Be design led.
I often say ‘my hobby is my job’ whenever I get asked about what I do and if I ever plan to sell the business but I genuinely love the task of design and can’t imagine ever not doing it. I’m always doodling away at something be it a project for work or a personal one such as an illustration, home redecoration, garden landscaping or a whole new thing like designing the brand and interiors of Sherringtons. I firmly believe that design, or indeed any other form of creativity, is something that’s in you, something you must be passionate about and that you should live and breathe it.
Because design is about original thought, lateral thinking and problem solving by its very nature, there are no unbreakable rules when it comes to design, but there are some principles to keep in mind during the design process. And don’t forget that it is a process! The final solution will be arrived at through testing ideas and refining them iteratively.
When starting any project, before thinking about the page, screens, user journeys, features or anything really, you have to think about the issue or problem it’s trying to solve and the users - the 'target audience', in old parlance. And to do that you really need to get into the problem as if it’s your own, which it may be, and to think about it from the perspective of the user.
User-led design is absolutely key to attract and inspire the target audience and an efficient, intuitive and - where possible - delightful user experience will keep them coming back. With web design specifically, we use the personas technique in which we actually name and define the different types of user of a solution as 'personas' and map their journeys based on what each persona may want to do functionally, or the information they need to access.
To do that properly it needs research and discovery to understand where other products are failing, where they are succeeding, or even where there are no real comparisons. Armed with this knowledge you are better informed and it becomes a lot easier to deliver a solid product that meets the expectations of real users.
Be perceived as simple
The solution should be simpler, shorter, easier and more enjoyable than without it. Good solutions speak for themselves, they are easy to understand and self-explanatory but this does inevitably depend on the user which is why those personas are so important. We need to be careful not to go too simple and end up not being useful if, for example, you’re designing a product for accountants or engineers, there may well be complex scenarios where detailed information is necessary. In that case, delving into complexity is essential, but with this can still be done with elegance as long as your users still have the perception that your solution is simple.
Less is more
We should always aim to perform a single task perfectly rather than trying to embrace the world. If you go one step at a time, user by user, decision by decision, the product will grow in a healthy and sustainable way, without sacrificing quality. You should always have a bigger goal, but proceed with caution and structure.
Attention to detail
It’s the detail that delights, taking care over every detail is what distinguishes excellent products from good ones - a favourite recent example for me is facial recognition login to my phone. Every feature, colour, image, treatment, font, interaction, animation, layout and element should be carefully considered to achieve that perfect solution, not least consideration of what should be left out. Obviously deadlines and budgets can impact on the time available, but part of a designer’s role is to try to make clients understand that care is profitable and it leads to better results in the long run. Attention to detail demonstrates respect to users, it will delight them and it make them feel special while using something that’s well-crafted so they will welcome it into their lives rather than having a bad experience and never coming back again.
Being truly innovative isn’t easy of course but you should always aim to be innovative by striving towards better solutions and more efficient processes for the problems you’re trying to solve. Innovation often starts by taking a step backwards initially to think about the bigger picture and to challenge the accepted ways of doing things, for example car manufacturers are always trying to create cars that use less fuel, but are trying not to use fuel at all. That’s what real innovation sounds like, it’s the first time someone said “What if we don’t use petrol?”.
Make it useful
Frequently, as designers, we think we have an amazing idea, we get deep into it and get really excited about it, but as soon as we start testing it with real users, the reality is that it wasn’t that great an idea after all. But that’s ok. As mentioned at the outset, design is a process and you should make mistakes because that’s what learning is all about. That said, try to fail fast and learn quickly and minimize potential damage by testing features before releasing them in the final product. If something is useless, it shouldn’t end up in your product.
Make it beautiful
The products and brands we use on a daily basis tell us a lot about who we are and affect our well-being. Only well-executed products are beautiful and bring us that satisfying sensation when using them. Design values also play a massive part in our decision making process as consumers - who buys a phone based on its CPU performance above how it looks? Well, some geeks might, but most people pick the one that they think looks best, the same applies to buying a car, an app, kitchen hardware, TVs and so on. Let’s be honest — looks matter, as designers we need to be obsessed with aesthetics.
Your solutions shouldn’t try to present themselves as being more innovative, more powerful, or more valuable than they really are. Don’t try to manipulate your users with promises that you can’t keep as it will surely bite you on the behind at some point.
Make it scalable
Good design solutions should be easily replicated throughout a product, with undesired ones easily removed as well without having to completely start again. Things like style guides, pattern libraries and brand guidelines help enormously to manage this and maintain consistency. The documentation itself needs to be well designed so developers can easily implement your solutions without any difficulty with clear design rules and standards, and using components from your design system.
Empathy should be part of what designers create. Our products and solutions should go beyond pretty and functional and it's our role to see through other perspectives and realities. Ask yourself questions constantly such as ‘is the design gender inclusive?’, ‘do the images and illustrations include different ethnicities?’, ‘can users manage the way their data is used?’ and ‘should I be thinking about including sound and usability tools for visually impaired users?’
As designers, we need to do our part by creating great examples and explaining design, usability, experience, and aesthetics. Users will then start to recognise good design and understand that some design decisions might not be ideal, or that certain approaches will harm the experience, the beauty and confidence of a brand. Seeing those around us adopt the designer’s mindset is rewarding because it drives quality improvements; we see the margin that’s 1 pixel wider than it should be; the user flow without context; the usability test that wasn’t performed; or a task that could’ve been done better. We need accept user feedback and embrace it as opportunities for improvement to offer a better and more friendly solution.
Finally, it’s the role of the designer to provide resources so that people in an organisation can follow the guidelines easily. For example, designing efficient templates for presentations, email signatures, and easy-to-follow guidelines for the Brand.