Principles of good design

Dieter Rams compiled a wonderful set of design principles that I have referred to frequently over the years.

He used his principles to help answer his own question “is my design good design?”

Inspired by his thinking, I've been reflecting on some of my own project experiences.

I’ve always thought that ‘good design’ was about creating simple, usable, useful and beautiful things - challenging enough - but on reflection I think there’s more to it than that.

So what is good design?

1. Good design solves problems

Good design solves real problems and satisfies real user needs.

Successful design projects start with clearly articulated problem statements, and good designers regularly ask ‘what problem am I trying to solve?’

Designers are more like scientists than you might think; generating hypotheses and running experiments to see if their ideas actually solve problems in the real world.

2. Good design is difficult

The sheer amount of bad design in the world proves just how easy it is to design terrible things.

Good design requires investment from the designer which saves the user effort further down the line.

3. Good design is about communication

Things that are designed well communicate how they should be used to the people who want to use them.

A well designed tin opener can be used without thought because it ‘tells’ the user how to use it.

Similarly, a well designed photo communicates the photographers intended messages to the viewer.

4. Good design is invisible

Good design is often invisible because it doesn’t get in the way of the user.

It should be effortless and intuitive. The user should only remember the aspects of the experience that the designer intended them to.

This invisibility is why design is undervalued. Things that are well designed are often taken for granted because people don’t notice them at all.

5. Good design is compromise

All design is compromise.

Design decisions are made under constraints of time, money, politics and resources.

The art of good design is the ability to make something useful, usable, effective and beautiful despite these constraints.

6. Good design is theft

Good design steals conventions, ideas and patterns from elsewhere.

This results in a level of consistency and also helps good design ideas to spread across different domains.

Designers are encouraged to have broad and varied interests which exposes them to different domains from which they can 'borrow' ideas.

7. Good design is intentional

Good design supports the user to do what they want in the way that the designer intended. It doesn’t happen by accident.

8. Good design is never finished

Design is never finished because products need to be continually refined to suit new requirements, beat new competitors and satisfy marketplaces with ever changing demands.

We have learnt to acknowledge this by changing our approach to designing things like websites by considering them as services rather than static things.

This stops us striving for unachievable perfection, but instead for ongoing improvement as we learn more about how what we have design actually behaves in the wild.

So these are my principles of good design and I’d love to hear about yours. Do share your own principles within the comments below.

James is responsible for leading user-centred design projects across all industry sectors, and also runs cxlabs. He has written two UX books, speaks regularly at international conferences, and co-founded UXBristol.