• clara fairbanks

Design Principles for Better Business




Have you ever been in a room full of people, all with brilliant ideas about: what direction to take with a product; what feature to add; or just what to do next - and none of the ideas are cohesive? How about this - have you ever had that same experience except the ONLY person in the room is yourself?!


This is the CURSE of every entrepreneur, startup, and talented design team...


We have brilliant ideas, usually too many of them, and only some of them can be implemented. Anyone who has worked with passion knows that while the ideas keep stacking up, the amount of time to put them into action stays pretty linear. Furthermore, if we implement every brilliant idea we have, we end up with products, companies, and careers that become fragmented and unfocused. THIS is where design principles come into play.


So pause - what on earth is a design principle?? Well plain and simply..

a design principle is a foundational idea to build a product, company, or brand upon.

“Design principles unite a team and guide them towards the ultimate goal.” A design principle is the north star of your product, and as my colleague Rabeea Wajeeha always says, "Good Design is Good Business."


And it’s true. Think of all of your favorite companies - the brands and tools that you use the most on a day to day basis. What do all of them have in common? Perhaps you don’t subscribe to this, but for me the common element to brilliant companies is good design. Instagram, AirBnb, Nike, even Google -


some of the largest most powerful brands in the world all have foundational design principles


This one powerful tool has allowed companies with hundreds of thousands of employees to create cohesive, consistent, and beautiful brands. Now I don’t know about you, but I for one want my company to be an absolute success, so if the top companies in the world do something, you’d better believe I’m at least going to give it a shot.


So how do we create design principles, and once created, how do we use them??


Step 1: Create a Gatekeeper


The first step is to decide who the GateKeeper is. Now, if you are a sole proprietor like myself, this becomes pretty easy. The gatekeeper is you. If you have a team or work within a large organization, the gatekeeper should be the product designer who best identifies with the company mission.


Hold up… do you have a clear company mission?? If not, stop now and read this


Anyways, the gatekeeper is the owner of the design principles. They create the principles with the company mission in mind, and they ensure they are enforced throughout your organization. Having one person or a small committee take ownership over the design principles will prevent a lot of confusion down the road. Make this choice wisely - if good design is good business then the core of your company rests on this role and their capacity to empathize with your mission and your users.


That said - don’t hesitate to make the process inclusive. Let the whole organization participate in and contribute ideas in creating design principles. People are more likely to follow principles they helped to create, and you never know where the next brilliant idea will come from.


Step 2: Do Your Research!


Now there’s a reason I mentioned my favorite brands early in this article - it’s because when you are creating anything new, it never hurts to follow in the footsteps of giants. Get inspired - look at your favorite companies - look at great design in your industry - look at great design in general.


In your research, note design principles that resonate with you. Collect ideas that feel true to your mission. As you research, your true principles will be revealed.


Step 3: Get Organized


Once you have a healthy list of design principles it’s time to step back and look at the big picture. Which are the most important? Condense your list to 5-10 key principles, with an additional 5-10 supporting principles if needed.


Then prioritize them. Literally. In a list. There may be times when one principle directly contradicts another. By creating a hierarchy of principles in order of importance you eliminate confusion and conflict down the road.


How to?...


I organized my principles in a list then I went through one by one saying to myself - is principle #1 more important than principle #2? Is #1 more important than #3. In computer science this is most similar to a selection sort, and it is the most cohesive strategy for me.


Others use a pyramid system, placing highest impact principles at the bottom of the pyramid, and more auxiliary principles at the top. Whatever strategy works best for you is good with me, but ensure the process is consistent to yield consistent results.


Step 4: Ask the Big Question : Is this On Brand?


Great design principles allow your organization to focus on what matters to you.

Do the principles you've chosen truly rep what your brand speaks to?

Will they serve both your end user, and your internal organization? User centric design is not exclusive to your end users. Ultimately the people interacting with your company the most are those acting from within. Do your principles support every stakeholder in their mission to build your brand?

For each principle, ask these three critical questions:

  1. Is the principle true to company mission?

  2. Does this principle represent the foundation of our brand?

  3. And most importantly, can this principle inspire great design decisions today, tomorrow, and hereafter?

  4. Will they serve both your end user, and your internal organization? User centric design is not exclusive to your end users. Ultimately the people interacting with your company the most are those acting from within. Do your principles support every stakeholder in their mission to build your brand?


Step 5: Give More Clarity, Get More


Here we employ the power of example. Words are flimsy and flippant things - a principle can mean something specific to you and be interpreted entirely differently by your design team. Internally supplying examples of your principles will help people put them into action.


Beyond that though, as the head of your organization or design department, you should be the power of example. Make sure you are sticking to the principles yourself, both in your work and in your relationships. If one of your principles is ease of use, make sure that your internal communication is clear with those you work with. If a principle is user first, be conscientious of your coworkers.


To take this one step further - if someone in your organization is not upholding the standards of your brand, why are they working with you in the first place? Let the design principles be ideals for you and your company to uphold to the best of your ability.


Step 6: Make It Obvious


Ever heard that age old adage, out of sight, out of mind?! Well, you want the opposite of that for your design principles. Making the principles accessible means that you, your employees, and any other stakeholders have access to and awareness of them. In other words, put your principles everywhere.


Slap them on the walls, put them on your website, put them in your email sign off … ok I am taking it a bit too far, but you get the point. The easier the principles are to access, the more likely they will be used in design decisions.


Step 7: Follow Through


Do whatever it takes to adhere to these principles once you have established them!




For more expert tips on building your brand, join us live every week on The Startup Experience, and follow @rabeeawajeea and @clarafyuxui on all your favorite channels.




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