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The 7 principles of design and how to implement them

Last updated

22 May 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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With today’s consumers prioritizing user experience (UX), businesses must develop products that not only provide the functionality customers want but also evoke positive associations and feelings. Millions of dollars and hours are spent ensuring the products hitting the shelves are well-designed and immediately resonate with consumers.

What is “good design”?

So what do we mean when we say a product is “well-designed”? Is “good design” a matter of perspective and wholly subjective?

Like art, each consumer experiences a product design differently. A product will evoke unique thoughts and feelings in different people. There are accepted conventions for creating products of value, meaning that good product design, like art, must follow established objective criteria.

Good design yields products that are attractive, intuitive, and easy to use. They provide an aesthetic appeal that consumers love, and there’s no need to read a 30-page technical manual or call customer service before you can use them for the first time. In a well-designed product, information about users’ needs and wants is incorporated into every component.

Design elements vs. design principles

Some of the most popular products follow most, if not all, of the seven design principles. To follow them, you’ll need to understand the difference between elements and design principles.

Design elements are the objects used to design a composition. These elements include shapes, lines, color, value, texture, space, and form. They are the basis for any design you can think of. Design principles are how these elements are used in the design to create the final product.

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What are the seven principles of design?

In well-designed products, you’ll find a combination of these seven principles. They allow you to take the elements and arrange them in appealing and useful ways.

Alignment and balance

When we refer to alignment and balance, we’re talking about how the elements are arranged in a design. They may be arranged in one of three ways: asymmetrically, symmetrically, or radially.

Depending on your choice of balance, the elements may assume equal or differing prominence within the design. Alignment is closely related to balance and refers to how well the elements are lined up within a design or composition. Poor alignment gives the visual impression of clutter and incompleteness.

Contrast

As a design principle, contrast involves using visually distinct elements close to one another. By using strikingly different elements, you can draw attention to a focal point, elevate elements, and create markedly different designs.

For example, when you use colors opposite from each other on a color wheel or present words from a passage in larger font, you’re using contrast.

Emphasis

Emphasis is where you deliberately add a feature to an element to distinguish it from the others. You can use another design principle, such as contrast or balance, to do this.

For example, if you have a grid of red dashes but color nine dashes in the middle of the grid green, you’re applying the principle of emphasis to the center of the grid and drawing attention there.

Movement

Movement refers to which direction(s) the user’s attention is drawn to throughout the design. Using other principles, you can help guide the user’s eye or hand to different elements. You can create a distinct rhythm for the design through repeated elements and the intensity of contrasting elements.

Proportion

Proportion refers to the size of different elements. You need to balance the scale of the elements with their functionality. A small button on a device may be aesthetically pleasing but not optimally functional. You can also use proportion to create contrast or emphasize certain elements in a design.

Repetition

Repetition (sometimes called pattern) involves the recurrent use of elements in a design. It’s often used to create balance or contrast or to de-emphasize less important elements. For example, you can create emphasis by using a unique feature or one that breaks the repetition. You can also use the technique to focus a user’s attention on a particular feature or in a particular direction.

White space

The previous principles all deal with the elements you add to your design and how they are arranged. But what about what you don’t add? Areas without elements are known as white space or negative space.

While white space may seem unimportant at first glance, you’ll find you can intentionally use it to help organize and arrange your elements. White space contributes to pattern, emphasis, balance, and rhythm just as much as the elements.

Pulling the principles together

So how can you tie all these elements and principles together into a satisfying design?

Ideally, your product design will lean heavily into market research about your users’ functional needs and their experiences using similar products. If you haven’t already conducted market research, this is the first step you should take.

You’ll need to use appropriate qualitative and quantitative techniques to uncover what your users need from your product. You can also capture insights about your users’ experiences using similar products, specifically in terms of usability and aesthetics. The more insights you capture, the firmer your foundation will be for designing your new product.

Next, create a prototype using these insights. The design should arrange the elements according to the design principles. The form and function should be integrated in a way that most aligns with consumer feedback. Many businesses still focus on the design first, prioritizing a form they find striking overlaid on basic functionality. However, product developers may fail to capture what consumers actually want if they use this approach.

Once you’ve built a prototype guided by user insights, workshop it with users who resemble your target market. Gather as much information as possible from participants about the design using tools like focus groups and usability testing. Well-designed products seamlessly meld form and function, so you’ll need to evaluate usability simultaneously. Engage participants in research methods like guerilla testing, eye-tracking, five-second testing, and other appropriate usability tests.

Use these methods continuously to refine your prototype until your product is ready to launch. When your product hits the shelves, professional reviewers will comment on how well (or badly) you’ve incorporated the seven design principles.

Remember that the end user is the ultimate judge of good product design. By engaging prospective and existing customers at every step of your product development process, you can develop products that are most likely to resonate with consumers.

When can you break the rules of design?

The seven principles of design will be the best practices to follow while consumers continue to embrace them. However, you don’t need to follow them to the letter to craft great products. In fact, some of the most popular products stray from these guidelines in some way.

So when can you violate these principles? Consider breaking the rules with the function and features if the users in your research demand it. Consumers will constantly define and redefine what constitutes good design.

You don’t always need to use all seven of these elements in equal measure. Consumers’ needs and preferences change over time, so elements and principles fall in and out of favor. All you need to do is listen to what your potential users are saying.

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