Design principles

Your constantly-updated definition of design principles and collection of videos and articles
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What are design principles?

Design principles are guidelines, biases and design considerations that 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.

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

In user experience (UX) design, minimizing users’ cognitive loads and decision-making time is vital. The authors of Universal Principles of Design state that design principles should help designers find ways to improve usability, influence perception, increase appeal, teach users and make effective design decisions in projects.

You need a firm grasp of users’ problems and a good eye for how users will accept your solutions to apply design principles effectively. 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 a 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 a 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

Illustration of design principles including unity, Gestalt, hierarchy, balance, contrast, scale and dominance.

Illustration of visual design elements and principles that include unity, Gestalt, hierarchy, balance, contrast, scale and dominance.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

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 of seamless experiences.

Usability kingpin Jakob Nielsen identified ten “commandments”:

  1. Keep users informed of system status with constant feedback.

  2. Set information in a logical, natural order.

  3. Ensure users can easily undo/redo actions.

  4. Maintain consistent standards so users know what to do next without learning new toolsets.

  5. Prevent errors if possible; wherever you can’t do this, warn users before they commit to actions.

  6. Don’t make users remember information – keep options, etc., visible.

  7. Make systems flexible so novices and experts can choose to do more or less on them.

  8. Design with aesthetics and minimalism in mind – don’t clutter with unnecessary items.

  9. Provide plain-language error messages to pinpoint problems and potential solutions.

  10. Offer easy-to-search troubleshooting resources, if needed.

Empathy expert Whitney Hess adds:

1. Don’t interrupt or give users obstacles – make apparent pathways that 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. Group 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 – the pleasure of use is as vital as ease of use; arouse users’ passion for increasing 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 an excellent first impression.

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

Learn More about Design Principles

Several Interaction Design Foundation courses closely examine design principles, including Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide.

Whitney Hess examines Design Principles in her article Guiding Principles for UX Designers.

Find out more about the importance of Design Principles in mobile experiences in the article Mobile UX Design: Key Principles.

Questions related to design principles

What are the principles of design in art?

The principles of design in art are foundational concepts that guide the creation and evaluation of artworks, ensuring visual harmony, balance, and cohesion. These principles include balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity/variety. Each principle plays a pivotal role in organizing or arranging the visual elements in a design, ultimately shaping the viewer's experience. For a deeper understanding and exploration of how these principles relate to visual aesthetics in art and design, refer to the chapter on Visual Aesthetics from the Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. This comprehensive resource provides insights into the interconnectedness of design principles in various mediums.

Is color a principle of design?

Color is not traditionally classified as a principle of design in art. However, color is essential in creating visual interest and evoking emotions in design. As Joann Eckstut, co-author of What Is Color? 50 Questions and Answers on the Science of Color and an interior designer, points out, the perception of color can change based on various factors like the light source and surrounding colors. 

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For example, daylight constantly alters how we perceive colors, and different light sources like incandescent, LED, or fluorescent can shift color appearances. Also, colors can appear different depending on their background, a phenomenon known as simultaneous contrast. For an in-depth exploration of color's impact on design, watch the insightful video by Joann Eckstut on the topic.

What are Don Norman’s design principles?

Don Norman, a pioneer in user-centered design, emphasized creating strategies that align with how people think and function. Initially concerned about the complexity of early computer systems, he highlighted the significance of intuitive design. For instance, the early Unix systems had a text editor where users could lose work hours if they forgot to save. Norman's experience extended beyond computer systems to areas like nuclear power and aviation safety, where poor design could lead to grave consequences. His collaboration with NASA, a leading authority in aviation safety, underlined the importance of designing for the end user. To delve deeper into Don Norman's philosophy and principles, check out his detailed discourse in the video provided:

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What is emphasis in principles of design?

Emphasis in design principles refers to intentionally highlighting specific elements to draw attention and create a focal point. By manipulating contrast, color, size, or placement, designers can guide the viewer's eye to the most crucial parts of a composition. Emphasis ensures that certain design elements have more visual weight, allowing them to stand out and capture interest. This principle helps convey the main message, evoke emotions, or guide user behavior. For a deeper understanding of how designers create meaningful connections through emphasis and other principles, explore the article on empathizing in design at interaction-design.org.

What is balance in principles of design?

Balance in design principles refers to the distribution of visual weight within a composition. It ensures that elements are arranged in a way that doesn't make one side feel heavier than another. 

Balance can be achieved symmetrically, where elements mirror each other on either side of a central axis, or asymmetrically, where elements provide equilibrium without mirroring. Achieving balance creates stability, harmony, and cohesion in a design. It ensures that viewers can engage with the content without feeling overwhelmed or distracted. For a deeper dive into the intricacies of visual composition, including balance, refer to the article on the building blocks of visual design at interaction-design.org.

What is unity in principles of design?

Unity in design principles refers to the cohesive arrangement of elements that ensures all parts of a composition work together harmoniously. It's achieved when each element appears to be an integral part of the overall design, resulting in a complete and aesthetically pleasing piece. 

Unity helps guide the viewer's attention and ensures a consistent, integrated visual experience. The absence of unity can make a design feel disjointed or chaotic. To comprehend unity and other fundamental aspects of design, consider exploring the building blocks of visual design on interaction-design.org.

What is hierarchy in design?

Hierarchy in design refers to the arrangement of elements in a way that signifies importance. It guides viewers' eyes, ensuring they focus on primary information first, followed by secondary and tertiary details. Designers establish a visual hierarchy by employing size, contrast, color, and spacing, directing attention and aiding comprehension.

As outlined in the visual hierarchy article on interaction-design.org, effective use of hierarchy follows natural eye movement patterns, enhancing user experience and making content more accessible and engaging. Properly implemented hierarchy ensures clarity and a seamless flow in design.

Why are principles of design important?

Design principles are crucial as they provide a foundation for creating compelling, organized, and impactful visuals. They guide how elements interact, ensuring consistency, proximity, and visual hierarchy, as highlighted in this video with Frank Spillers, CEO of Experience Dynamics. 

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For instance, consistency ensures that controls remain uniform throughout a design, while proximity suggests related items be grouped. Visual hierarchy places importance on presenting the most vital information at the top. By understanding and applying these principles, designers can create intuitive, aesthetically pleasing, and practical designs that cater to user needs and preferences.

Where to learn more about design principles?

To dive deeper into design principles, consider enrolling in specialized courses offered by interaction-design.org. The Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide course provides comprehensive insights into visual elements and principles. For those new to the field, User Experience: The Beginner's Guide provides a foundational understanding of UX design principles. Furthermore, explore the intricate relationship between design and psychology with the Gestalt Psychology and Web Design: The Ultimate Guide course. These courses equip learners with knowledge and practical skills, ensuring a holistic grasp of design principles and their application.

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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 Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide .

In this course, you will gain a holistic understanding of visual design and increase your knowledge of visual principles, color theory, typography, grid systems and history. You’ll also learn why visual design is so important, how history influences the present, and practical applications to improve your own work. These insights will help you to achieve the best possible user experience.

In the first lesson, you’ll learn the difference between visual design elements and visual design principles. You’ll also learn how to effectively use visual design elements and principles by deconstructing several well-known designs. 

In the second lesson, you’ll learn about the science and importance of color. You’ll gain a better understanding of color modes, color schemes and color systems. You’ll also learn how to confidently use color by understanding its cultural symbolism and context of use. 

In the third lesson, you’ll learn best practices for designing with type and how to effectively use type for communication. We’ll provide you with a basic understanding of the anatomy of type, type classifications, type styles and typographic terms. You’ll also learn practical tips for selecting a typeface, when to mix typefaces and how to talk type with fellow designers. 

In the final lesson, you’ll learn about grid systems and their importance in providing structure within design. You’ll also learn about the types of grid systems and how to effectively use grids to improve your work.

You’ll be taught by some of the world’s leading experts. The experts we’ve handpicked for you are the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design Emeritus at RIT R. Roger Remington, author of “American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960”; Co-founder of The Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and leading color consultant Joann Eckstut, co-authors of “What Is Color?” and “The Secret Language of Color”; Award-winning designer and educator Mia Cinelli, TEDx speaker of “The Power of Typography”; Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA Ellen Lupton, author of “Thinking with Type”; Chair of the Graphic + Interactive communication department at the Ringling School of Art and Design Kimberly Elam, author of "Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type.”

Throughout the course, we’ll supply you with lots of templates and step-by-step guides so you can go right out and use what you learn in your everyday practice.

In the “Build Your Portfolio Project: Redesign,” you’ll find a series of fun exercises that build upon one another and cover the visual design topics discussed. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

You can also learn with your fellow course-takers and use the discussion forums to get feedback and inspire other people who are learning alongside you. You and your fellow course-takers have a huge knowledge and experience base between you, so we think you should take advantage of it whenever possible.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

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