Designing Habi’s Design Principles

From a seed idea back in Feb 2014, Habi has grown into this beautiful, nebulous, thing. We started with teacher training workshops and year after year, we made slight iterations and shifts in our direction, moving away from our comfort zone of design thinking workshops and working towards larger, long-term collaborations. The largest jump we’ve made so far is working towards becoming a more serious (but not too serious!) design and research group. We expanded our team from 3 to 12 members, which meant expanding also our skills and knowledge base. But with the growth also comes the tendency to be stretched too thin.

Strangely enough, we’ve been existing the past few years without a “proper” strategy or well-articulated set of principles to guide our work. As a design startup who preaches prototyping and bias towards action, our organizational structure is a perfect example. Thus, we decided to spend some time on our own internal systems for a change. Last December 2017, as one of our year-ender activities, we ventured into articulating our Design Principles. We planned on using this list in many ways: as a set of considerations when making design decisions about our work, as jump-off points during ideation sessions, and as criteria for assessing whether our work is well-designed. This is our messy process.

Gerson (me) facilitating the team session on building our Design Principles. This is not our office, in case you were wondering 😉

Step 1: Favorite Project

We’re lucky (or careless, depending on how you look at it) that we’ve already finished a number of projects without articulating any consistent design principles for Habi. So with a good number of projects in our portfolio, we started by looking back at our favorite work. I asked each team member to pick their favorite Habi project (regardless of whether they were part of the project team or not) and to sketch their favorite components of it. As we shared our ideas to the larger group, we used meta cards to list down general descriptors (adjectives, adverbs, criteria) that we heard from the person sharing. We ended up with a hefty pile of project descriptors and a better idea of what we each value from our projects. But before processing and clustering these cards, we had another round of sharing.

Step 2: Future Project

This time, I asked the team to think of a dream project for Habi. Something aspirational and imaginative. After sketching these ideas, we had another round of sharing and listing down descriptors on meta cards.

Our initial pile of design principles!

Step 3: Clustering

By this time we had a good mix of words that described “what our current work is like” (based on our portfolio) and words that described “what type work we want to pursue” (based on aspirations and imagination). We clustered the words into categories, looking for patterns and outliers. Our structured method was to have one person read out their cards, laying each one down on the table. As everyone listened, the rest went through their cards, putting similar ideas/words on the table together with the related cards. This saved time compared to the chaotic way of letting everyone just mix and group all cards together. After clustering, we had 25 big ideas. But we can’t have 25 design principles!

We identified “cluster cards” by putting colored borders on them


Step 4: Design Principles of Design Principles

We were treating the end product as a design solution so it needed a criteria to guide us in forming and editing its final form. We like being meta, so we did a rough exercise of making design principles for the design principles. We explored websites that had good examples of Design Principles and came up with these descriptors:

  1. Easily digestible, both in amount (not more than 10) and terminology (no buzzwords or jargon)
  2. Strong and compelling. We should avoid motherhood statements that are too agreeable and generic to the point of meaninglessness.
  3. Clearly distinct. While there are going to be overlaps, each principle has to stand out from the rest, otherwise we can just merge them.
  4. Realistic. If we can’t explain it with examples of our projects, or potential project components, then we can’t use it.

Step 5: Structured Voting

We made sure that everyone understood the meta design principles so we could use them as a framework for voting. We used dot voting, where we had small cut-outs of recycled colored paper and we voted on our favorite big ideas or clusters. We each had 10 votes that we could use in any way that we wanted–we could vote multiple times on certain ideas, or distribute them evenly among the clusters.

After the first round of voting, we parked ideas that didn’t get some dots. We then let each person pitch their favorite principle, still using the meta design principles as a guide. Why is this important to our work? Why should this be prioritized? Is this essential? During discussions, we also explored big ideas that can be merged or subsumed. Then we voted again. So from 25, we were able to whittle it down to just 9.

The magic 9 😉

Step 6: Wording and Polishing

We ended our workshop there. As the Executive Director, I had the job of finalizing the phrasing of these principles. This was a tough process as I am not gifted with wordsmith skills. But I kept the 4 ideas (digestible, strong, distinct, realistic) in mind, and I would go back to this list daily for 2 weeks, writing, re-writing, asking for feedback, consulting the thesaurus, etc., until I came up with this list. A lucky surprise too was how the 9 principles fit into a neat mnemonic. Habi (and many teachers) love mnemonics! So from our workshop in December 2017, I’m proud to share our design principles:

This process wasn’t easy, but it was oddly satisfying. Not only did we end up with something tangible that we can continuously use on our daily work, but we also ended up as a better team of learning experience designers after this. Listening to how everyone perceived the work that we do made us appreciate the diversity and alignment in the room. It was a good exercise for us to question our projects, examine our collaboration and design process, and to aim to become better designers and educators.