How defining design principles strengthens products and teams
Is the time and effort invested in defining design principles worth it—especially when it might feel like self-indulgent make-work? Can a relatively new but growing design team find a shared purpose and principles that work for every team member? Do design principles even make sense for a consultancy whose product design work changes client to client?
We weren't certain of the answers to these quandaries when we started, but defining TXI's design principles helped unify and crystallize who we want to be as designers and teammates. This outcome feels like a resounding 'yes' to us.
With a new practice lead and two-thirds of the team with a tenure of a year or less, we didn’t have the kind of history that serves as design shorthand. Without a common compass guiding us, every choice had to be checked as we went. This added time to projects and muddied our process. A set of principles started to seem like a smart investment and a pragmatic way to rely less on guesswork or gut instinct.
Searching for our starting point
While the best design work is rooted in user research, there’s always a subjective space between what the research says and how we as designers interpret and translate it. That distance, however small, can be incredibly hard to articulate to clients and colleagues outside the design team. And without principles, it's just as hard to do between designers—especially on teams where the strongest wills and most impassioned perspectives prevail. Thankfully we're a pretty empathic and inclusive team, so what we really needed was something to bring us together: a lightweight check and balance assuring us at each decision point we were heading down the "right" path. We do "great" work as individuals, but how could we know for sure if it was great work for TXI as a design organization?
Part of the problem we faced was figuring out what "right" or "great" even meant for TXI—especially when design manifests so differently client to client and product to product. What works for a food innovator like Tyson looks completely different than what works for a news service like Accuweather. Design principles are typically tied to a product, not the in-house team building it. So at first we wondered if design principles could even work in an agency, where the clients, industries, and audiences are so varied. With some research, we found evidence (and inspiration) in great design principles set by other agencies, many of which are aggregated at websites like Design Principles.
With plenty of possibilities and proof to build from, we committed as a design team to define our own guiding principles; but we knew we'd need some outside facilitation to help guide the effort.
Pro Tip: Defining representative design principles is a group effort. Without everyone’s input and involvement, you're likely to end up with a set of easily-abandoned aphorisms that never really take root. Be clear about what's driving the need for your principles as well as your intentions and expectations for them once they're defined.
Creating connections and cohesion
It wasn’t intended as a team-building exercise, but defining our design principles uncovered many beliefs we didn't know we shared and unified our team with new understanding and appreciation for each other. This was made possible, in large part, by our guest facilitator, Valerie Craig.
Structured as a virtual work session in Mural during our day-long offsite, our facilitator led us through a number of exercises, exploring our individual rationales behind a shortlist of principles we each brought to share.
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Hearing each person show and tell their top principles gave everyone on our team an opportunity to voice the references and reasoning driving their own creative practice. The series of activities and articulations provided us this totally new way of understanding each other, even the few of us who've worked together for years.
More than anything, the day was spent searching for a shared language—one that would allow us to agree (or disagree) based on the same rubric. Articulating our motivations—and trusting each other enough to be open and honest about them—helped us build our team as much as it helped us build consensus.
Pro Tip: Getting outside facilitation and carving out a day to focus allowed us all to fully and freely participate. Making the activity part of something bigger (a team offsite, milestone or anniversary) gave the effort credibility and gravitas.
Committing to something extensible and explicit
As a consultancy we needed a set of design principles flexible enough to accommodate an ever-changing client and product portfolio, while simultaneously specific enough to guide our work and critical creative decisions. And as a growing team, we needed to leave room for evolution and future team members. Finding a balance between extensible and explicit was key.
After the session, Valerie worked closely with our team to help identify universal themes and down-select a core set of common convictions. These thematic groupings gave way to a set of draft principles and an organizing framework the team could discuss and debate. Eventually, we crafted a document we believed was directionally accurate and decidedly ambitious.
Distilling the entire effort down to five big ideas (humanity, curiosity, ingenuity, clarity and quality) we drilled down even further. First an articulation: what does this principle mean to us? Then a series of examples to show how that design principle would show up in the work. This helped move us from high-concept to tangible manifestations—giving things shape and making it more real for each of us.
There's an inherent complexity to defining design principles because its impossible for them to mean the exact same thing to every person. And because each team member is going to live them differently, its vital people are able to see themselves reflected in the definitions and be comfortable articulating them in a personally authentic way.
Pro Tip: Without the tenacity to drill down deep enough, you’ll be left with fluffy designer aphorisms. Encourage skepticism and honesty with your team—patiently and constructively talking through each principle until they're pinned down in a way people can't easily refute.
Design principles vs. company values
Defining our design principles also required us to distinguish them from TXI's company values. Our principles needed to exist within that set, not in contrast to it. In many ways, our principles offer tangible examples of how our company values look in practice, applied to design. Where our values hold us accountable as people, our principles hold our work accountable.
Our company values are foundational—fostering and describing a work culture and environment we all operate in. And by design, they're binary: you either embody the company value or you don’t. But a design principle like Humanity can manifest myriad ways.
Because of that, there’s no "done" to our principles. They can (and should) be pursued in new and creative ways with each engagement. And not every digital experience we design will incorporate all five principles each and every time. And that's okay! Our design principles are aspirational intentions not strict rules. They give us five different ways to think about a problem statement and five different aims to assess against throughout a project. They’re challenging, audacious, and true to us.
Pro Tip: Design principles shouldn't feel restrictive or punitive. If they're too didactic or dogmatic they'll limit teams' creativity and problem solving. Instead, of a "test" you can never quite pass, think of them as springboards for your thinking and a way to inspire you to move forward.
Living our principles
It's early days for our principles, but already the benefits to defining them are clear: we established a shared approach to our design work, galvanized our team, and inspired other TXI practices to think about their own guiding philosophies. As a team we're exploring all the ways our new principles could positively impact our work beyond the work. What might it look like for our principles to influence hiring criteria, the onboarding experience, project team agreements, and even our sales pursuits? Regardless of what happens next, this has always been about committing to a singular direction and defining together how to get there—something any team can benefit from.
Defining design principles doesn't have to feel like self-indulgent navel gazing. Done well they can provide a powerful and practical framework for your team—improving alignment and affording more autonomy. If you’re thinking about articulating design principles for your team, we’d love to help.
Published by Antonio Garcia in Design Thinking|User Research