The True Fundamentals Of Design Principles

The True Fundamentals Of Design principles – This article is in response to our friend’s, hermina1818, query: “What is the most important segment (area) of a website? (At first glance, where does the reader’s eye land?)“.

I can tell you up front, an awesome, responsive & eye catcher HERO IMAGE is pure gold. OR, a fast moving yet easily understandable header VIDEO (no sound), in a loop – both will leave a nice impression. Also, depending on what your website is for – testimonials may be imperative, therefore need top billing. Or a products (great for author’s peddling those pages!). Truly it depends on what your web presence is presenting….

But if 2020 has proved anything, it’s that we work in a world of constant disruption. Whether it comes from a new technology or a worldwide pandemic, Heraclitus was right: “Change is the only constant.” Yet some fundamentals carry over. The True Fundamentals Of Design Principles are important for the basis of all of your theory.



So, how do we maintain some semblance of order when we’re forced to continuously evolve?

For UX, Creative, and even wider business teams, establishing brand-specific design principles can go a long way. By crafting experiences based on these foundational guidelines, you ensure that even the most agile, experimental ideas stay rooted in your brand and why users embrace it.

What are design principles?

Design principles are foundational ideas for building experiences, guiding everything a design team creates. They sit toward the top of your “design thinking” or “design system” activities, and capture big broad concepts, often represented with a single word or short phrase.

They’re largely removed from trends and style. They’re the reasons your brand might choose a particular button shape, logo treatment, or bit of microcopy – not the specifics of those patterns themselves.

Like any conceptual framework, the true fundamentals of design principles come in many shapes and sizes. It’s up to you to decide what will be the right structure for your brand.

In Adobe’s Spectrum design system, three top-level principles – “Rational,” “Human,” “Focused” – are supported by four more more action-oriented concepts – “for all platforms,” “for everyone,” “evolving and transparent,” “built by a community.”

Screenshot of Adobe Spectrum's design principles for Rational, Human, and Focused
Adobe Spectrum revolves around these three core principles.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the design guidelines for Google Cardboard, which are more descriptive and focused specifically on the virtual-reality space – “avoiding simulator sickness,” “establishing familiarity.”

In both cases, you can see how these principles influence everything the design group creates. That’s the most essential trait of a true fundamental design principle: It should never be ignorable (that’s a new word apparently, hm).

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Why are unique fundamental design principles important?

Image by tookapic

Naturally, design principles operate at a widely applicable and foundational level. Because of that, it can seem like there’s really no point in developing a set that’s tailored to your brand.


Pretty much every set of design principles has some principle about clarity, about consistency, about user empathy. A lot comes out in the details, though. How much your brand emphasizes a particular concept and even the tone of descriptions will form the unique personality of your design work.

Let’s compare two brands whose design ethos you likely have a strong sense of: Apple and Firefox. Both establish design principles about giving users control.

Screenshots of Firefox and Apple's design principles centered around user control.
Firefox (left) and Apple (right) both value giving users control, but they approach the concept differently in their design principles.

At least two of Firefox’s design principles are dedicated to giving users control over the experience. The wording establishes expansive agency for the user, too: “make it your own,” “invite people to be more than users,” “gives you choice and independence.”

Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines in no way discount the idea of user control. It’s still a primary design principle. However, Apple’s principle strives for a balance instead of the unfettered freedom and authority Firefox grants its users. “The best apps find the correct balance between enabling users and avoiding unwanted outcomes.” And consider this phrase: “make people feel like they’re in control.” (The emphasis is mine.)

Imagine a Freaky Friday-esque swap of principles. What would Firefox look like following Apple’s specific design principles or vice versa? Probably not what each looks and feels like today.

Even though a brand’s design principles will undoubtedly share core concepts, the mix’s particularities influence the flavor and form of the brand’s design. So, it’s essential to create design principles that line up with your brand’s unique cocktail.


How do you create design principles?

When I looked to establish a defined set of design principles at Nerd of Fortune, I surveyed my existing experiences & asked some former colleges from GoDaddy (I worked there for almost 4 years*).

Across my old dining room, I hung up comprehensive examples of my user experiences, brand guidelines, plus feedback and survey information. Then, I discussed it all with some friends & former colleges (and talked to myself). What worked, what didn’t, why? All this ensured my principles would be firmly grounded in my customers’ reality.

After this analysis, I jotted down phrases on sticky notes. These phrases represented the strengths and pitfalls of the experiences. e.g. “Great patterns should be repeated”, “Formal tech speak feels intimidating”. Like many UX exercises, I then grouped, voted, refined, and prioritized these phrases.

Through this process, I think I narrowed it all down to a set of eight clustered concepts, standing distinctly from each other while representing the breadth of my analysis.

With the high-level work done, I wrote it all down & captured it all in a guiding document. One useful touch: Scripting questions to ask myself when I assess designs against the principles. The True Fundamentals Of Design Principles can be beneficial to an entire organization, and building them into a widely accessible, applicable tool helps them take root. (note: take a look at my LinkedIn for old article I wrote during this phase)

Nerd of Fortune sale

Example: Nerd of Fortune’s Design Principles

Remove, reduce, refactor.

My greatest value to customers (besides really listening, I think) is making complicated tasks easier and quicker. Favor simplicity and edit rigorously.

  • Have we made this as simple as it can be?

Invent the wheel and roll with it.

An ideal solution can be used to solve more than the immediate problem. Strive for building versatile solutions and applying them across various situations.

  • How can this be utilized in the future?
  • How can we use existing tools to solve this problem?

Value the ecosystem.

Consistency provides benefits for both users and designers. Consider how your solution affects the big picture, and how the big picture affects your choice of solution.

  • How have we accounted for the impact this might have elsewhere?
  • Does this conflict with what we’ve shown users in other experiences?

Keep the path honest and clear.

Users should have a clear expectation of what they are being guided to, and where they end up should match that expectation. Avoid twists and tricks.

  • Is this really how this works?
  • Where might the user be confused by this experience?

Make the info useful.

Whether it’s a bold marketing claim or a simple error message, information should move users forward. Make sure everything has a reason for being and can be acted on.

  • Will this be helpful to users?
  • Why are we including this information?

Design for designers, develop for developers.

Creators are both our direct clients and validators for our business-side clients. The more that our experiences reflect what they care about, the more they’ll care about our experiences.

  • Would a designer/developer appreciate how this is built?

Listen, watch, learn.

Ultimately, everything we do serves our users, so our users should be our number one resource. Observe their interactions and make sure they influence your decisions.

  • Does this solve a problem users have?
  • How do our users respond to similar experiences?

Evoke an emotional response.

In the words of Don Norman, “We need to design things to convey whatever personality and emotions are desired.” In what you create, reflect how you want a person to respond.

  • How does this experience make a user feel?
nerd of fortune, very handsome

I am the Nerd of Fortune. I have been hustling from home (part-time) for about 15 years & working exclusively from home for several years – and loving it! I am a firm believer in making ‘working from home’ a success for everyone…

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