What separates good designs from great designs is a philosophy.
Having a working knowledge of the fundamentals and basic principles behind good User Interface and User Experience design can only get you so far. Not to say that knowledge isn't valuable, it absolutely is. However, in order to take a design to the next level, there has to be focus on the thought process around what is being created.
A good portion of people know what a design philosophy is or at least liken it to a personal philosophy which isn’t far off. But in case you don't know, a design philosophy is simply a set of guiding principles that you follow when you're designing.
You may be thinking, "Can't I just use the fundamentals and basic principles of good design as my philosophy?" Well, no. Though a design philosophy may encapsulate all of the fundamentals within it, it goes beyond that - stretching into the thought process behind why you do the things that you do. Things like - Why do certain design elements look the way they do? Why are certain screens in the order that they are? Why was one colored button used over the other colored button?
That why is where the true value is in UI/UX design - the thought process behind the actions. However that why is elusive, leading to it often being overlooked and forgotten. This is why it’s quintessential to define these subjective creatures through a design philosophy.
A philosophy is constructed by and is reliant upon its principles. These principles are like lenses through which you can view every aspect of the UI and UX that you are creating. All of which have the shared goal of creating the most efficient, user-friendly and effective app or system possible. Each of these lenses help you to view your designs a little bit differently and give you a way to check yourself and your decisions against an objective goal.
Is a design philosophy really all that important? Absolutely. What tends to happen without the use of a philosophy is the creation of portfolio pieces or a bunch of pretty things that don’t really serve a purpose other than being pretty. That’s all well and dandy but, contrary to popular belief, good looking things don’t always work well.
When a UI/UX system is built without a design philosophy at its core, a number of issues arise - siloed concepts, snowflake components, incoherent choices - all of which slow down development and cause headache after headache. And that’s the best case scenario. However, what happens more often than not, these disparate designs lead to a product that doesn’t work which results in a lot of wasted time and money.
By no means is a design philosophy going to catch everything, but it helps substantially. Having a quasi-manifesto to always come back to and remind you and your team of the core principles and values that you're trying to deliver helps you keep your designs on target and deliver better products.
Who's the design philosophy for?
Well, first and foremost, a design philosophy is for the UI/UX team. However we aren’t the only ones that benefit from it. A philosophy is beneficial for everyone who touches the product that’s being created; From Product Owners, to Developers, to Testers, everyone benefits from a well-documented definition of why each design decision is being made.
When creating designs, the UI/UX team is making conscious and unconscious decisions based off of the basic, guiding principles that have been ingrained in them. In the UI/UX design community, these principles are common knowledge. However, outside of the UI/UX department, they are practically unknown and even if they are known aren’t necessarily understood. To most people it's like a different language. I've been told to "go do my magic" many times in my career which gives you a glimpse into how your work can be perceived sometimes. That “magic” is all well and good but it’s hard to sell to a new customer.
People don’t tend to like to pay for things in business that they don’t really understand. So, in order to have a fruitful relationship with a client, you have to build a level of trust and understanding with them so they know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This is absolutely essential when designing in a corporate environment.
If you aren't able to explain your designs and choices in a way that makes sense to your non-designer peers then it’s hard to build trust. What your clients want to hear is how your designs are good for their business or how what you're proposing helps them accomplish their goals. Make no mistake, that's what you're really selling. Not the pretty pictures but the value behind them.
This is where a design philosophy comes in. It creates tangible goal posts that both you and your clients can use to understand and explain what's going on and why things are happening the way that are. Using your design philosophy in this way makes your goals, your why, tangible to you and your clients which makes everyone happy in the end.