Design Principles

What are design principles?

Design principles are concise guidelines to aid the ideation and evaluation of product designs. They focus and inspire creative thinking and align the team when making decisions.

Why do you need design principles?

When product goals are stated clearly, the design team can explore many different potential solutions. For example, suppose your goal is to deliver a specific message to a customer. Should the information be conveyed in a conversational or a formal way? Should it be concise but allow users to dig in for greater transparency, or does it need to be thorough which may come off as a little intimidating? Exploring and answering questions like these is one point in the design journey.

Design principles provide constraints which focus how you approach your work, and help your team critique your design explorations using a shared vocabulary. Paired with properly formulated product goals, your design team will have room to creatively explore solutions within an understood problem space.

Guidelines for crafting principles

Design principles are most effective when they’re grounded, concise and actionable.


Principles carry more weight when they relate to research, not heuristics like ‘best practices’, or personal preferences. This grounding ensures that your design ideation focuses on the unique aspects of the product.


Principles need to be top of mind and easy to keep in working memory. Choose words carefully.


Principles should be specific enough to be actionable. A principle like ‘delightful’ or ‘simple’ sounds nice but is too open to interpretation unless qualified or contextualized.


Each principle includes a short title (a word or short phrase) and 1-2 sentences that clarify the principle. The principles are presented on a single page so they’re easy to reference and see in total.

Changing principles

Feedback from customers and stakeholders can prompt you to make your principles more specific, cut ones that didn’t pan out, or add new ones that surfaced later. When you uncover learning, formally revisit the principles as an alignment touchstone.

Guerilla principles

You don’t always have access to the research you need. Sometimes you don’t have direct access to customers, or the timeframe or budget limits you.

In these cases, it’s still important that the team have a common framework for evaluating and iterating on the designs. You might choose principles from usability best practices or principles you’ve used on similar projects. For example, if you’re designing an onboarding experience, a good principle might be:

Minimize user input Remember and anticipate user decisions in expected ways. Completing a task should feel as efficient and effortless as possible.


Example 1 — a digital payments service for consumers

Deliver a seamless experience that gets better by knowning me over time. It gets better by being more:

Valuable through recommendations and targeted offers. Convenient by incorporating my preferences. Secure by learning my habits.

Example 2 — a project management tool for small group collaboration.

Create contexts that connect people with purpose.

Start simply Collaboration feels lightweight, and it’s easy to add structure as needed. Remove barriers Teamwork is decentralized. Let teams self-organize. Surface what’s relevant Anticipate what people need, so it’s never more than a click away.

Example 3 — A searchable research archive.

Help policymakers, education stakeholders, and leaders better understand and articulate the role that arts education can play in preparing students to succeed.

Approachable Give new users a friendly introduction to what the product is and how it can help them support arts education in their own community. Understandable Provide a clear starting point, easy-to-follow paths through the site, and give insight as to the rationale behind how information is organized. Effective Guide users to the information they need using clear and effective filters and search tools.

In this example, a quote from the client reinforced the design principles:

A good site gives me the ability to parse through what I’m looking for in a meaningful way.