Searching for a north star: design team principles

Richard Cooper
Jul 22 · 10 min read

Design at VMware is growing. And quickly. Shadi Kashefizadeh (Senior Product Designer) and Salome Mortazavi (former Design Education Lead) recognized the need for design principles to align our evolving and growing design team toward a common goal.

We had values, goals, and objectives and key results (OKR’s) all of which shifted based on business needs. Shadi and Salome got to work by crafting design team principles to show us the way, and the how, in order to bring our values, goals and OKR’s into alignment. Our principles help us with decision making and unifying us as a design team.

We know principles can be just as beneficial for you and your organization. We’ll cover what design principles are, what makes them successful vs not, and how you can create them for your team — with examples from our process + outcomes to help guide you.

What are principles?

Design team principles are tenets that guide us toward how we want to operate as a design team in order to make us happy and successful each day at work. — Julie Zhuo (former VP of Design @ Facebook)

Business objectives and goals constantly change. As the technological landscape evolves, so do we. Sometimes quarterly, sometimes yearly. In an evolving strategy, we need to move quickly to remain competitive in supporting our customers’ needs. To keep us on track, VMware Design identified the need for principles.

The principles are the way, and the how. For a design team, it is the DNA that is understood by the whole company and doesn’t change constantly.

Are design team principles going to solve all our problems?

It is important to recognize how design team principles act as a supporting role within your team or organization. Don’t expect Design Team Principles to solve all your problems, but you can expect them to boost morale as individual contributors align on a north star and give designers a sense of belonging.

What is considered a good design team principle?

We identified three measurables for our design team principles to ensure that our colleagues were set up for success in terms of using the principles on a daily basis.

To be effective, design team principles should be:

  • Actionable: Principles guide you on how to act. They can be something you do.
  • Memorable: Principles should be easy to remember so that the team can apply them — always. Every team meeting, they can be discussed and applied.
  • Reflective of the company’s culture and brand: Principles should reflect the overall company and the shared common goals between organizations.

Vague goal-oriented statements are not effective because they’re not actionable. The vast majority of principles are not helpful to team members on a daily basis simply due to the fact that they are aspirational rather than actionable. They are on a poster at your office entrance that the whole team walks by each day — but can’t remember. You can’t apply them to every decision, so they fall by the wayside.

  • Example of a good principle — Build trust with transparency.
  • Example of a better principle — Build trust with transparency through the use of radical honesty at all times.

Both are actionable, memorable and reflective of a company’s culture and brand. One is better than the other because it outlines how the principle is actionable.

More importantly, will these principles inspire great design decisions?

With all that being said, let’s dig in to how you can create a solid set of principles for your team:

Step 0: Identify the problem

Suppose it’s already apparent that design team principles are part of the missing puzzle pieces for your organization. Congratulations! You’re already on track to building a better and stronger team. With visionaries at the helm, moving the project forward becomes that much easier.

If you haven’t identified the need for design team principles, or, you find yourself unsure if you’d benefit from crafting some principles, consider the following example.

I worked on a project where I needed to understand the users journey and how the customers go about completing their task. I spent time doing user interviews to understand the customers journey through completing the activity, created the user journey, and pointed out all the pain points and emotions within the journey. After review, the feedback I received from one team was that perhaps I went too deep with research and I should have spent more time focused on getting wireframes done quickly. The feedback I received from another team was that I could have gone a bit deeper with my research. — Anonymous VMware Design Team member

The above red flags should be apparent. When receiving conflicting feedback from various teams and/or managers, consider if design team principles can smooth out the wrinkles in the communication patterns.

Step 1: Ask questions

Take this process slowly. There is a lot to uncover and process, some of which may not have bubbled to the surface during traditional methods such as 1:1’s, Ask-Me-Anything’s or office hours. Begin at looking at any existing data that may support these types of questions, or begin to ask these types of questions of your organization:

  • What are some of the inherent principles (spoken or unspoken)?
  • What are successful teams within the organization doing?
  • What is keeping some teams from being more successful? And how do we solve for that?

When your team starts bringing up and working through their ideas, encourage them to give specific examples. Take all the time required to hold space for what your team needs to surface before working through the components of your design team principles.

When we dove deeper into some of the data that revolved around quarterly health checks, we found a massive amount of overlap between schools of thought. We sorted, labeled, and categorized our data.

A digital whiteboard populated by numerous yellow post-it notes, each with various illegible text displayed on each post-it note. Post-it notes are loosely organized based on the text within each note.
A digital whiteboard populated by numerous yellow post-it notes, each with various illegible text displayed on each post-it note. Post-it notes are loosely organized based on the text within each note.
Answers given to: What are successful teams within the organization doing?
A digital whiteboard populated by numerous pink post-it notes and very few blue post-it notes, each with various illegible text displayed on each post-it note. Post-it notes are loosely organized based on the text within each blue note.
A digital whiteboard populated by numerous pink post-it notes and very few blue post-it notes, each with various illegible text displayed on each post-it note. Post-it notes are loosely organized based on the text within each blue note.
Answers given to: What is keeping some teams from being more successful?
A digital whiteboard populated by numerous pink, yellow blue and teal post-it notes, each with various illegible text displayed on each post-it note. Post-it notes are loosely organized into categories. A list is displayed on the right of the digital whiteboard with the main catagories.
A digital whiteboard populated by numerous pink, yellow blue and teal post-it notes, each with various illegible text displayed on each post-it note. Post-it notes are loosely organized into categories. A list is displayed on the right of the digital whiteboard with the main catagories.
Sorted, labeled and categorized our data. Rough draft shown.

Step 2: Identification and refinement

Up to this point, the bulk of the work has centered around identifying the need for principles and digging into some research to flesh out a solid foundation to begin crafting the principles themselves. Keep in mind principles are not the same thing as values. With team values, describe non-negotiable truths for your team. With team principles, describe concrete focus areas that guide your team on how to work.

Example of values versus principles:

  • A value, courtesy of Nike — The world is our community
  • A principle, Small-Step Change — We believe that people usually change their behaviors in small steps. It makes little sense to confront people with large methods and frameworks. What they need most is a continuous improvement cycle that feeds them minor changes. Revolutions happen as an accumulation of many baby steps.

Templatizing the process can improve the likelihood of success. As does bringing on a writer or content strategist to help assist with the nitty-gritty of sentence structure and word choice. We did both, and with the help of Richard Cooper (Content Strategist), we began crafting the principles themselves.

To do this, we gathered the most commonly used words within each category we defined and stack ranked them against each other. We aimed to use the top three words from each category within our principles because we wanted to ensure that the voice of our co-workers was heard through the research we did. We knew the success of adoption would ultimately rest on a two-prong approach: adoption by individual contributors as well adoption by senior leadership.

Our templates all looked the same to start. We agreed to use the phrasing of:

Our work is [insert the number 1 stack ranked word].

Followed by a sentence or two using the remaining stack-ranked words.

A block of text providing context for a template of a design team principle. The text reads: Our work is [insert the number 1 stack ranked word]. Followed by a sentence or two using the remaining stack-ranked words.
A block of text providing context for a template of a design team principle. The text reads: Our work is [insert the number 1 stack ranked word]. Followed by a sentence or two using the remaining stack-ranked words.
An example of early iteration for a principle in work.
  • Keep language free of metaphors or figures of speech that may not translate well across the globe.
  • Keep language simple and free of jargon and business-speak. Imagine, these are ways of working versus aspirational talking points.
  • Keep each principle unique. We found a lot of overlap between principles, which diminishes the power of each principle itself.
  • Keep the actual number of principles low. Aim for between three and five. Any less and they struggle to stand individually, any more and they’ll be challenging to act on each day.

Remember to refer back to the original three guidelines of:

  • Actionable: Principles tell you how to act. They are something you can do.
  • Memorable: Principles should be easy to remember so that the team can apply them — always. Every team meeting they get discussed and applied.
  • Reflect the company’s culture and brand: Principles should reflect the overall company and the shared common goals between organizations.

This process can take time. Our team had countless conversations around word choice, sentence length, and how to strengthen the intent behind each principle. And that’s ok.

Step 3: Show and tell

Previously we’d mentioned how important it was to ensure the voice of your co-workers are heard through this process. We do this to ensure day-to-day employees who are heads down crafting products, attending meetings, and generally pushing for the adoption of the principles because those principles resonate with them. That genuine connection is important for the longevity of the principles. The second half of the success equation is getting buy-in through senior leadership. Be forewarned, this can be a time-consuming process. Shadi spent the better half of 6 months getting the original support to begin an exploration of crafting principles. While at no time did she ever find herself met with a negative reaction, it did take time and effort to demonstrate the need and solution. Now, with some-what polished principles, it’s important to bring these to the same senior leadership who greenlit the process.

Inevitably, due to our own life experiences and backgrounds, we all bring our own unique lens to the workplace. Harness that unique lens of your senior leadership by getting raw, unadulterated feedback from them on everything from the number of principles to the structure and cadence of the sentences to the actual merit behind each principle. Buy-in from leadership is essential. Without their support, it is highly likely the hard work gone into crafting principles will be all for naught as the principles find themselves tucked away into a manual or hung on posters near common areas. To gain that buy-in, show, tell, and listen to leadership.

We found that by including leadership, we were given a look into future coming organization wide initiatives. With those, we were able to fine tune the word choice. For example, key words such as co-creation and key phrases like Live in The Customer’s Mind. We cannot encourage you enough to get support from your own leadership team.

Final results

VMware is proud to share the principles we crafted. We encourage you and your teams to explore how principles can transform the way you and your organization work.

  1. United Together by Our Differences. We agree to show up as our authentic selves. Recognition of our global and diverse workforce allows for a safe environment that is open to different points of view, identities, and abilities, which makes us all better together.
  2. Leading With Empathy Through Transparency. We inspire each other to lead through empathetic openness in all our interactions. We say less and ask more by starting with questions and listening to others. Through this cycle of empathy and listening, we foster a loop of honest and direct feedback.
  3. Relentless Co-Creation. We reject siloed work in favor of co-creation by maximizing our time with our cross-functional partners as a way to connect the dots across teams and products.
  4. Through Learning We Grow. We exercise a growth mindset by taking smart risks and failing fast. We use the pattern of discover, define, ideate, and learn as a way to better ourselves and the solutions we co-create.
  5. Live in The Customer’s Mind. We put our relationships with our customers first by metaphorically sitting with them. We take the longest view of our relationships by focusing on customer outcomes versus team outputs. We do this through a continuous feedback loop.
  6. Inspire Action. We trust each other by giving autonomy to our teammates. With a less is more approach, we harness the energy of solution-seeking with product delivery.

Since our work began months ago, we’ve seen continuous support from both those who we’ve reached out for research and feedback, as well as those within our leadership ranks. As we practice our new principles, we ask ourselves the original question of: will these principles inspire great design decisions?

We hope you ask yourself the same question as you craft your own principles.

Did our design team principles resonate with you? Did you find our process spoke to you? Want to work with us? Join us! Design @VMware is hiring.

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