Design Principles: a guide to less shitty feedback

Imagine you’ve just finished presenting a mid-stage draft of a digital product. It’s a good solution. You feel like you’ve nailed it. Eagerly, you look to your client for feedback.

But your client doesn’t look eager at all.

“I hate it! It just doesn’t feel like ’us’”
…does this feel familiar? Frustrating?

Most designers have run into some variation of this situation. But why does it happen? Is it that they’re a nightmare client? Is it that you’re a terrible designer? The truth is often more nuanced.

Everyone goes into a project with a gut feeling of what it ‘should’ be. These aren’t just measurable criteria like ‘high sign up rates’ or ‘users should give us good reviews’. You also have softer values like what it feels like & what messages it sends. These gut feelings can differ wildly from person to person.

Strangely, we often assume that everyone is picturing the exact same thing as us.

When our expectations are violated, we react strongly, and almost never constructively. When the trailer for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released, I remember staring at it in disbelief. I had grown up reading the books, and the film version of Mad-eye Moody looked NOTHING like what I’d imagined. I was livid. “This film crew must be full of idiots!”, I thought. “EVERYTHING IS WRONG AND I DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START!”

In a design project, this reaction is frustrating for everyone. It’s just shitty feedback, no matter how valid the point is. How can you improve a design if the feedbacker can’t explain what they actually want? And what makes their personal opinion more important than yours?

Even worse, what happens when you’re working as a team but everyone has a different picture in mind? The classic idiom ‘too many cooks spoil the soup’ wasn’t coined for nothing. Imagine a whole kitchen crew cooking with a different soup in mind, from clam chowder to gazpacho. You end up with shit soup. The same goes for design.

And no, the solution isn’t that an almighty creative director sits in her ivory tower and casts down design orders like pamphlets over a besieged city. To make better soup, your team needs to clarify what they’re making from the get go.

You need Design Principles.

Design Principles are a set of statements that communicate what we want from a project or product. It’s a way for everyone to agree on a couple of core principles that the work should be measured by. By determining these ideas early on, you create a framework that will help you take design decisions and give constructive feedback.

It allows us to go from “Mad-eyed Moody doesn’t look like I imagined him” to “Moody’s hair would align better with the principle ‘a wizened badass’, if it was grey”*. By introducing our principle framework, we are forced to anchor our gut feeling responses in something specific, rather than just expressing a like or dislike of things.

How to set Design Principles

Reflect on what you’ve heard about the project and what you’re picturing as the essence of it. Have a smaller main team (3–6 people) write their thoughts on post-its, group them, and create a draft based on the common themes. Use the draft as a springboard for feedback with the rest of the team and eventual clients. It doesn’t need to be a long, dramatic or complex process — it’s mostly about getting everyone’s thoughts and expectations out into the open and finding common ground. We usually only spend a couple of hours per project — a small investment for something that provides a lot of value.

Everyone involved needs to understand and agree with the final draft. No one can harbor a secret personal opinion that they keep cultivating in secret.

The principles are your new goals, and the team should rally behind them. So make sure you set good ones.

Guidelines for good Design Principles

  • Set design principles that you can disagree with. Since no one would say no to the statement “it should be easy to use”, it’s a useless principle. A better example of that intent would be: “if a 3-year old can’t use it, it’s not allowed in the product”. A good principle conveys a clear stance, and implicitly says what you are choosing not to focus on.
  • Principles that are too vague “we should be like the sun” or too specific “we don’t use drop down lists” are more of a hindrance than a help. Be concrete, but not too detailed. You should always be able to clearly motivate how each principle will improve the product for end users.
  • As a rule of thumb, 3–5 are manageable, even though additional principles might come up over the course of the project. When they’re no longer helping you make decisions, you’ve got too many.

Using your principles

Once you’ve agreed on a set of principles: make them visible EVERYWHERE. The more they’re seen and remembered, the more they’ll be used.

At apegroup, we create a keynote slide that can be printed or used in presentations. Each principle gets a short description (for clarification) and an image (makes them easier to remember, and adds more nuance to the meaning).

Example of design principles used for our Fortum project

Design principles aren’t just there to structure your feedback, they’re also there to steer you in the right direction when you’re taking design decisions. Good design principles that are used throughout the project create strong, focused design with a clear character. A great example of this is Spotify, whose design principles played a key role in creating a coherent and recognisable product portfolio.

Design principles for a project with environmental startup SDG12

Principles evolve with a project, and sometimes require that you revise them or even replace them. However, make sure there are very strong arguments for doing so, as it will take time to realign your team with these new principles.

Let’s go back to the scenario we started with, but this time with design principles in place.

Once you start using them, you’ll notice that the stress of these situations disappear. Instead of frustration and disappointment, you have a discussion. What specifically don’t you like about it? Which principle is it at odds with? Why? How could we align it more with the principle? Instead of you, your client, and your team pulling in different directions, you have a shared image. You can all contribute with what you feel will be best, without it bottling down to a pissing contest of whose opinion is most valuable.

The Design Principle framework holds you responsible for having constructive arguments both when giving and receiving feedback. It holds designers responsible for making conscious choices. It makes you, your team and your clients happier. And that’s the beauty of it!

Download our design principle template here

*P.S though I’m still clearly not over the whole Mad-eye Moody thing, I have full respect for the crew that did it. I’m sure they had their reasons.


This article is adapted from episode 35 of our podcast RE:DESIGN. If you’d rather have it in it’s original (Swedish) podcast format, you can listen to it on Itunes or in your browser. This episode featured Nils Sköld, Marcus Johansson & Linnéa Strid.

I work as a UX Designer at Apegroup where I help companies create beautiful digital things. We are a digital product studio in Stockholm. Want to know more about how we work with design? Read more at our website.

If you enjoyed this article, please press Recommend below!