The 11th Principle of Good Design

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I talk about Dieter Rams a lot. Partly because his (at the time) humble and understated work now defines the visual language of Apple’s entire product line, and partly because products he designed 52 years ago are still being made today. I mean, what the actual fuck is up with that.

Vitsoe 606 Shelving System, Designed in 1960 by Dieter Rams for Vitsoe

Vitsoe 606 Shelving system, designed in 1960 by Dieter Rams. They still make them today, and to the same spec.

In 1970, Rams decided that he needed a way to objectively assess whether his work was “good design.” No such metrics existed, so he created the now world-famous Ten Principles of Good Design:

  • Good design is innovative
  • Good design makes a product useful
  • Good design is aesthetic
  • Good design is understandable
  • Good design is unobtrusive
  • Good design is honest
  • Good design is long-lasting
  • Good design is thorough
  • Good design is environmentally friendly
  • Good design is as little design as possible

Though originally created to objectify industrial design and physical products, interaction designers have recently begun to apply the principles to their own work. It translates brilliantly, and I use them constantly while I’m designing for web, desktop, and mobile. It’s an inflexible and industry-proven benchmark and it feels awesome to have that in my toolkit.

There is, however, one flaw. These guidelines were created over forty years ago, in a world where interaction design, UI, and UX didn’t exist. They don’t take into account lean startups or software that is constantly changing. I mean, Facebook pushes new code to production at least twice a day..

Most print design projects have a defined completion point… it’s not like you can go back with a Sharpie and correct 20,000 posters. Even physical products rarely receive updates mid-cycle – if something could be better, it’ll be in “next year’s version.” This doesn’t work for software anymore, and we need to make sure we’re thinking about that when we design.

We need another Principle of Design. Something that takes into account interactive software, short product cycles, and effortless distribution.

Good Design is iterative

Software products grow with companies and users, and get better over time. Iterative design is flexible, agile, and reduces the friction associated with growth and change. The designer’s job is crucial from day one, and their work is never done.

I’ve been a part of several design projects that flopped because we weren’t thinking about this. The “agency mindset” is also to blame. Once the project is ‘done’ the designer delivers assets and get paid. From then on, the startup can put them on retainer or hand off the project to the in-house designer – or the… engineers.

Everything falls apart when the startup needs to A-B test, or add a new feature, or iterate on what they’ve got. The layout is fixed, complex illustrations or visual assets were made by someone they don’t have access to, and don’t even get me started on fonts. They’re going to end up using Arial… come on. You know it happens. Ugh.

For websites and huge companies, this is ok. They’ve got the money and manpower to work past these problems. They also don’t iterate too often. You’re not at a big company, and you’re likely the only designer on the team. You can’t afford to not iterate on design just as fast as the engineers are on code. It’s integral to the product, and it needs to happen from day one.

In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains or the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. — Steve Jobs

So how can we do iterative design? Many people are doing it already.

1. Responsive web

Responsive HTML / CSS layouts make it easy to create mobile and desktop friendly web applications. Branch.com is doing an awesome job with this right now – every few days I notice a subtle change here and there. Those changes affect the entire product, not just the desktop or mobile version. It helps them work faster and create a great experience across platforms.

2. Less, but better

Less noise, fewer icons, fewer lines and shapes. One of my biggest challenges is removing complexity from products like Kicksend and keeping only the essentials. Products like Google search are great at this. For the entire lifetime of the Google.com page, it’s been minimal and focused. You know exactly what to expect when you go there, and what Google enables you to do. At the same time, it’s simple and flexible enough to allow Google to create amazing Doodles and advertise their new products.

3. Ship every day

This is a mantra that takes some practice and dedication to adopt. I was introduced to this way of thinking by Allison House, and it’s alive in many startup designers. A designer’s work should never go stagnant, and it should always be open to improvement. User experience research, customer feedback, and new learning should always be happening, and you should always be growing as a designer.

Make awesome stuff. Ship design every day. Remember Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles of Good Design, and keep iterating.

Skeuomorphism is the easy way out ⇢