Designing a Design Philosophy

Exploring what it means to define a design philosophy (or your design values).

Designing a Design Philosophy
Photo by Alex Block / Unsplash

You don't know what you don't know. That applies to pretty much everything, especially when you're starting in a new craft—the what and why isn't clear right off the bat.

As a designer actively practicing for a few years now, the what and why of my craft is becoming more apparent. It's exciting to have more clarity on what fuels me to pursue design.  When I was starting, I didn't know why. All I knew was the basis that I liked to design and needed to get experience. I think that's the case for a lot of people out there. They want to create great experiences for users, but what does that mean?

Figuring out you're why is the exciting part here! It's an exploration of your values and what's important to you as a designer.

The concept was mentioned to me during a mentorship session I had a while ago. Near the end of the mentorship call, I was asked, "What are your values as a designer?" I heard what they had to say, but I hadn't thought deeply about the question at that time. It's almost been a year later, and it's now starting to click.

We have our values because we've lived through the experience of life and have defined them along the way. When you're making your way into the design industry, it's not always clear how personal values overlap with design values are. It's essential to sit, listen, and process your values. They begin to set the tone of your practice and approach to your process. They are what create clarity in defining your design philosophy.

To be clear, my design philosophy isn't my design process. It's deeper than that. These are the perspectives that are important to me to consider and advocate for when I am designing. These are the roots that drive my decisions and guide me in the methodologies I use. It encourages intentionality and gives me the reasoning behind my process. When a design philosophy is established, it's what makes the process unique to the person.

Establishing a philosophy is a design challenge

Like all great things, it requires time, effort, whole lotta patience! It's about putting yourself in situations where your craft is challenged, but you try again. It's about putting yourself in situations where you won't budge on certain decisions but compromise on others. If you're in the mindset to start thinking about your philosophy, here are some questions to consider asking yourself:

  1. What are the things that make you tick?
  2. When you talk about design, what are the things that stand out and are important to you?
  3. What environments lead to your best work?
  4. When you are designing, what are the things you want to be great at or known for? What do you want to specialize in and become known as the expert?

These questions aren't always quickly answered right off the bat. Like the design, it's a process, and it requires time and experience.

To put it into another perspective, having a design philosophy is similar to companies creating cultural value statements. They become pillars of the company to guide people in what they can expect. When you establish your design philosophy or value statements, not only do you know what you can expect from yourself, but you can see how other people, companies, and environments embody them as well.

My current design philosophy

Below, I've shared what my current pillars are and some of the reasoning behind each one:

Clarity in complexity

In the most complicated situations, provide clarity in the complexity vs. defaulting to simplify. Guide and empower users.

  • I don't believe that "simplifying" user experiences is always the best choice. We need to create experiences that provide a clearer understanding is what we should aim towards. It's about guidance and encouragement so that people feel empowered! Especially when it comes to more complicated concepts and experiences, clarity in the context is the goal. Simplifying experiences results from first bringing clarity to people, not the other way around.

UX and UI

Functionality informs style, form, and vice versa. Quality products have both.

  • Humans are visual creatures, and as much as we don't want to admit it, we judge based on what we see. UI and vice versa informs UX (especially with digital products). When people interact with products, it's psychologically powered by the experience architecture just as much as its visuals.

Systems Thinking

How does one thing affect the more significant sum? What impact does this have on the larger ecosystem?

  • Designers need to be careful not to silo themselves in their minds and the work they do. Extending and exploring the world and collaborating with others is an integral part of the process. As our teams grow and product offerings, we need to consider how our work influences immediate, present, and future scalability. We need to recognize the interconnectedness and patterns of our impact. There is more than designing for a single happy path.

Farm & Iterate

Design, test, ship, iterate. Tend to what is there so new opportunities can flourish in the greater whole.

  • Design is an iterative process. Once something is finished, it's never really finished. Working on new opportunities to offer and address user needs is a good direction. But there is always "unfinished" work for current offerings. We should strive to tend and improve our current offerings to create a better foundation and experience for the newer offerings to come.

Contextual

Process and methods are contextual to the problem. Do what's best for the circumstances.

  • Nothing is linear in life. And sometimes, it's cyclical. As designers, we like to use our process to guide us in the problems we solve. Not everything goes the way you plan, and being adaptable to those circumstances is essential. Problems should be thought about contextually. Look at what the issue is at hand and the knowledge tools you have at your disposal. Take all of these things into consideration to address the problem at hand.

Delight

Create moments of delight to spark a little joy in someone's life.

  • The best experiences are remembered because of the delightful moments. (i.e. Gusto's pig, Figma's "high fiving" in FigJam). Those details show that as designers, we're aiming to create thoughtful experiences.

Right now, these are my design philosophy pillars. Are they going to stay like this forever? Maybe...maybe not. As people change and grow, so will their perspectives and values. The same applies to how designers mature in their practice. As they grow, so will their view on their craft and how they approach it.

Don't feel pressured to have all the answers right away! I've been in the world of design for four going on five years now, and I'm just now dipping my toes in this exploration. If you're not ready to deep dive into this just yet, keep this in the back of your mind. Maybe a lightbulb will randomly go off one day where you realize what's important and unique to you.