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Principles of digital product design

If you google “Design Principles,” your search will return an infinite number of articles, lists, and diagrams illustrating all the various Venn-diagrams, methods, and formulas describing principles ranging from visual and aesthetic qualities — like contrast, color, repetition, alignment, and proximity; to traditional philosophies like the Massimo Vignelli canon or the ten principles of good design by Dieter Rams.


The principles of Good Design by Dieter Rams specifically focus on the high-level qualities of a product — “Good design makes a product useful,” “Good design is aesthetic,” etc. These qualities of Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles of Design are hard to argue against, and I often use them as a lens to cast over my design solutions. But, they lack definition when it comes to process. How do you achieve long-lasting design? How do you achieve aesthetic design? What goes into making something useful or environmentally friendly?

The Massimo Vignelli Canon, however, makes a clear distinction between high-level academic design-thinking and the physical process of making a product — “Part One: The Intangibles” and “Part Two: The Tangibles.” Suggesting that Vignelli understands that for a product to imbue the principles behind its conception, designers need to master both sides of the equation.

While I find these principles inspiring, when I reflect on my design process and experience, I notice a few things misaligned between what I create and how I create it — or rather, the academic versus the practical. For example, I design products that are in-tangible, products used by millions of people simultaneously, and products that evolve weekly, daily, and hourly. Nothing is ever constant, and the product’s design is extremely iterative in a way that never really ends.

What I create is a combination of short-term steps towards a vision, with an appetite to innovate along the way — a two-track mindset of small-bets & big-bets.

How I create is a balancing act between formal design principles, a structured timeline of activities (discover, define, iterate, etc.); and the acknowledgment that the design process has to be flexible enough to accommodate for the unknown, the ill-defined, and for a parallel workflow where engineering and product efforts work in tandem with design.

Drawing on inspiration from famous blueprints like the Massimo Vignelli Canon, I’ve created ten principles that speak to my process for designing modern, high-quality, compelling digital experiences and products that go beyond static mock-ups and deliver value real tangible for people.

PART I: THE INVISIBLE

  1. Design beyond the problem
  2. Be divergent in theory
  3. Be convergent in practice
  4. Clarify ambiguity
  5. Be intentional
  6. Do things that Don’t Scale
  7. Design for entropy
  8. Be collaborative
  9. Essentialism
  10. Responsibility

1. Design beyond the problem

Design is part problem solving, part invention, and part ingenuity. While its important to clearly understand the problems you are trying to solve, it’s also your responsibility as a designer to look at the problem space — the things closely connected to the problem, such as the opportunity you creating by inventing something new and the ingenuity involved in designing something unique.

2. Be divergent in theory

Product design is complex, nuanced, and often full of contradictions. When you’re starting a new project, be sure to give yourself enough time and space to be divergent with your ideas. Some ideas may take the form of a solution; others could be a user-story, a sketch, an opinion, or a metric — at this point, there are no wrong answers.

3. Be convergent in practise

A fundamental principle, convergence requires timing and commitment. Knowing when to converge on an idea is sometimes just as important as the idea itself. Successful ideas are not always clever, witty, or innovative, but are the most relevant at the time.

4. Disambiguate ambiguity

Technology can be ambiguous and full of unknowns. As a designer, its essential that you understand the medium in which you’re designing for. This means asking many questions (annoyingly so) until you have clarity around its purpose, functionality, limitations, vulnerabilities, and opportunities.

5. Be intentional

Be guided by intuition and defined by data. It’s ok to draw on past experiences or gut-instincts; additionally, data (both qualitative or quantitative) will serve as a beacon for decision-making. Either way, every pixel and every gesture need to be designed with intentionality.

6. Do things that don’t scale

I learned from Airbnb founders that by doing things that don’t scale, you invariably eliminate unnecessary constraints that limit potential ideas from forming, allowing you to push the boundaries of what might be possible (or acceptable) to innovate.

7. Design for entropy

While I want to believe that my designs will live forever and inspire the next generation of designers, I understand that the nature of the internet (and the internet of things) is profoundly entropic, meaning that it’s never constant. What we design now will inevitably change in the future.

8. Be collaborative

Good Product Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Good products represent the work of many who have come together as a cross-functional group to solve a common problem. Being a good product-partner is just as important as being a good product designer. In many cases, the quality of your product is a direct reflection of the relationship you have with your team.

9. Essentialism

Inspired by the Greg McKeown book Essentialism, this principle is about doing less, but better, and prioritizing what is truly important in your design at any given moment.

10. Responsibility

Finally, being responsible for and understanding your product’s impact in real-life terms and its ongoing implications to your audience’s social dynamics is critical when designing for a connected world.



PART II: THE VISIBLE

  1. Simplicity
  2. Clarity & Conciseness
  3. Honor design systems
  4. Aesthetically minded
  5. Portability
  6. Accessibility
  7. Functional standards
  8. Embrace constraints
  9. Delight
  10. Eighty-twenty rule

1. Simplicity

Simplicity is not a goal unto itself, but simplicity often reflects the intentional decision-making behind removing superfluous and obvious redundancies, resulting in a more meaningful product expression.

2. Clarity & Conciseness

Put bluntly; people don’t read, they scan, especially on the internet. Understanding this behavior forces a designer to consider visual hierarchy, structure & organization of content more clearly and concisely.

3. Honor design systems

Design systems are a valuable tool for designers to leverage. From Atomic units such as glyphs, color palettes, typography, and inputs, to components that deliver navigation paradigms (navbars and tabbars) and layout configurations. But like every good system, it needs to evolve and change over time to meet new and growing user or business needs. Its the role and responsibility of a Product Designer to ensure they honor the design system but push it forward in new and inventive ways..

4. Aesthetically minded

Taste is a very subjective thing. Where one person sees beauty, another sees ugly. Being aesthetically minded isn’t an assumption that everything you designs needs to be beautiful (in your opinion). Instead, it’s about being conscious of the idea of aesthetic choices based on any number of factors, such as brand, voice, design system, trends, etc. (Even ugly can be an aesthetic choice as long as its a conscious decision to make it so.)

5. Portability

In a world where device and screen fragmentation continues to expand, its more important than ever to consider how your designs are portable from one surface to the next — whether responsive, adaptive, or systematic.

6. Accessibility

When your designing at scale (meaning you have a global audience), there’s no question that your design should meet and exceed accessibility standards (or if possible, invent new ones). Ensure that everyone can derive value from your products, including those who have a disability, are vision or hearing impaired, speak a different language, or culturally diverse.

7. Functional standards

It’s important to know when to adopt a common UX or UI standard (what I refer to as functional standards) rather than design something bespoke or new. For example, adopting a well-known design pattern for navigation will benefit users as they won’t have to re-learn or undo their behavior. However, redesigning your navigation might speak to your brand values and possibly set you apart from others (but it comes with apparent trade-offs).

8. Embrace Constraints

By learning to embrace technology’s inevitable constraints, you’re more likely to make meaningful decisions that will enhance the experience and benefit the end-user.

9. Delight

Think of ways to delight your users throughout the experience in small and unexpected ways that reflect your brand’s tone and voice. That’ll help create memorable moments and set your experience apart from others.

10. Eighty-twenty rule

Inspired by the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule for Product Design refers to the idea that your role as a designer doesn’t end when you hand-off your design specs to engineers. In fact, it’ll sometimes feel like 80% of your effort will be spent in the final 20% of a project (unless you’re designing a concept). Being available for QA (Quality Assurance), on-the-fly problem solving, testing, iterating, release management, and post-launch support are critical ingredients for shipping high-quality products.


Resouces


The Vignelli Canon

Ten principles of good design by Dieter Rams

Essentialism, The disciplined pursuit of less

Pareto Principle

Do things that don’t scale

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