Why Our Studio Needed Design Principles and How We Defined Them
As an integrated design and technology studio, the team at RUSH are unified in our belief of the exponential benefits thoughtfully designed technology can have for people. As an example, the Graphical User Interface of the first generation Apple Macintosh made desktop personal computing accessible to the mass market, giving many people ‘a bicycle for the mind’ for the first time.
While we’re technology optimists at heart, we are also aware of the negative consequences technology can have. The erosion of individual privacy, fake news distorting our democracies, and digital addiction affecting our wellbeing are examples we’re living with today. So, we distilled this down into RUSH’s reason to exist:
‘We design and build technology to better serve humankind.’
It’s a big part of why talented people choose to work at RUSH, and why bold clients seek us out. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of discussions as a team about how this purpose statement shows up in our design work. And as our design team has grown, a couple of pain points emerged:
- The lack of a documented view on how we defined great design was hindering individuals’ autonomy to make decisions with confidence
- Keeping us all in alignment on what great design meant to us was getting time-intensive, and if we all got busy we could drift out of alignment over time
So we started asking ourselves a question:
How might we empower everyone in the process to make decisions that optimise for great design — as RUSH defines it — for our clients and end users?
If you’ve spent some time in the product design profession, chances are you’ve encountered design principles at some point. Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook describes them like this:
“Instead of relying on gatekeepers to keep a high quality bar, better instead that everyone gets to agreement on a smaller set of guiding values, so that the best decisions get made in a consistent manner, scaling across many decisions, and even many designers.”
Design principles seemed like a natural solution, but typically they’re associated with a brand or product. So how might they manifest for a studio like RUSH working across multiple brands? We needed to develop principles general enough to apply across all of our client’s products, and specific enough to capture the design ethos of our practice.
Defining our principles
Here’s the short version of how we went about developing them, although it’s worth pointing out in reality it felt messier.
- We began with a short online survey of our culturally diverse team of designers, engineers and product thinkers, asking them a few open questions about how they defined design, what makes a design great, and what makes RUSH unique.
- The survey responses were taken into a workshop with the design team and an open invite to the company to help analyse the data, pull out themes and build on them further.
- After the workshop, these themes were clustered into a handful of logical groups, and the articulation of them refined into short statements starting with ‘Great design is…’
- With these short statements about great design we sent out a second survey to the company, this time with closed questions asking our team to rank them in order of importance.
- Finally, we came together as a design team again to review the data, and after a bit of spirited debate edited the list down to six primary principles with supporting statements under each.
Bringing them to life
With alignment on the written principles, we set about crafting the language and the visual expression of them so that they could exist in relation to, and as an extension of, our brand.
We started with the most important one for us to achieve our original brief, a card deck with helpful questions on the reverse to enable great design critique.
I’m proud of how emotionally invested the RUSH team has been in getting these right, and believe we’ve accurately captured what we’re all striving for.
The measure of their success will be in many things. How do they help us grow our design practice? How empowered do our designers feel? How much constructive critique have they helped create? And, ultimately, do these principles reflect how users describe the products we bring into the world for and with our clients?
If you’re leading a studio in need of design principles, I hope something in this article helps you shape them. And if our principles speak to you, we’d love to hear from you.