The Mazda MX-5 is the best-selling two-seat sports car. It is famous for being light weight and fun to drive. Mazda follows the principle of Jinba ittai, Japanese for horse and rider being one, while developing the car. The principle comes from the Japanese sport of mounted archery, where the rider controls the horse with his knees. This principle has guided Mazda to create a car that is known for its driving experience and not its features.
Designing is the act of making choices. Design principles guide us in making decisions. In that process, they also become the criteria for evaluating the decision made. In projects riddled with ambiguity and fuzzy goals, design principles are a good antidote.
There are two different usages of the phrase ‘design principle’. One school of thought is principles in using visual medium like line, shape, and color. I’m using ‘design principle’ as a more general rule that is understood and followed by anyone. (Just principle is more accurate, but I like the sound of design principles.)
“If you know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter how fast you get there.” Jared Spool
In large projects, communication within the team is a major bottleneck. Especially in globally distributed teams, conventional modes of communications like meeting and email are limiting. There will be only limited timeframe for meetings due to timezone differences. And everyone is overloaded with email these days. In effect, the amount of information communicated within the team is finite.
Design principles bring all the team members to an agreement about the goal and perhaps the strategy to reach the goal. This is so much better than agreeing to the solution. This will allow the team members to work independently while still maintaining a common goal. As team members work around the same design principles over time, mutual trust will increase and the amount of information communicated to get the same task done will decrease.
Choosing design principles
Selecting design principles is difficult, because there is no right or wrong principle. But it is an important conversation to have with oneself and with team members. Conflicts about the principles can also be harder to resolve for the same reason. However, if these conflicts are not resolved or even acknowledged up front, they can become painful and tedious later.
Bret Victor gave an inspiring talk on choosing a career based on a principle. In the talk he gave two qualities needed in a principle:
* It should be actionable. Phrases like ‘keep it simple’, ‘easy to use’, ‘beautiful’ are ambiguous. And can’t be acted upon.
* It should also objectively divide a situation into right or wrong.
I will add that the design principles should not point to solutions. They should show the way. So choose any principle that has these qualities, and make sure everyone buys into it.
Design principles don’t guarantee success. At the least, it guarantees clarity of thought which I think is better than success.