Design principles for every day life

Clarity. Hierarchy. Constraint. Iteration. Unity.

What do they mean and why are they so important?

For the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most creative and inspiring people—designers. By design, I mean namely graphic, industrial, and architectural designers, plus a sprinkle of UI/UX folks from personal ties. They are the tinkers. The doers. The “how can this be better?” questioners. I noticed patterns in their thinking and began to piece together how they could be directly applied to everyday life. Here’s what I learned:

1. Seek clarity.

Arguably the ultimate test of successful design, we too should be driven by bringing clarity to an objective, situation, or solution. When evaluating a decision, ask yourself: what is the purpose? How does this make something better? Easier? For example: Given my career, is now the right time to switch to a Roth IRA? Next, immerse yourself in resources to help inform you. Read articles, consume media, attend online classes. Knowledge is everywhere.

Seeking clarity also means knowing when to raise your hand when you need help. Who can I talk to more about this? Never feel embarrassed to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Spend the extra few minutes to confirm the information at hand—whether it’s advice, a new assignment or the grocery list from your spouse.

2. Prioritize your efforts.

Once you know what you want to solve, design hierarchy is about prioritization. What’s the most important message you wish to convey? Are these elements of equal weighting? Life operates in a similar way. Everyday, thousands of micro-decisions are flung in our faces, and we’re given only moments to respond: Yes, I will finish that. No, that can wait until tomorrow. Sure, I’ll walk the dog.

To help me prioritize, I try to employ the 2-minute rule: if a task can be completed in less than 2-minutes, do it immediately. Fire off that introduction email. Cancel the subscription. Whatever it is, doing it now will dramatically make your day easier and more productive. Humans weren’t wired to remember 500 to-dos. (And while digital tools are helpful, there’s something psychologically empowering by crossing off checklists.)

3. Embrace constraints.

Designers have a love/hate relationship with constraints—but the outcome is always more impressive with them. Life is full of constraints too. Often, we are constricted by time, money, resources, obligations, geography, etc. Given what I want and the sequence in which I want them, what can I do with what I have?

Growing up in an immigrant family, I quickly learned the value of a good deal. When planning trips with my boyfriend, I obsessed over maximizing savings—from converting credit card points to hotel points to discovering a foreign travel site to book better rates. We would calculate the yield percentage to optimize mileage redemption or even book flights through a carrier’s partner website for a lower fee. (Thank you The Points Guy.)

Whatever life throws at you—embrace the challenge. Imagine your wallet got stolen and you were meeting your date in 15 minutes. How fun would it be to plan a $0.00 date?

4. Iterate like crazy.

I knew a designer was deep in thought when I would catch him or her tilting their head from one side to the other, viewing their work from literally different angles and revising minute details. That’s because we rarely get it right on the first try. We could wait for perfection, but of course that will never happen and lead to decision paralysis. The trick is to iterate.

  1. Start with your best guess.
  2. Test the idea. Determine what’s effective or not about it.
  3. Seek feedback with an open mind and listen.
  4. Based on what you learn, iterate and refine.
  5. Start the process over (with newfound knowledge)

It seems simple, but if you are deliberate about these steps, then you’ll start to see improvements in your craft. Maybe it’s re-imagining the chocolate chip cookie. Or building a campaign around a cause you believe in. No matter the goal, going through this process will help you continually improve and challenge status quo.

5. Create a unified experience.

You know what you want and when you want it; and you’ve overcome constraints and refined a process that works for you. Now what?

Design is often evaluated for its unity—how harmonious all of the elements work together in support of the overall piece. It’s not enough to think A to B. Instead, ask yourself: What does A to B to C, back to A look like?

So much of what we do is in the context of a holistic experience. For example, when recounting my last trip to the mall, I remember the smell of the kettle corn that greeted me outside the door, the kindness of the saleswoman who found the perfect dress, and the feeling of elation when it was surprisingly on sale.

This illustrates the importance of considering the entire experience and enhancing each user touch point. If you’re planning a birthday party, for example, what will your guests first see and feel upon arrival? Were the directions clear so that they didn’t get lost? Is there ample food if they’re hungry? Are there enough activities for them to stay entertained? Is there space for overnight crashers? Drawing a through line to the entire experience beforehand will help you mitigate risks.

That’s it. Five simple steps: Seek clarity. Prioritize your efforts. Embrace constraints. Iterate like crazy. And create a unified experience.

I hope that this will help you stay organized, push for better thinking, and achieve worthwhile experiences in whatever you choose to pursue.

Phuong Mai

Founder @pmaibrand + fashion, tech, design enthusiast.