Next, a standard can seem like quite a safe, respectable thing for designers to refer to in meetings with stakeholders. When someone asks, “Why have you done it this way?” the designer can pull out the weighty tome containing the organization’s standards—the implicit message being, “Challenge that, if you dare!” Of course, the flip side of this is that the designer can sound rather hollow and lose credibility by constantly referring to a standard rather than providing a solid rationale for each design decision.
Finally, design standards can lock an organization into psychosclerosis: a hardening of its attitudes. Because a lot of work goes into the creation of a standard, it becomes easier to leave the standard as it is rather than challenge that effort. Just as many organizations get locked into doing complete redesigns of their sites and services every few years—rather than following a process of constant improvement—an organization’s design standards can get locked into place, becoming increasingly outdated over time, while the rest of the world moves on. This often happens because of modern organizational pressures, the major effort that updating design standards represents, and an excess of documentation. In large organizations particularly, defining standards requires documentation, and people perceive large volumes of documentation as carrying both physical and intellectual weight. It’s only half in jest that graduate students joke about their thesis being put on the scales to determine whether they pass or fail. Some people consider standards in the same light.
Basing Standards on Design Principles
Standards and patterns do have a useful role to play within organizations, but they are most effective when we use them in combination with a well-defined set of design principles. When people are solving problems in any domain, they tend to flip between the problem domain and the solution domain; defining the solution helps them to better understand the problem. This is as true for designers as it is for anyone else. When designers create a set of design standards, the act of creating the standards helps them to develop their understanding of the key principles underlying their design work. However, describing these design principles in a way that is as clear as a designer would wish can be another challenge entirely!
I have found it helpful to document the design principles on which my team has based its design standards. Defining and agreeing on these principles can be a significant piece of work in itself, but doing so has several advantages. A design principle is a much higher-level concept than a design standard. This means you can use them in presenting a design rationale, without either creating the perception that you’re avoiding responsibility by referring to a standard or requiring stakeholders to check out the standard.
You can express a design principle in just a sentence or two, so it has much less physical volume than a design standard, whose documentation and examples frequently run to many pages. This, in turn, means that a novice designer can spend less time reading and more time thinking about what the principle means in practice. In a similar way, it’s much easier to share a set of design principles with an agency than a set of standards, and since principles are less wordy, the agency is more likely to be able to apply the principles than they would a corresponding set of standards.