Different kinds of design principles

Design principles are valuable in ascertaining & defining the core qualities of a product/service offering, providing a guide for critical decisions (and conflicts). I apply principles often in the course of my work, whether for a next-generation UI or a “design thinking” workshop for managers. Principles serve as the lighthouse and bedrock, guiding the team’s efforts toward an aspirational goal, while grounding everyone when conflicts and arguments flare up.

While reflecting upon design principles, I’ve looked upon a range which led me to identify at least four kinds of principles that function in various, subtle ways. Below is a brief breakdown with explanations and examples:

• Cultural: These principles are broadly phrased to serve as a collective touchstone for an organization with some shared purpose. They are meant to change team behaviors and attitudes for the better. They help frame interpersonal dynamics and project activity, and shape the language (or discourse) in a particular way. For example, at Citrix we have a set of five design principles that are not specific to a product or service model, but we advocate across the entire 9,000 person company, applicable to everyone from custodial services to executive c-suite, so as to create a culture of “design thinking”.

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• Systemic: These principles are a shade less cultural and more about creating a system of visual and experiential elements (like a brand system or GUI system) that has a specific voice, tone, ethos, and behavior that can be articulated with variations yet bound to a common creed, if you will. Great examples are UI standards and systems, in particular the Microsoft Windows 8 “Metro” (former name) system with its boldly stated principles that define and unite the “Metro” look and behavior, regardless of platform implementation (tablet, phone, laptop, video game unit, etc.).

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• Tactical: These principles guide “in the trenches” decisions about design elements in the creation of a useful, attractive product. This is tangible impact level, with specific outcomes in terms of an actual design: placement, alignment, structure, motion, sequence and frequency, etc. Two of the best examples are Bill Scott’s principles for rich web application design and Edward Tufte’s principles for “envisioning information” (which are laid out directly on the book’s cover). Far from abstract theory, these guide pixel-level design details with immediate tangible outcomes.

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Envisioning information front large• Legendary: Finally, these principles I somewhat cheekily refer to as “legendary” because they have arisen from certain “masters of design” who’s lifelong repertoire of work & experience led to certain powerful, time-tested insights that elevate to legendary status. Almost unquestioned, they are taken as fiat, definitive and authoritative in their historical import and impact. The best example is of course the 10 Principles for Good Design by Dieter Rams, a reflection of his sternly modernist ethos that he successfully executed while at Braun (and elsewhere). Frank Lloyd Wright, the Eameses, Le Corbusier, Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and other notables also echo principles of such caliber.

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However, just because such principles are conveyed by an historical “master of design” doesn’t mean that they are necessarily always relevant or appropriate for your project. We must all be wary of turning principles into platitudes, thrown about carelessly as pithy erudite quotes simply because someone said so–and it got re-tweeted by everyone including your uncle!

A principle bears relevance when it arises out of tough inward-oriented conversations and intense self-scrutiny about the motive, intention, and purpose of the project. Context and people’s values are essential ingredients when stewing on sensible principles that will elevate your quality and goals. Healthy skepticism and critical eye/mind are vital to avoid the wayward seduction of pithy popular erudition.

• One more thing: Hybrid Principles! And of course there are some principles are a blend of the aforesaid types, impacting levels of culture, team, project, and product in various ways. At Citrix we have a set of Product UI Standards (formerly known as “Symphony”) which has systemic overtones like Metro but also specific tactical principles to guide design and dev in their implementation. This is written about nicely here by Citrix colleagues on UX Magazine.

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