The Vital Role of Design Principles in Building a Design System

Giselle Scott Headshot

Giselle Scott

Digital Product Designer

March 10, 2023

3 mins to read

Image created by Giselle Scott using Midjourney

Design is more than just making things aesthetically pleasing. It’s about solving problems, telling stories, and creating experiences that engage and delight users. But how can we ensure that our designs are not just aesthetically pleasing, but also consistent, functional, and valuable?

Enter — design principles. The unsung heroes of design systems. From setting accessibility standards, to building trust and brand identity, these guiding rules and values help us make deliberate decisions and maintain consistency across different platforms, products, and contexts. In this article, we’ll explore the vital role that design principles play in creating a consistent design system, and share some practical tips and examples to help you level up your design game.

The elements of a living library

A design system is a library with reusable components, guidelines, and assets that ensure consistency, efficiency, and scalability in the design and development process. However, a design system is not a static entity. It’s a living thing — constantly evolving and expanding, and can be contributed to by a diverse group of stakeholders, from designers and developers, to marketers and product managers.

This is why it’s essential to have a shared understanding of the design principles that underpin the design system, and to be intentional with every atom and molecule. Clear, defining principles will ensure that a design system is cohesive, accessible, and flexible, and that it aligns with brand values and user needs. Whether you’re working on a small-scale project or a large-scale enterprise system, having a solid foundation of design principles will help you make informed decisions and stay true to your vision.

What on earth are design principles?

Design principles are a set of guidelines and values that inform the decision-making process in design. They’re not strict rules, but rather a north star to guide you when making decisions about the direction of the design system. Design principles provide a shared language and vision for the design team and stakeholders, and help ensure consistency across platforms. By defining clear design principles, you can establish a strong design culture within your project, foster creativity, and build trust with your users. In short, design principles are the cornerstone of a successful design system and a tool for creating delightful experiences.

Some great examples

Design principles for Design systems are not a new concept, and many big companies have been using them to drive their design culture and innovation. For instance, Spotify’s design system, Glue, has the design principles; Relevant, Human, and Unified, which reflects how Spotify is made for you.

Adobe’s design system, Spectrum, has the principles Rational, Human, and Focus, which are embodied in their high quality experience that effortlessly scales across their platforms.

Shopify’s design system, Polaris, has principles that focus on their designs being fresh, fast, future-friendly, purposeful, and familiar which are reflected in their human-centred and intuitive designs which guide them in creating a natural and seamless e-commerce experience for their customers.

By defining and following design principles, these companies have not only created iconic and memorable experiences, but also established a strong brand identity and loyal user base. You can draw inspiration from these examples, whether it’s for creating a new design system or improving an existing one.

How to DIY your Design Principles

Now that we’ve seen some examples of companies with their own design principles, you might be wondering how to come up with your own set. Don’t worry, it’s not rocket science (unless you’re creating a design system for rockets, in which case, it might be). Here’s a step-by-step guide that will help you define your own design principles and give your team a clear direction.

1. First, give your design system a name that makes you proud to say it aloud. You could explore names by jumping into the very topical, ChatGPt. Give it some direction with your brand identity or values, and offer a tone you want to reflect your brand. Perhaps you want it to be serious and mature, or fun and light-hearted. You could even go old school and hit the dictionary for inspiration! The name of your design system should reflect your brand identity and be a springboard for ideation — something that gets your team excited about the project and sets the tone for your design principles. Think of it like a chocolate box of design delights — your name, your design system, and your principles all bundled up together in one tasty package.

2. Next, look for inspiration from other design systems, but don’t copy them like a kid copying homework from their classmate. Instead, let them inspire you to create something that’s uniquely yours.

3. Then, get your team together for a brainstorming session where everyone throws in keywords on sticky notes, or perhaps put them in mighty Miro. These keywords could be anything from Accessible to Scalable. You want these keywords to speak to how you want your design system to be represented. This is your chance to let your inner designer shine, so don’t hold back. As a way to make this process more fun, I recommend drawing your keywords instead of writing them down, or do both? Sometimes you can express more through doodles than through words. If you’re thinking; “But I can’t draw!”, give this a read- The Doodle Revolution.

4. Once you have a collection of words and/or doodles, put it to a vote and let the team choose the top five.

5. Now comes the fun part: mind mapping! Use the top keywords to create sentences that describe what your design system should do and what qualities or feelings it should evoke for your users. You can even add some drawings or stickers if you’re feeling artistic. Once you have your sentences, discuss and reflect on them as a team.

6. Finally, vote to choose the most important sentences and formulate them into your own design principles. Give them a catchy name, a cool illustration / icon / logo. Remember, these principles are the foundation of your design system, so make them as playful and professional as you are.

Too important not to enjoy

When crafting design principles, make sure you have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to let your brand’s personality shine through. Maybe one of your principles could be “Embrace the Whimsy” or “Surprise and Delight”. Who knows, maybe your team will come up with a theme song to go along with your design principles, or a mascot to represent your system. Design principles are the unsung heroes of design systems, and by giving them the attention and care they deserve, you can create a design system that withstands the test of time and delights users for years to come.

*This article was originally published on Medium

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