How to create design principles that people actually use

Your design team is growing. Fast. Everyone is moving in different directions. Nobody is using the same design tool. Nobody is using the same icon file. They’re not even using the same hex codes. It’s the wild west out here. And everyone is wearing Warby Parkers.

Maybe this sounds familiar to you. Maybe it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it might soon. As we know at Gusto, growing design teams are really hard to keep in sync. You know what they say…mo’ pixels, mo’ problems. ?

Every design team knows they need design principles, but making them useful is really hard to do. So they often end up like that old iPhone that you refuse to throw out because maybe you’ll use it as an iPod someday or maybe your mom will need it or something. The days pass and they remain useless, yet still take up space.

Well you know what? It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m going to show you how we made design principles with lasting power.

Gusto: please report to the “principle’s” office

Here at Gusto, designers are aligned to a specific product area. It makes sense for the most part, but this team structure got us into an inconsistency pickle. Because when you multiply silos by a nascent design system, a ton of tools, an influx of new teammates, and a rapidly expanding set of use cases, you’ve got yourself a problem. ?

Differences in design implementation result from the lack of a shared gold standard. Without a common understanding of what made great design at Gusto, everyone was left to define their own version of great. Which led to a wide variety of layouts and interaction patterns and visual treatments that were…yeah. Not great. ??

Alas. Our goal. Create this shared gold standard. Step 1: Codify design principles that embody the core vision and values of Gusto.

So…how did we do it?? ️️⤵️

Step 0: Establish ownership.

This may feel obvious, but if nobody is explicitly owning this project, it’ll never get done. Ownership is important because owners will move the project forward and make key decisions. So when the team cried “principles!!!”, Val, our (then) UX writer, and I raised our hands and ran with it.

Step 1: Ask yourselves the tough questions.

Where do good ideas come from? Good questions. So we asked ourselves “what questions will lead to good ideas for design principles?” Meta. Ultimately, we came to five that we’d use to both generate ideas as a team and benchmark our ideas against.

  • Is this true to our team?
  • Is this unique to Gusto?
  • Will this work for both brand and product design?
  • Does this exist in our design today?
  • Can this inspire great design decisions tomorrow?

Step 2: Set clear boundaries. No trespassing.

Ideation without constraint is madness. So before we got the team’s brains a-stormin’, we needed to clarify the scope of the principles. What should they focus on? And maybe more importantly, what shouldn’t they?

We all agreed to keep them oriented around the brand and user experience, which meant leaving out opinions on team dynamics, values, research, and experimentation.

Step 3: Involve your team early and often.

After agreeing on the tough questions and boundaries, each designer wrote down an idea for a design principle. Val and I compiled these sixteen phrases into a Google Form and asked everyone for their top three, plus reasons why the principles they voted for could guide decision-making.

After digesting the survey results, combining similar concepts, and massaging the words — and I mean deep tissue — to get to MVPrinciples, we workshopped them at small group critiques. After all, if we wanted everyone to adopt the new gold standard, we had to get the entire team’s input on what the gold standard should be.

Step 4: Show and tell and agree and disagree.

No matter how much Val and I obsessed over every letter (too much), each team member was likely to understand the principles differently. So how did we calibrate?

First, we assigned each designer to a principle and asked them to submit an example from something currently Gusto…a piece of copy, an email, a UI component, an illustration, a user flow, a lettered work. Anything.

Then, we gathered together to go through the examples, one by one. The submitter told us why they chose their example, and we ridiculed them when they were wrong. JK!!! Obviously the point is there’s no such thing as wrong and there’s tons of value in hearing the rationale.

This exercise gave us the chance to teach each other how we individually interpret the principles. Spotting patterns helped us create a shared understanding of what “great” looks like, which moves “great design” from subjective to objective territory.

Step 5: Put some wings on your words and push them out of the nest.

You might remember one of our initial questions was can these principles inspire great design decisions tomorrow? Well we were eager to find out.

Right after the show and tell, Val and I asked everyone to brainstorm improvements to the user experience based on the new design principles. And we came up with over 100 new product ideas in 30 minutes! Here are just a few examples…


If we aim to make intimidating tasks feel surprisingly easy…how might we make Gusto even easier to use?

By thinking critically about our role in the lives of business owners and using that understanding to meet them where they are, when they are.

What if a business owner could approve PTO requests right from their inbox, without ever having to sign in to Gusto?


If we aim to make “work” more human.…how might we bring more people focus and personalization into Gusto?

By finding more and more ways to celebrate and elevate the people who make workplaces special.

What if you could make an employee’s day with a single click?


If we aim to bring delight to the tedious, the mundane, and the stressful…how might we add more delight to Gusto?

By making moments that should be special really special.

What if confetti rained down on your browser when you sign an offer sent through Gusto? Well, it does.


If we aim to earn and maintain your trust through craft and consistency.…how might we elevate our visual design and craft?

By making every touchpoint — for every user of our app—feel considered, familiar, and polished.

What if your Gusto experience as an employer and an employee felt totally united?

Capital ‘I’ Impact

Our design principles continue to serve as a foundational reference for our team and beyond. Natalie adorned all of our monitors with a friendly, analog reminder. Namhee, our head of product design, explicitly carved out time on our roadmap to bring to life 3 new principles-derived product ideas per quarter. Jenna and I used them to level-set with agency partners and drive design decisions for Gusto’s new home. They’re like the gift that keeps on giving.

You know why? Because 1) everyone bought in, 2) everyone contributed, and 3) everyone is pushing them forward.

If you follow the same steps at your company, you might just make your design team better too. ?

Author: Jason Marder

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