Principles of Great Design

Simplicity. The best design is the least design. Use the least amount of elements necessary to achieve the intended effect. This is part of Occam’s Razor or the Law of Simplicity. If two paths get to the same destination, the simpler one is better. Design is perfected when there is nothing left to take away. Or as Einstein best put it:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Keep It DRY. Don’t Repeat Yourself. Keep your code compact, modular and reusable. The opposite of WET (Write Everything Twice).

Modularity. Break things down into their own objects that can be reused without destroying the larger object.

Decentralization. Decentralize and decouple components from dependence on each other. If elements are dependent on each other to work, the larger object is more likely to break. Worse yet, the smaller components probably aren’t as well thought out as they should be.

The Robustness Principle. Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept. In normal-speak, assume that conditions aren’t going to ever be ideal, and plan accordingly. This is why we test on a variety of browsers and devices, even bandwidth. Planning for all contingencies and paring the design down to those constraints is an important part of the design process.

The Principle of Least Astonishment. Reduce ambiguity, make things clear, establish conventions and use them consistently. If you establish a pattern of colors, words, actions, or elements meaning a specific thing, make sure that they always mean those things. If there is a conflict, don’t surprise the user, follow the established convention.

Maintenance friendly. Design that isn’t easy to update or maintain won’t be useful for very long. This one is a big one for me personally. Reducing confusion is one of the goals of great design.

Good design is efficient. Reducing the number of steps to complete a task, reducing the time it takes to get to a goal–these are hallmarks of effective design.

Design is objective, art is subjective. This one is hard for many people to understand, even many professional designers. The design process is meant to figure out the best solution to a defined problem or goal; art is in the eye of beholder. Results trump opinion in a true design process.

Longevity. Design should be built to last. Is it a wonder that we still revere the architecture of ancient Rome or the logic of the Greek philosophers? The same typography principles that were used shortly after the first printing press disrupted the world are still used today. The Golden Ratio has been used in art and design for centuries. My goal with every project is to create something that will still look good in 10, 20, 100, or 1000 years.

Attention to Detail.

The details are not the details. They make the design. – Charles Eames

’Nuff said.

The best design is invisible. The best design doesn’t hit you over the head with a hammer–in fact, you might never notice it. All you know is that things seem easier, the flow seems unencumbered. It could be said that good design is never noticed…until it isn’t there anymore. That we notice.

Design should be inclusive. Making sure that all my web projects are accessible, and usable by people who use assistive technology should be part of every web project, every time.


Well thought out design can grow as the project grows. This is a big reason why modular design with reusable components is so important. Sometimes the future comes sooner than anticipated, and being able to grow with minimal growing pains is essential.

Iteration. Which is another way of saying, keep improving on the idea. Get something solid to start with, a good foundation and keep improving the details. Turning a piece of hewn rock into a marble sculpture is an iterative process, so is perfecting a website. In my playbook, functionality comes before beauty, but both are improved and polished as the process of building and testing continues.

Design is ethical. You might wonder, “ What does ethics possibly have to do with design?” Turns out, a lot. Personally, I and many other designers believe that honesty and communication are the pillars of good design. Transparency always pays off in the end. Designers who use dark patterns in their work steer users towards choices they would not make under normal circumstances. Those unethical design decisions harm everyone in the end: the client loses good will with their users, the users suffer in their experience, and the designer suffers in their craft and reputation.

Webpages should load quickly. Conversions are directly linked to how fast a web page loads. Users don’t wait forever for a website to load on their phone. Typically they wait about three seconds, then they bounce. Designing beautiful pages that also load fast on a variety of devices can be a real balancing act, but part of design is making those critical decisions and adjustments to keep sites quick.

“It’s better to do a subset of a project right than to do the whole project wrong.” Those aren’t my words, but rather those of one of my Web design heroes. Money can be a sticky subject, but it should never be an excuse for settling for poor design. Well thought out design takes time, research, and consideration. A web designer or agency should be as invested in your business or organization as you are, and a big part of that is offering the best solution they can for your problem with the budget that the project has. Cookie cutter design (or straight out-of-the-box theming) isn’t really design so much as it is a shortcut for diagnosing the proper solution and acting accordingly.

No is the most powerful word in existence. Designers love to say Yes to their clients. We want to help you. Occasionally, it is necessary to say no, because what’s most important is making sure that the work is right. Whatever you do, partner with a designer who is not afraid to speak what they feel is right for the sake of doing your project right.

These are just a few of the things that guide my decision process. This page was built with much inspiration from some other web pioneers I look up to, Jeremy Keith and Paul Boag.