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Good design follows principles – it doesn’t chase trends

Good design follows principles – it doesn’t chase trends

Working on the web from the time of its popular adoption in the mid–late nineties, you come to notice that design trends come around with enough regularity to set your watch by. 

Whether it was animated gifs (used originally as website graphics, rather than the social media fodder of today), Flash websites (remember the ‘Skip Intro’ button?) or the more recent flat design movement, trends make for some uncomfortable memories for those of us caught up in them at the time.

All kinds of justification can be trotted out as rationale for use of the latest shiny widgets or veneer, and inevitably it is all self–serving. The truth is that none of us – designers particularly – like to look like we’re behind the times. It is when trends start driving decisions at the expense of something more effective that priorities become mangled.

That said, the quality of web and app design has tended upwards over the years. As with any other industry, design learns from the mis–steps of the past, integrates the best of what’s been, and moves on. This is testament to the adoption of principles which are timeless, rather than trends which can only ever, at best, be timely

In our work at Fathom we constantly refer to two particular sets of design principles from two very different sources. The first comes from German designer, Dieter Rams. While you may not know the name, you’ll certainly recognise some of his work as former Head of Design at Braun.

A quick glance at Braun’s output during Rams’ time at the helm illustrates not just what a talent he is, but what an influence he remains on modern product design. This is no more apparent than in Apple’s product range and software interfaces. Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s own head of design, has never disguised his admiration of Rams’ work. [For a quick overview, try this compare & contrast between Braun and Apple product aesthetics.]

Rams described his approach to design as “less, but better” and put forward a set of Ten Principles for good design, among them the following. Good design, he said:
Is innovative – it leverages technology to help make better products
Is aesthetic – not a reference to eye candy, but an assertion that a product which meets the needs of users, which solves problems, carries an inherent beauty.
Makes a product understandable – it makes use of a product more intuitive, and requires less of the consumer to understand it.
Is honest – it doesn’t attempt to manipulate the consumer by making a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is.
Is sustainable – unlike “fashionable design” (read: trends), it endures over many years.
Is as little design as possible – it concentrates on the essential aspects, and is unburdened with by superfluous elements. In other words, simplicity.

As you glance through those, think of the products you value the most, digital or physical. How many of them reflect Rams’ principles? What’s remarkable is that this list dates from the 1970’s and the full set (beautifully presented here) mentions well–designed products being environmentally friendly.

Fast forward around 40 years to 2013, when the Design Museum raised eyebrows in the design community by awarding Design of the Year to the UK digital services portal, GOV.UK. The Government Digital Services (GDS) team had been working for a number of years towards their goal to ”build services so good that people prefer to use them”. The group’s principles include the following:–
Start with needs – user needs.
Do less – don’t try to replicate what others are already doing better.
Do the hard work to make it simple – the organisation should take the weight to make things simpler for users.
This is for everyone – design should be inclusive and accessible.
Understand context – what are people trying to achieve, and what is their situation?
Be consistent, not uniform – familiar design patterns assist usability; designer self–indulgence tends not to.

As with so much of customer–focused work, clearly articulated design principles sound like simple common sense. Yet they are usually the first victims of expedient decision–making that seeks only to appear current or achieve faux relevance. Whether by copying the competition, or manifesting the desires of an internal agenda, expediency runs counter to what principles try to achieve. As it is in life, so it is in design.

As you build your product or service, what principles will you adhere to? Will they be so much lip service to how you want to see yourself or your organisation? Or can you instead bring into being an authentic, constant reference point that drives effective decisions, both now and in the future.

By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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