What’s the difference between design values and principles?

Collectively, design values and principles are the guiding beliefs and priorities that shape the design process for any design team, product or designer. But what should they be, and what’s the difference between them?

Time-lapse photography, colourful lights in a circle on a black background
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

We’re all different, and whether we’re aware of it or not we’re all likely to have our own, individual values — which will naturally evolve with us throughout our careers. As a team, though, having defined values and principles gives us a shared ethos to design by — a way to guide our ideas, minimise indecision and keep our collective north star squarely in sight.

Studies have shown that companies with clearly communicated and shared values perform better than those without. And the larger the team becomes, the more important they are. Without them, it’s easy to lose sight of what we originally set out to achieve, and how we set out to achieve it.

What’s the difference between design values and principles?

You’ll find some companies define their values as principles, some use the terms entirely interchangeably, and some see principles as a method of achieving values.

In the 1989 best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Convey defined them as:

“Principles are rules or laws that are permanent, unchanging, and universal in nature, whereas values are internal and subjective, and may well change over time.”

So what does that mean for us?

Design values

Let’s consider our design values to be the things we care most about as a design team — think of them as the paths we choose to take. They should provide us direction and context, and although often quite high-level, they should always be clear, concise and relevant.

Although they shouldn’t often change, they should be reviewed periodically and updated if necessary to remain relevant.

As an example, the values our design team of multi-disciplinary designers follow are:

  • Speed: To be more impactful, we move fast and we innovate quickly.
  • Collaboration: Collaboration makes us stronger, we share knowledge, experience and expertise between us.
  • Excellence: Excellence is about finding the perfect balance which sits somewhere in between aiming for perfection and getting it done. Both in what we make, and how we make it.
  • Humility: Embrace and learn from your mistakes, expose your vulnerabilities, and have empathy for each other.
  • Happiness: The work we’re doing should help to make people's lives better, we should be striving for empowerment, fulfilment and excitement.

Design principles

Design principles are more like a set of rules or value statements describing the most important goals a product or service should deliver for its users and are used to frame design decisions. Think of them as the boundaries to our paths, which stop us being led astray. And unlike values, they shouldn’t change over time.

Note one key difference — unlike values, which are applied to the company or team, principles should be specific to the product or service.

How should we define what our design values and principles are?

As principles exist lower in the hierarchy, and even reference our design values, it’s important we first define our design values. There’s no one right answer on how best to define these, although Gwenna Kadima outlines a good approach where you start with any values you think are relevant, grouping them into themes and gradually merge and narrow them down until you’re left with only the ones you care most about.

Next we define our product design principles. This process can be a great way to set focus before building a new product, or when onboarding new designers. Nielsen Norman Group outlines the following steps to define effective design principles:

  • Identify core values
    What differentiates your product from your competitors? Why do people choose your product?
  • Consider how these values impact users
    Why are these values important? What do they help to achieve for users? If we didn’t pursue them, how would our users be affected?
  • Identify any common tradeoffs
    Identify any simple conflicts that we often have to consider, for example: Should we go for a clean, minimalistic design, or make content highly discoverable? Should we focus on power users or casual users?
  • Write, compare, and iterate
    It’s a good idea to involve others in the creation of design principles as not only will it broaden your ideas, but they are also more likely to be accepted and followed.

Using our design values and principles

Our design values and principles should exist within our design systems to ensure they’re not forgotten. They should be discussed regularly in meetings, included in presentation decks, or even stuck to your walls if you prefer.

Once defined, we should use our principles to justify and explain design decisions — especially when trade-off decisions have to be made. We can apply self-checks to our ideation process or sign off to ensure our decision making is always staying true to our principles.

Source and further reading

What’s the difference between design values and principles? was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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