My top 5 design principles

A design methodology, like the grid, creates a framework and a mindset to work in. In this post, I explore 5 lenses I use to interpret problems and visualize design solutions.

Every designer should have a methodology, a paradigm for defining and refining their process. Many designers through history have developed and shared their approaches, such as Dieter Rams, in hopes of standardizing their work and elevating others. Today, I will walk through a few of my guiding design principles.

Jeremy Barnes
July 8, 2020

designer wim crouwel poses in his studio

Wim Crouwel, my personal design hero and a true exemplar of a designer with grounded methodologies.

1. Useful: what does it do, and who is it for?

While simple, every project should start by answering these two questions. I need to understand what the function of this experience, product, service, etc. is. What’s the promise it’s making people, and what’s the incentive for people to use it? However, understanding the value proposition is not enough. I should also understand who the audience or user is. What are their values? What’s their lifestyle like? When and where are they likely to engage with with this design? These questions help ensure you’re solving a problem that will actually be useful for people.

Wim Crouwel Calendar

Wim Crouwel calendar design using a dynamic grid, the ultimate expression of precision.

2. Clarity, order, precision

Famous Dutch designer, Wim Crouwel, once proclaimed that “design is the organization of information.” Taking this to heart, my first priority is the clear and accurate presentation of information. In that way, no detail, no decision can be treated haphazardly. Elements such as typography, shape, and color cease to be subjective embellishments, but rather a contribution to the user’s comprehension and overall calm when using a product.

Massimo Vignelli NYC Subway Guidelines

A glance at Massimo Vignelli’s famous NYC subway signage. Notice the meticulous touch for the particulars of type kerning. Credit: Standards Manual.

FHK Henrion Logo for KLM Airlines

FHK Henrion’s logo for KLM airlines, defined by geometry and grid.

3. Meaningful contrast

John Steinbeck once proclaimed, “ What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” We live in a world where understanding depends on opposites: hot and cold, light and dark, soft and loud, good and bad. The design world is an extension of our physical, sociological, and cultural world. We communicate levels of importance (hierarchy), differences in information (such as titles from descriptions), and changes in interaction (static vs interactive) through visual variation of information. Contrast is imperative for human comprehension. However, it must be meaningful and appropriate. Anyone can bang a cymbal in a quiet room and call it contrast. But, purposeful contrast must account for appropriateness and desired affect.

We live in a world where understanding depends on opposites: hot and cold, light and dark, soft and loud, good and bad. The design world is an extension of our physical, sociological, and cultural world.

TM Magazine Cover

Contrast can be subtle and minimal with the use of space. Cover of TM magazine.

Wolfgang Weingart Magazine Cover

Contrast can also be powerful, energetic, and explosive. Credit Wolfgang Weingart.

4. Modular, systematic parts

Efficiency is a core value of mine. Custom parts result in wasted time, while standardized ones accelerate our workflows and can secure constant quality. Therefore, when I design, I attempt to reuse existing elements rather than insert new ones. Practically this looks like having a small subset of pieces I work with (such as a refined type ramp, spatial increments, and color values). As I assemble these into components (more reusable parts), I want them to be configurable for a variety of solutions, so flexibility is also key.

Dieter Rams Radio

Dieter Rams’ radio design. As with many of his designs, the circle becomes a central motif, reused for multiple purposes.

5. Personality and aesthetics

I dislike the word aesthetics being used to describe my work. It is connected with beauty and therefore an expression of the subjective rather than the objective. And, I want my work to be rationally discussed — first and foremost, it either works or it doesn’t. But, and this is a big but, aesthetics are central to the human experience. Because humans, after all, are not machines. We are filled with emotions, like excitement, passion, and frustration, and design will always speak directly to these capacities. Even the most sterile, spartan designs articulate something to the human spirit. So, if an emotional response is inevitable and in fact a powerful part of the human experience, I’d like my designs to evoke the appropriate reaction. Therefore, personality in product is central to the enjoyment of it.

That’s a wrap!

Okay! These sum up my Big 5. I hope this has been helpful in revealing ways that problems can be observed and design solutions proposed. As always, I encourage designers to be true to themselves and dig for principles that resonate with them and reflect their values and their approach. Until next time!

Written By

Jeremy Barnes

Jeremy is a product designer, code tinkerer, and creative experimenter leading design over at Gatsby JS, and a southerner currently living life in Seattle. He has a special passion for typography, design history, React, and, of course, Gatsby.

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