The Principles of Design

Four Elements to Make Your Product More Relevant

Over the past 20 years, I’ve had experiences or offered services within a wide range of jobs. My first taxable income came from working for McDonald’s in Schertz, Texas, just north of my high school on I-35. From
there, I went onto selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, working in a movie theater, holding various restaurant and hospitality positions, managing a dorm of college students, lifeguarding during the summers, and even working as a house man in a Victorian brownstone for a large estate in downtown Savannah, Georgia. I’ve had over 30 jobs, including my recent profiles within corporate and professional consulting.

One thing that I noticed, regardless of the job, service, or company I was working for, was that there was always a certain way of doing things. Most organized companies had their mission statements, core company principles, or brand promises that they would promote through annual training or online course completions, and certainly through the company culture. But as an hourly employee, I was never really exposed to the process of defining who the customer was, what they really wanted, or even learning who our customers were in the first place. This changed when I started working in more corporate roles, where I learned how to actually design the experience and principles that others would deliver to targeted users.

Design principles are what your designers should design for, what your marketing department should promote, what your engineers should consider as their constraints, and what your business unit leaders should understand in order to connect with the proper unique value propositions. They are more than just a branding promise, and they are certainly not limited to a list of what the competition has done in the marketplace (which you are already 6-12 months behind, anyway). At the core, design principles are the foundation that allows your company to define opportunities beyond chasing after profits and margins. They help determine what to do, and, equally importantly, what not to do when scaling your product or service.

Whether considering Dieter Rams’s famous book, Ten Principles for Good Design, Raymond Loewy’s MAYA principle, Karim Rashid’s “Karimanifesto,” or Yves Béhar’s 10 principles for design in the age of AI, there are certainly many influential design experts around the world who have developed their own core philosophy or approach to realizing a world designed for humans by humans. But what are these principles of design really about, and why do famous designers use them? Can the average Fortune 100 company or grassroots brand establish its very own principles of design?

The answer to the latter question is, of course, maybe – and it depends. You have to have the right people in place before an innovative process can take shape. There is a method each company should consider for discovering and establishing what these principles of design should look like to those creating products and services within the organization. Your business needs the right person to champion this approach, someone who is both intellectual and has emotional intelligence and is endorsed by the Chief Executive Officer. The latter is especially important
for providing enough political runway to challenge the status quo and enlist the right cross-functional stakeholders.

Empowering your team to use a design strategy process to produce actionable design principles requires extensive collaboration between all key decision makers. The design strategy process itself is the very act of embedding or coding for those who have to scale the insights. This is especially true for designers and innovators at external agencies and large companies with their own design departments. Being part of the process of discovering design principles is even more critical when one is looking to improve a particular offering in a highly constrained, cost-sensitive product development environment, such as the durable goods industry, and other industries that have a high degree of risk when it comes to capitalizing expenses. In such industries, knowing the customer is just as important as knowing the business.

The principles of your design should have immediate impact on and long-lasting application for your service, product, accessory, consumable, and/or your consumers’ experiences of the product. Solutions or offerings should be based on design principles, and your cross-functional team should be briefed using a framework that is simple yet memorable. This framework should be representative of the culmination of research performed, but it should also be easy enough for your organization to implement.

There are many frameworks to use; however, there are four consistent variables that come together effectively across all frameworks: features, aesthetics, interaction, and novelty. Considering these four distinct and overlapping elements of your design will help you determine which key performance indicators will help you collect your design research as a group of insights that your cross-functional team – and, in particular, your design department – can leverage.

These four standardized areas of discovery are not simply about provoking people to respond; rather, they allow you to take a more elegant approach to understanding the human thought process. The first element, features, is not about what a solution or offering can do for a certain price point. The features of a product or experience should be aligned with what you want to achieve and the tradeoffs you are willing to make; features should be looked at in relation to an absolute set of time and relative effort, meaning that there are certain universal design principles that will always be self-evident. After all, people will always want a good experience, affordable consumables, useful accessories, quality products, and dependable service. The features should lead to the proposed end goal, though figuring out what consumers are willing to pay for each step of the journey is a different article in itself. Starting with an understanding of what people naturally want out of their lives, and for their loved ones, will help build the right lens for creating the most viable features. The intended user isn’t always the intended buyer.

The second element is aesthetics. While aesthetics in this context still focuses on how something looks,
it’s also about the material science and the excitement one has using the product, especially if your solution
is something tangible like an IoT product or the next ground-breaking appliance. This term encompasses how something feels, its finish, the temperature of its materials, the luminous flux and hue of the light emitted from it, the force required to open a particular compartment, the sound it makes, the human factors of a solution, and even the perceived weight of the object. I like to call this the science of achieving the proper aesthetics, or rather, “aesthetical physics.”

Today, there are more and more products and solutions that are turning physical encounters into digital experiences, such as online shopping, dating, and, perhaps one day, even virtual babysitting. These too must incorporate art direction that is matched with the appropriate tone and brand to hit certain target segment expectations of how something should look and feel. But the complexity of delivering the right aesthetics for an intuitive experience both physically and digitally overlaps with the third element: interaction.

Interaction has its own long and documented history within the field of design. However, in the context of discovering your design principles, let’s define interaction as the way in which people intuitively anticipate using the solution or offering being marketed to them. Consumers want interactions that are tied to their own intuition and familiarity with what is being designed or serviced. While this element does have its own design evolution due to regular increases in the complexity of technologies, consumers ultimately still desire simplicity in both the physical and digital worlds.

I remember designing my first website a very long time ago using Notepad to write HTML and ImageReady to splice my images. It was a very tedious and time-consuming process, but no matter how much effort I placed into the back-end, it was the front-end (or rather, the user interface) that needed to operate for its audience in a very simplistic manner. The interface needed to match what people expected or had previously experienced, and it had to give sought-after information with the fewest amount of clicks or, nowadays, swipes possible.

No matter how political the back-end of any corporate process has become, how supplier-led open innovation efforts are being promoted, or how international the product development team is, the intended user interaction with the offering should always strive to be positive and provide the user with a unique and remarkable experience. You will always see how poor development decisions lead to poor design; it’s self-evident in the customer reviews.

The fourth and final element has to do with the novelty of an offering. Not everything new is innovative, and not everything innovative is brand new. The novelty of an offering could simply be the departure it allows from an old way of doing something, which then facilitates a better experience. For example, we used to access the web from cumbersome desktop computers, but we have since expanded to laptops, phones, and watches. More recently, drones began delivering products to our homes rather than a delivery truck showing up at our doors. The novelty of a product or experience is not a standalone specification; rather, it is the sum of its parts.

I’ve worked for several major corporations over the past 10 years. The 3M Company, as far as I have seen, has amplified this novelty approach particularly well. Their solutions are based on applying material science thinking within a particular industry, market, or customer solution to a different application or a combination of several previous solutions. There are a ton of subtle innovations that most of us aren’t even aware of. They aren’t all that groundbreaking, but 3M’s ability to promote certain unique and useful applications is perhaps their single biggest core marketing competency. It’s not the ability to do one thing well, but rather, the ability to subtly remind everyone, every day that they exist. That way, when the novelty wears off, the applications fade into the background of normal operations.

Ultimately, the elements that make up a foundational design principle are not simply about creating a document to brief your design department or preparing another consultant deliverable. They should instead be viewed as essential to the process of discovering actionable learning to guide the entire product development team, including marketers, engineers, and consultants. Current design strategies should strive to give your cross-functional team the information it needs to evolve the type of services, products, accessories, consumables, and experiences you know your company can achieve. It just takes the right cross-functional leadership to understand how the very principles that guide your design should be designed.

So before your company or team starts looking at developing new solutions or creating another product SKU mix, first explore what the features should be, what the appropriate aesthetics are, how the end user would want to interact with the product, and of course, the novel approach that is needed to stand out from the competition. You’ll be on track to create an offering with staying power for years to come.

the author

Lee Fain

Lee Fain is co-head, design strategy at Idea Couture.