In this article we’re going to walk you through the basics of design system principles. What they are, why they’re important, when you need them, how to use them and even how you can make up your own. 

Whether you’re considering your first product design, or are maybe returning to product design after some time away, it is always a good idea to ensure you are well versed in the art of creating design system principles that work.

What are Design System Principles?

Design principles, quite simply, are the set of values that shape the initial development, as well as the ongoing innovation of your design system. If you’re a visual person, think of the design system principles as a lighthouse, guiding you along the way. Showing you where to go, and also where you don’t want to go. 

Design principles lay some ground rules that will help you and your team make decisions as you go along. They should be solid, to ensure that your end product is aligned to you and your teams’ values and desired outcome.

When do you need to define your Design System Principles?

There are three key parts of the product design journey where having your Design System Principles are integral. 

Firstly, you should ensure that your principles are set as you begin the design system journey. From the very start. This will ensure that when you and your dream begin designing the product is created with the right guiding principles in mind.

Secondly, if you are part-way through your design system and you find yourself struggling to be consistent it’s time to take it back to your original principles. Let them be that lighthouse.

Thirdly, if during the process you find your team is growing and integrating fresh ideas it is important to ensure everyone is onboard with the Design System Principles. This will ensure a smooth team experience, as well as a consistency of thought and design approach.

Using your Design Principles

As we outlined above, there are three key parts of the design system process where using your design principles is recommended. While these are key, there are a number of additional times where leveraging or leaning on these principles can help keep the team on track with their creative process. 

  1. Provision of guide and context when creating individual product components,

  2. A way in which to communicate the workings to other teams and team members,

  3. When onboarding a new stakeholder (or team member, as previously mentioned).

Your design principles are key to maintaining and defining the strictness of your system and providing the right context in which to make design decisions. 

An example of when we incorporated strong design system principles was the creation of the Commsec design system. One of the most fundamental principles was the accessibility of the App, and the focus on accessibility guided the decision-making process at several key moments during the design process.

How to make your own Design Principles

So, how do you create design principles that actually work? Glad you asked us!

  1. Gather together your design team, and everyone else who will have some input or be asked to perform part of the design process for a focus group

  2. Look into the data surrounding the product you are working on. What are the identified pain points? Is there information on what the users want? What they don’t want included? What is at the core of your design?

  3. As you build up your principles ensure you are completely clear about each of them. Build them up with examples!

  4. Once finalised, communicate these principles with your entire team, or company

  5. If you want to go the extra mile: print your design principles on posters and put them up all around the office. 

  6. Make sure your design principles are readily accessible to all those involved in the process, so they can easily look them up when making a decision. 

Testing and Validating your Principles

The test and validation part of the principles process is key to their success. Ensure that you do present them to your team and gather robust, constructive feedback. Hear everyone’s voice, you never know who may have some great ideas that you never had!

Design Principles and Coding Standards

If you are a developer, be sure to adhere to your coding standards when writing code. It never hurts to go that little bit further either, making sure that your principles include accessibility for a greater end product.

Got a question about design principles? We’d love to hear from you, reach out at any time and let’s see how we can help you!