadima outlines a good approach where you start with any values you think are relevant, grouping them into themes and gradually merge and narrow them down until you’re left with only the ones you care most about.
Next we define our product design principles. This process can be a great way to set focus before building a new product, or when onboarding new designers. Nielsen Norman Group outlines the following steps to define effective design principles:
Identify core values
What differentiates your product from your competitors? Why do people choose your product?
Consider how these values impact users
Why are these values important? What do they help to achieve for users? If we didn’t pursue them, how would our users be affected?
Identify any common tradeoffs
Identify any simple conflicts that we often have to consider, for example: Should we go for a clean, minimalistic design, or make content highly discoverable? Should we focus on power users or casual users?
Write, compare, and iterate
It’s a good idea to involve others in the creation of design principles as not only will it broaden your ideas, but they are also more likely to be accepted and followed.
Using our design values and principles
Our design values and principles should exist within our design systems to ensure they’re not forgotten. They should be discussed regularly in meetings, included in presentation decks, or even stuck to your walls if you prefer.
Once defined, we should use our principles to justify and explain design decisions — especially when trade-off decisions have to be made. We can apply self-checks to our ideation process or sign off to ensure our decision making is always staying true to our principles.
Source and further reading
Dieter Rams’s ten principles for good design
Perhaps the best and most famous example of design principles. Just as relevant today as when they were written in 1970s. Note though that these principles differ slightly from how we’ve defined them above to fit product design. Without having both values and principles defined these actually fall somewhere between the two.