Design Principles Everyone Can Understand

Cole Johnson
May 20, 2020 · 4 min read
Thanks for the scribbles Brett Williams!

TL;DR The secret to getting a team to create design principles they understand and care about is to connect them back to individuals’ values, things everyone can relate to.

A Google search of “design principles” results in many beautiful examples of tenets forged within the hiveminds of today’s design-driven tech companies. They’re succinct. They’re powerful. They’re “carve-into-marble” worthy.

I’m assuming if you’re reading this article that you have read another preachy explainer on design principles before, but for the sake of comprehensiveness, a quick refresher. Design principles are a set of statements that offer a point-of-view on best practices. They are guidelines for work, values a team can all agree on, and in this case, qualities of the successful design system we are building at NYPR.

It wasn’t until I took on the task of creating a set of principles that I saw my position (we’ll call it Point A) and the far off target of awe-inspiring axioms (Point B) and thought, “How?”

Moreover, how do you bring an entire team from Point A to Point B with you? Design principles have always seemed like a religious icon pedestalized by designers. How could a group of us (product managers, engineers, scrum masters, and designers) develop a set of principles we all agree on?

The answer, as I figured out, is connecting in what we cared about.

The first step in creating these principles is getting people in a room to think. In modern terms, this is called a workshop.

Connecting to Principles

I did a lot of soul-searching and googling to visualize what the workshop could be. Explaining what design principles are can be confusing and if done too “hand-wavy,” might even sound a bit fluffy.

“Principles” is not a very human term. The average person doesn’t have principles. The average person has values, goals, motivations, hopes, and fears. Principles are statements tied to things bigger than yourself, but for them to mean anything, you need a tie to them as well.

I figured it would help to get everyone on the same page. I came across a workshop activity from Atomic Object called Hopes & Fears. The exercise itself is pretty self-explanatory. Everyone receives sticky notes, a Sharpie, and 10 minutes to jot down their hopes and fears around the project in question. In our case, it was building our white label design system, Radial.

Creating a safe environment is essential for doing Hopes & Fears. Giving permission to give honest answers helps, even if it seems gratuitous.

The last step of the activity requires the most vulnerability, putting your hopes and fears on the wall and talking about them. When we took this step in the workshop, people immediately started to connect. They found they shared a lot of similar aspirations and doubts about the project. This became even more evident when our facilitators started clustering the stickies around overarching themes.

Brainstorming Together

With our big, beautiful wall of shared hopes and dreams in front of us, we started into the principle-brainstorming activity united around values we all shared. I had a soft framework in place to help us filter things down.

Good principles are…

  • Direct, Memorable
  • Help make decisions
  • Aren’t truisms
  • Explainable, ownable

We had some great ideas come out of our brainstorming session; ideas that protected our hopes and accounted for our fears. We tweaked them, dot-voted, and developed some tenets of our own.

Now a pinned post on our team channel

After our team’s success, I still had some lingering fears. Our principles were there, but would anyone use them?

A developer on our team quickly extinguished the thought a few days later when I overheard them say, “We could build it that way, but that’s pretty rigid, and one of our principles is flexibility.”

Principles as a decision-making tool? Check.

If you ever have the opportunity to create design principles with a group of people, take the time to get on the same page, understand the why behind design principles, and learn each other’s values. Our Hopes & Fears activity was productive, but it’s not the only one of its kind. Getting a team around design principles can be tricky, but once established, can be a source of shared understanding that is inclusive to everyone involved.

Our principles provide a litmus test for every critical decision around our design system, Radial. They might adapt and evolve along with the project, but with any luck, they’ll get carved into marble eventually.

Principles Workshop Activity Ideas:

https://spin.atomicobject.com/2020/03/03/design-thinking-your-radar/
https://www.funretrospectives.com/telos-thinking/
https://spin.atomicobject.com/2018/04/03/design-thinking-rose-bud-thorn/
https://www.ibm.com/design/thinking/page/toolkit/activity/prioritization

New York Public Radio Digital

from the Digital Team at New York Public Radio

Cole Johnson

Written by

Product designer @ New York Public Radio. I get excited about design for social good and ethics in technology.

New York Public Radio Digital

New York Public Radio’s Digital Team presents Air Break. A space to share insights through the public media lens and connect with digital industry professionals.

Cole Johnson

Written by

Product designer @ New York Public Radio. I get excited about design for social good and ethics in technology.

New York Public Radio Digital

New York Public Radio’s Digital Team presents Air Break. A space to share insights through the public media lens and connect with digital industry professionals.

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