Noupe Editorial Team May 28th, 2018

Beauty is Not a Design Principle: Let Go of Empty Words!

Design principles are supposed to help you make important decisions in the design process that conform to client and purpose. Here, empty words, like beauty or simplicity, only help so much. It is more helpful to look at the topic from the user's point of view.

In Design,  User is King

When it comes to design principles for the world wide web, one of them sticks out a lot. It's more than ten years old, and originated from the W3C working draft "HTML Design Principles". It says:
In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.
Reduced to the essentials, this means: When in doubt, the users are more important than the theoretical validity of the realization. Instead of theoretical validity, you could also say norm-loyalty or even standard compliance. This way, we shift the possible result as far away from specifications as possible, in favor of the users. There's no better way to explain it. However, it seems like not every designer knows this old wisdom. The common design principles rarely deal with the user as a target audience. Instead, in most cases, the principles are just generic, alleged direction selects that sound good, but can't add much to the steering of a project.

Design Principles as Plain Business Catchwords

Additionally, congruence between general design principles and the design guidelines of a customer business is very rare. Especially the latter are often kept very vague, so that they're not really principles, but rather put the client's definitions on the level of a principle. Even businesses from the tech-section are not free of these superficialities. Facebook states Universal, Human, Clean. And Google posits Useful, Fast, Simple. While the "principles" of the blue network from Palo Alto lack any kind of steering function, the catchwords of the Mountain View-based search engineers at least serve some kind of guideline. The designer Jerome de Lafargue examined a whole bunch of design guidelines of large companies and found out that superficiality is commonplace. Most businesses from Lafargue's sample size described themselves as "simple, user-friendly, consistent, accessible, exhilarating, fast, unique, and beautiful". You will agree that these words sound sympathetic, but only have a very limited steering effect. After all, we have to put every term in relation to the declaring business, in order to even derive a rule from that in the first place. However, that's not how design principles were intended. The terms I just mentioned could suit any business. I don't think anyone would say that they didn't want a user-friendly, unique, and pretty website. So, this won't get us any further. I don't want to act as if user friendliness was no desirable design goal. It just doesn't suffice as a catchword.

Only Specific Design Principles Can Lead the Way

Instead of the fluffy wording of noble design criteria, it makes more sense to look into what the most important consumer of the design should receive. Do you want the user, whether it's a client or a stakeholder, to enjoy a pretty look, or do you want to pursue and accomplish other goals instead? Since the latter is more likely, wouldn't it be smarter to define expectations in that regard? De Lafargue's example is Medium, the platform for writers of all kinds. Here, the highest design principle is as follows:
We purposely traded layout, type, and color choices for guidance and direction. Direction was more appropriate for the product because we wanted people to focus on writing, and not get distracted by choice.
Medium wanted users to focus on writing, and not get distracted by irrelevant - in comparison - layout options. This kind of principle was very easy for the designers to orientate towards. Do we add the option to choose different templates to our product? No, this will only distract the user. At least, this is more meaningful than the principle that your design should be pretty. If you're confronted with two principles that have an awkward effect on each other; like one that says that design should be beautiful, and one that says that the website should be fast, things get difficult. Lafarecommendsmmend implementing priorities in these cases. For instance, the principle could state that the design should definitely be created in favor of the speed. This lets the designer make decisions where he used to be uncertain. Useful principles are always oriented towards the user, and forgo vague catchwords, as well as those that require interpretation. This means users are more important than design principles. A good design principle has to be oriented towards the user, is another way to put it. Read More: Featured Image by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

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