Practical Design Principles

Design principles are a vital tool for designers to assist teams in decision-making and successfully meeting a common goal. In this workshop, Ben Brignell took a look at some real-world examples from brands, individuals and organisations, with focused, hands-on activities to help groups of participants create their own.

Ben has created a set of open source design principles that gathers together 1,397 design principles, available at

Design principles are a set of words or phrases written to help guide a design team. Ben used the brand Fisher-Price as an example. Fisher Price developed its design principles in 1930. They are:

  • Intrinsic play value
  • Ingenuity
  • Strong construction
  • Good value for money
  • Action

These principles guide all of the product development at Fisher-Price and can be seen at work in a number of iconic children’s toys.

Design principles are like a guide that keeps you focused on a goal. Design principles assist with decision making and defend your rationale. Design principles shift thinking towards goals not tasks and breakdown complex concepts/ideas. Design principles create a sense of “why” and inform decisions, encourage collaboration and promote innovation. Design principles can mean less meetings and less management.

Ben has created three principles for creating design principles. He believes design principles should be:

  • Concise
  • Memorable
  • Definitive

But why not use rules? Ben argued that rules can create loop holes, or be too rigid, or lead people to blindly follow the rules rather than the spirit intended. 

He illustrated this by considering the task of sending champagne flutes in the post. Putting a rule on the box like “Do Not Drop” would not necessarily protect the champagne flutes, as someone might sit on the box, or kick it or cause damage in another way. However, we could harness the power of design principles and label the box “Fragile”. This helps the person delivering the box understand how to treat the box without giving them a long list of rules.

Ben gave us some more examples of how to reframe rules as design principles, including:

  • A rule like “The website has to load in under 10 seconds” could be better expressed by the principle “Quick”.
  • A rule like “The task needs to be completed in under 3 steps” could be better expressed by the principle “Focused”
  • A rule like “everything needs to be accessible from the dashboard” could be better expressed by the principle “Pertinent”

Ben asked participants to form groups and asked each group to go to generate a fictional product idea for their group, e.g. “My new start-up is like Glitch for Bankers”.

Next, the groups had to write a mission statement for the product and then discuss some of the design themes that surround the product and its users.

Participants were asked to list as many words, phrases and short sentences about their fictional product as possible. Ben asked participants to try framing their themes as positive statements, writing one idea per post-it. Participants grouped these together to identify common patterns and agree a set of 3 – 5 concise, memorable and definitive words or statements that could be used as design principles for their fictional product.

At the end of the workshop each group presented their ideas, which included:

  • “Kickstarter for Politicians”, with design principles of:
    • Issues not political parties
    • Give people meaningful voice
    • Support micro-actions
  • “YouTube for Babies” with design principles of:
    • Dependable
    • Mood responsive
    • Quick start
  • “WhatsApp for a Hospital Ward” with design principles of:
    • Supportive
    • Community
    • Safety
    • Accessible
  • “Taxi service for wealthy business people” with design principles of:
    • Reliability
    • Luxury
    • Restorative
    • Discrete

About Ben

Ben Brignell is a freelance design consultant from London. For a long time he’s been building brands and products with pen, paper and code. He manages an open-source collection of design principles and methods. Ben helps organisations and individuals define their own. He’s interested in design principles and how they benefit design, infrastructure and architecture. As a multidisciplinary designer he consults on content, design systems, and responsive design. He believes in building products that anyone can use on any device. Carrying a sketchbook at all times Ben sketches his surroundings. The rest of the time Ben makes Twitter bots and pickles.