A Matter of Principle
Julie Zhuo
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Creating useful design principles

Thanks for writing the article, Julie. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that principles are important and, if at all possible, should come before visual design.

In the early days of Medium, during a redesign we codenamed “cocoon,” we approached the design process differently than we had before. We wrote down design principles. The company was small, and it felt too early to be doing non-visual design work. Yet the principles we created continuously resurfaced during critiques and brainstorms.

Rather than stating an obvious goal, such as “Medium should be beautiful” (goals are not principles), we created a framework that forced us to list two positive words in opposition. The outcomes caused slight tension and guided us to make appropriate tradeoffs.

“Fast over slow” and “Beautiful over ugly” are poor guiding principles because they weigh a positive against a negative. As you mentioned, these principles are as useless as they are hard to disagree with.

Here are a few of the early design principles we crafted at Medium:

Direction over Choice. This principle was often referred to while we were designing the Medium editor. We purposely traded layout, type, and color choices for guidance and direction. Direction was more appropriate for the product because we wanted people to focus on writing, and not get distracted by choice.

Appropriate over Consistent. This might seem controversial, but when applied across devices, its purpose is clear. We were willing to break consistency if it was more appropriate for the OS, device, or context.

Evolving over Finalized. This is exemplified in the ability to share Medium drafts, write responses, and leave notes. The content on Medium should be antifragile, improving with use and evolving overtime. We did not want to design printed books for the internet.

It’s never too early to talk about principles for your product. They can feel premature because they’re not what we typically consider signs of progress, such as mocks or prototypes. Nevertheless, if written correctly, you’ll be surprised at how often they will come up in conversations, during new employee onboarding, design critiques, and brainstorms.

What are your product’s principles? Leave a response below.