Design principles

Andrew Travers wrote about designing design principles at Co-op Digital. I’m somewhat obsessed with design principles—hence my collection—so I’m also obsessed with figuring out what makes for “good” design principles.

One of my favourite design principles (yes, I have favourites) is from the HTML Design Principles. It’s the priority of constituencies:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.

The emphasis my own. It demonstrates how the design principle can be put to use (“in case of conflict”). Andrew also describes uses for the design principles they’re putting together:

What we’re building towards is a set of principles, few enough to be memorable, short enough to be repeatable, relevant enough to be usable. When we’re running a design crit, it’s these principles that we want to lean on. When a sole designer in an agile delivery team is talking about a design approach, it’s these principles that back her up.

Those sound like good use cases to me. Those are situations when design principles can help people reach agreement on priorities, without it having to be about ego or who shouts loudest.

I think it was from Cennydd that I heard about a really good test of a design principle: is it reversible? In other words, could you imagine the exact opposite of the design principle being perfectly valid in a different organisation or on a different project? If not, then the principle may be too weak to be effective. (Cennydd points out that he heard this from Jared who has written a lot about evaluating design principles.)

“Make it easy to use” would be an example of a weak design principle. It’s hard to imagine a situation where “make it hard to use” would be a reasonable guiding principle.

Frankly, there are plenty of “bad” examples in my collection of design principles. Many of them wouldn’t pass the reversibility test. Just recently though, I spotted some that would pass the test with flying colours. They weren’t even labelled as design principles—they’re the tips that Heydon includes at the end of his excellent 24 Ways article on inclusive design:

  • Involve code early
  • Respect conventions
  • Don’t be exact
  • Enforce simplicity

I could easily imagine endeavours where the complete opposite of those tips would be valued. Personally, I think they’re really great design princples.

I should add them to the list.

Have you published a response to this? :