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Design principles

Your constantly-updated definition of design principles and collection of topical content and literature

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.

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 3.0

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.

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 Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide .

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, and General Electric, have rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and design thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. What is design thinking, and why is it so popular and effective?

Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? Well, that’s because design work processes help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, businesses, countries and lives. And that’s what makes it so special.

The overall goal of this design thinking course is to help you design better products, services, processes, strategies, spaces, architecture, and experiences. Design thinking helps you and your team develop practical and innovative solutions for your problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process. Through this course, you will develop a solid understanding of the fundamental phases and methods in design thinking, and you will learn how to implement your newfound knowledge in your professional work life. We will give you lots of examples; we will go into case studies, videos, and other useful material, all of which will help you dive further into design thinking. In fact, this course also includes exclusive video content that we've produced in partnership with design leaders like Alan Dix, William Hudson and Frank Spillers!

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete design thinking project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a design thinking practitioner. What’s equally important is you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in the world of human-centered design.

Design thinking methods and strategies belong at every level of the design process. However, design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. What’s special about design thinking is that designers and designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques in solving problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, and in our lives.

That means that design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers, and business leaders. It’s for anyone who seeks to infuse an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective and broadly accessible, one that can be integrated into every level of an organization, product, or service so as to drive new alternatives for businesses and society.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you complete the course. You can highlight them on your resume, CV, LinkedIn profile or your website.

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