Design Principles

Your constantly-updated definition of Design Principles and collection of topical content and literature


What are Design Principles?

Design principles are widely applicable laws, guidelines, biases and design considerations which designers apply with discretion. Professionals from many disciplines—e.g., behavioral science, sociology, physics and ergonomics—provided the foundation for design principles via their accumulated knowledge and experience.

Design Principles – Laws with Leeway

Design principles are fundamental pieces of advice for you to make easy-to-use, pleasurable designs. You apply them when you select, create and organize elements and features in your work. Design principles represent the accumulated wisdom of researchers and practitioners in design and related fields. When you apply them, you can predict how users will likely react to your design. “KISS” (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) is an example of a principle where you design for non-experts and therefore minimize any confusion your users may experience.

Franks Spillers’ design checklist is an example of a set of customized design principles for mobile user experience (UX) design.

In user experience (UX) design, its vital to minimize users cognitive loads and decision-making time. The authors of the definitive work Universal Principles of Design state design principles should help designers find ways to improve usability, influence perception, increase appeal, teach users and make effective design decisions in projects. To apply design principles effectively, you need a strong grasp of users problems and a good eye for how users will accept your solutions. For instance, you don’t automatically use a 3:1 header-to-text weight ratio to abide by the principle of good hierarchy. That ratio is a standard rule. Instead, a guideline you might use to implement good hierarchy is text should be easy to read. You should use discretion whenever you apply design principles, to anticipate users needs – e.g., you judge how to guide the user’s eye using symmetry or asymmetry. Consequently, you adapt the principles to each case and build solid experience as you address users needs over time.

“Design is not a monologue; it’s a conversation.”

—Whitney Hess, Empathy coach and UX design consultant

Types of Design Principles

Designers use principles such as visibility, findability and learnability to address basic human behaviors. We use some design principles to guide actions. Perceived affordances such as buttons are an example. That way, we put users in control in seamless experiences.

Usability kingpin Jakob Nielsen identified ten “commandments”:

  • Keep users informed of system status with constant feedback.
  • Set information in a logical, natural order.
  • Ensure users can easily undo/redo actions.
  • Maintain consistent standards so users know what to do next without having to learn new toolsets.
  • Prevent errors if possible; wherever you can’t do this, warn users before they commit to actions.
  • Don’t make users remember information – keep options, etc. visible.
  • Make systems flexible so novices and experts can choose to do more or less on them.
  • Design with aesthetics and minimalism in mind – don’t clutter with unnecessary items.
  • Provide plain-language error messages to pinpoint problems and likely solutions.
  • Offer easy-to-search troubleshooting resources, if needed.

Empathy expert Whitney Hess adds:

1. Don’t interrupt or give users obstacles – make obvious pathways which offer an easy ride.

2. Offer few options – don’t hinder users with nice-to-haves; give them needed alternatives instead.

3. Reduce distractions – let users perform tasks consecutively, not simultaneously.

4. Cluster related objects together.

5. Have an easy-to-scan visual hierarchy that reflects users’ needs, with commonly used items handily available.

6. Make things easy to find.

7. Show users where they’ve come from and where they’re headed with signposts/cues.

8. Provide context – show how everything interconnects.

9. Avoid jargon.

10. Make designs efficient and streamlined.

11. Use defaults wisely – when you offer predetermined, well-considered options, you help minimize users’ decisions and increase efficiency.

12. Don’t delay users – ensure quick interface responses.

13. Focus on emotion – pleasure of use is as vital as ease of use; arouse users’ passion to increase engagement.

14. Use “less is more” – make everything count in the design. If functional and aesthetic elements don’t add to the user experience, forget them.

15. Be consistent with navigational mechanisms, organizational structure, etc., to make a stable, reliable and predictable design.

16. Create a good first impression.

17. Be trustworthy and credible – identify yourself through your design to assure users and eliminate uncertainty.

The IDF’s ‘About’ page exemplifies good hierarchy, ease of navigation, whitespace use, etc., while establishing trust.

Learn More about Design Principles

The Interaction Design Foundation has courses on using Design Principles effectively:

Whitney Hess examines Design Principles here:

An insightful, example-laced look into Design Principles:

A helpful piece addressing Design Principles’ importance in mobile experiences:

Literature on Design Principles

Here’s the entire UX literature on Design Principles by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Design Principles

Take a deep dive into Design Principles with our course Psychology of Interaction Design: The Ultimate Guide.

A deep understanding of human psychology is essential for all designers when creating a user-centered product with great user experience. While many individual differences will never cease to exist between users, we are united by our shared psychology; the constraints and abilities of the human mind are much the same for all of us. Developing an understanding of these cognitive limitations and capabilities is the key to interaction design and a great user experience. Without an awareness of how we interact with things in the real and virtual worlds, you’ll find that your designs will fall short of their potential.

This course will equip you with the knowledge to relate to your users psychologically, thus allowing you to create stand-out products. Through learning about different aspects of human cognition—and how they relate to interaction design—you will find yourself much better equipped to put yourself in your users’ shoes, shifting their thoughts to the forefront and keeping a firm hold of them there when designing your next creation.

All literature

The Principles of Service Design Thinking - Building Better Services

The Principles of Service Design Thinking - Building Better Services

Service design is all about taking a service and making it meet the user’s and customer’s needs for that service. It can be used to improve an existing service or to create a new service from scratch. In order to adapt to service design, a UX designer will need to understand the basic principles of service design thinking and be able to focus on...

  • 1 week ago
Principle of Consistency and Standards in User Interface Design

Principle of Consistency and Standards in User Interface Design

Learn to design with consistency and standards in mind and understand the reasons why they’re important to incorporate them into your work. Derived from Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich’s Ten User Interface (UI) Guidelines, ‘Consistency and Standards’ are evident in many of the widely-used products created by some of the most successful companies. ...

  • 1 day ago
Hick’s Law: Making the choice easier for users

Hick’s Law: Making the choice easier for users

Now let’s see a topic about keeping our users’ lives easy. “Isn’t that the theme of most articles here?” you may ask. Well, this one is especially geared towards users. Understanding Hick’s law means you can design so that more users will visit and stay on your website. Delivering a good user experience requires that first you find out the fu...

  • 1 week ago
KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) - A Design Principle

KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) - A Design Principle

It was Albert Einstein who said; “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it well enough.” Though it is often mis-reported as being; “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it well enough.” What Einstein was driving at was a particular application of “keep it simple, stupid”. From scientific concepts to products t...

  • 9 months ago
The Building Blocks of Visual Design

The Building Blocks of Visual Design

Visual design is about creating and making the general aesthetics of a product consistent. To create the aesthetic style of a website or app, we work with fundamental elements of visual design, arranging them according to principles of design. These elements and principles together form the building blocks of visual design, and a firm understand...

  • 1 month ago
Visual Hierarchy: Organizing content to follow natural eye movement patterns

Visual Hierarchy: Organizing content to follow natural eye movement patterns

Let’s look at a topic that deals with, oddly enough, how we look at designs. Once you understand how the human eye processes these, you’ll find yourself better able to arrange your elements more effectively. Content in any digital page layout will follow a specific hierarchy. Headers appear above body text. Menus go at the top, bottom, left, or...

  • 1 month ago
Contextual Design

Ch 8: Contextual Design

Contextual Design is a structured, well-defined user-centered design process that provides methods to collect data about users in the field, interpret and consolidate that data in a structured way, use the data to create and prototype product and service concepts, and iteratively test and refine those concepts with users. This is ...

Book chapter
Visual Aesthetics

Ch 19: Visual Aesthetics

Visual aesthetics, as discussed in this chapter, refers to the beauty or the pleasing appearance of things. We discuss the importance of visual aesthetics in the context of interactive systems and products, present how it has been studied in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), and suggest directions for future work in this field. 19...

Book chapter
Symmetry vs. Asymmetry - Recalling basic design principles

Symmetry vs. Asymmetry - Recalling basic design principles

Now we’re going to look at two powerful design principles that may, at first glance, seem too simple and second nature to us to warrant too much thought. However, we would be wise not to underestimate their capabilities and the benefits of their effects. Always keeping a firm appreciation for symmetry and asymmetry close to mind can equip you to...

  • 2 years ago
An Introduction to Usability

An Introduction to Usability

Usability and user experience (UX) are not the same thing: the usability of a product is a crucial part that shapes its UX, and hence falls under the umbrella of UX. While many might think that usability is solely about the “ease of use” of a product, it actually involves a great deal more than that. So, let’s find out more about usability here ...

  • 2 weeks ago
Activity Theory

Ch 16: Activity Theory

Foreword: Why activity theory? This chapter is about a theory that was developed decades ago. Some of the basic ideas of the theory were formulated before the word "computer" was ever invented. Then why does the Encyclopaedia of Human-Computer Interaction feature a chapter on the theory? In other words, Why activity theory? The question...

Book chapter
Service Design - Design is Not Just for Products

Service Design - Design is Not Just for Products

Service design is concerned with the design of services and making them better suit the needs of the service’s users and customers. It examines all activities, infrastructure, communication, people, and material components involved in the service to improve both quality of service and interactions between the provider of the service and its cust...

  • 1 week ago
15 Guiding Principles for UX Researchers

15 Guiding Principles for UX Researchers

We’ve found that a lot of first time UX researchers have similar questions and concerns when they start working in UX design. So, we thought we’d round up and tackle some of the most common questions to form a set of useful principles for UX researchers. Of course, this isn’t a complete guide to UX research (there are some fairly weighty tomes o...

  • 1 year ago
Design checklists: What type of designer are you?

Design checklists: What type of designer are you?

What type of designer are you? Do you have a set of principles, checklists, or methods that guide your designs? Or do you prefer to start from scratch and analyze afterwards with a checklist? If you feel more comfortable looking forward, looking backwards– or if you’re a perfectionist who likes to do both – then this article will be useful to yo...

  • 4 months ago
Responsive Design – Let the Device Do the Work

Responsive Design – Let the Device Do the Work

There may be some argument over whether responsive or adaptive designs are better, but in many cases responsive design is going to be chosen for budgetary purposes (at least today). That means designers need to become familiar with the concepts and some basic guidelines for their responsive designs. Before delving into this article, you might w...

  • 2 years ago
The Seven Simple Principles of Conversion Centred Design (CCD) and How to Use Them

The Seven Simple Principles of Conversion Centred Design (CCD) and How to Use Them

Oli Gardner – the Creative Director of Unbounce (a landing page builder for marketers), is an advocate of CCD. He says that deploying CCD makes each page you create on a website a piece of “accountable content”. In that you can measure the impact, purpose and success of each page as that page plays a part in converting visitors into customers. D...

  • 3 days ago
Industrial Design

Ch 6: Industrial Design

In loving memory of Prof. Dr. Kees OverbeekeJuly 18th, 1952 - October 8th, 2011 Kees left us unexpectedly on October 8th 2011, after a lifetime of dedication and warmth towards all the people who surrounded him. He was a passionate man. Kees was inspired, inspiring, engaging, dedicated, provocative and direct. He did not like easy and he was...

Book chapter
Philosophy of Interaction

Ch 11: Philosophy of Interaction

Over the last two decades, interaction design has emerged as a design discipline alongside traditional design disciplines such as graphics design and furniture design. While it is almost tautological that furniture designers design furniture, it is less obvious what the end product of interaction design is. Löwgren's answer is "in...

Book chapter
Tactile Interaction

Ch 20: Tactile Interaction

The following chapter describes a variety of ways in which Tactile Interaction may be used to enhance the human computer interface, i.e. the design of interactive products. Opening with a general discussion on a broad range of potential applications for Tactile Interaction, the chapter quickly moves onto to consider the key physical, perceptual ...

Book chapter
The Pareto Principle and Your User Experience Work

The Pareto Principle and Your User Experience Work

There are two things that are always in short supply on any project; time and money. The Pareto Principle can, in the long-term, help you save both. It can also help you make intelligent decisions based on your user research. Our story begins with a Management Consultant Joseph M Juran back in the 1940s. He noticed that there is a general rule ...

  • 7 months ago