Why good design principles can create better designs

You’ve done it. You’ve taken all your learnings from the workshop; the wireframe process went grey-at (see what I did there...) and now it’s time to present back your design decisions - knowing fully well that the design stage of any project can often be the trickiest of seas to navigate. It’s where thoughts become a reality for everyone involved, so naturally it can be easy for design discussions to descend into conflicting opinions or non-actionable feedback that spins circles around the team. You put that aside for a second, you present back and suddenly it hits you, nobody has understood what was in front of them and worse, you’ve spent 50 minutes talking about how rounded rectangles and gradients are “so in right now”.

Now the feedback comes at you, it’s sporadic and it’s full of subjective questions. You answer one and 10 more pop up. It's like that time you watched Stranger Things for the first time alone. Scary, and you want to hide behind your couch.

So, what went wrong?

As designers, we understand that critique and iterations are key to the design process, but what if the feedback isn’t succinct? And all those sweet-sweet pixel choices you made have gotten lost in the details? Well I believe that it is because you missed focusing on a key step before - what is it that I am actually selling to the client?

This is the smoking gun of the designer. The sell. It needs to be in tip-top shape in order to get all team members on your side. I admire the great ad copywriters of the Mad Men era, they could sell lipstick to a man and the late, great Ogilvy was no exception to the sell:

“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create”

Davey O’ is a bit blunt, and the truth hurts, but he is correct. Designs needs to be sold in, no matter how great you think they are.

David Ogilvy: The original and Maddest Man

David Ogilvy: The original and Maddest Man

But in the beginning design is a conversation, not a finished plan?

You're not wrong, but let’s step into the client’s shoes for second to sprinkle some empathy on this, salt-bae style. I’ve just had work presented back to me and I’m spending my hard-earned budget on this, I naturally need to start asking prodding questions when I’m seeing my new product being presented back to me “How does this solve my business goals?”, “Why is this an improvement on what I had before?” and “What can I do going forward to make sure I don’t skew the direction set in place?”.

In the words of 90’s rap-god* this is where we “Stop, collaborate and listen”… as our principles come in to play.

*Up for debate

Setting up the sell with design principles

If you Google “design principles” you will likely hit the main offenders of understanding fundamental graphic design: colour theory, alignment, proximity, etc. That is not what we are talking about here, so move on Buster if you want to learn about that stuff.

Design principles are about setting a bar for the new product, they are a small collection of contextual goals that everyone can judge the work against and nobody can run away from. We’re not talking about “being more human” or “being clear” - it’s unlikely that the client would want the work to be “unclear”, that stuff should be a given. It’s more like: "We want to make sure our users have a unified, easy journey that guides them to their goals". See, here’s one I made earlier...

Principles for one of our financial clients

Principles for one of our financial clients

The over-arching objective for that same financial client

The over-arching objective for that same financial client

Four words to rule them all?

It’s important to note that design isn't aiming to sell-in every part of the page; that would be impossible in a 1-hour meeting, rather they are trying to get the big picture and know that they have filtered it down to other “smaller” design decisions, like to round a CTA or not.

Ultimately this is as much of a selling exercise as it is keeping everyone singing from the same hymn sheet and as a great writer* once said, “distraction is the enemy of vision”, so this is our opportunity to cut out any ambiguity. We are creating a direction, a focus, and showing as a team how we are going to build a great and distinct product.

*Also up for debate

I get it, but do I NEED design principles?

No, you don’t per-say, there are other ways to sell in designs - but having strong principles irons-out kinks early on and aligns all the stakeholders together. It’s a blueprint for everyone to work towards and makes sure business goals and design goals are respected in unison, rather than apart.

“Good design is the by-product of a proper contextual evaluation, not a whimsical creation out of context, no matter how brilliant its visual aspect may be. Brilliant design solutions have always taken into consideration the contextual consideration” — Massimo Vignelli

Ok I love it; can I see some more examples of people who do it well?

Of course, there is an awesome collection here, Principles.design. My stand outs are:

Medium
IBM UX
Microsoft
Airbnb