Universal Principles of Design: A Guide for Successful Visual Creators

Universal Principles of Design

Summary of “Universal Principles of Design”: The meeting of design, psychology and science to design successful products and experiences.

By William Lidwell, Katrina Holden and Jill Butler, 272 pages, 2011

Note: This article is a guest article written by Clémence Perrin from the Freewheeler Travel Blog and K-character

Chronicle of the book “Universal Principles of Design”:

Whatever project you’re working on, if the experience is bad, if the appearance puts you off, or if the design goes against human psychology, no one will want it.

As you will discover throughout the pages of the book Universal Principles of Design, a shape, an image, the architecture can have a major impact.

I see you raise your eyebrows, and tell you that design is really the least of your worries; but it could even have an impact on the future of humanity. Yes!

Probably the best example is the first debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in the 1960 U.S. presidential election.

Those who listened to the debate on the radio saw Nixon as the winner, while those who saw the show saw Kennedy as the winner. (1)

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon

Photo of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon taken prior to their first debate at WBBM-TV in Chicago in 1960.

Why? The difference in the appearance of the two opponents was skewed. Those who did not have the images of the televised debate were not affected by the attractive bias – translated as the power of beauty in French.

This principle expresses the fact that we tend to find attractive people more intelligent, more competent, more morally upright and more sociable.

Unfair, you say? I agree, but that’s the reason why advertising agencies recruit very attractive models.

Anyway, back to Nixon. That day, he was dressed in a light-colored suit, he was feverish and pale. His clothes accentuated that effect. Kennedy, on the other hand, wore makeup and his face contrasted with his dark suit.

Kennedy visually conquered the television audience with his appearance. If Nixon had worn a different suit and taken the time to put on makeup, what would the result have been?

One single detail can change history! Or the success of your business. Behind this phenomenon are biological or environmental factors backed up by scientific research.

The book Universal Principles of Design lists 125 concepts to know about: they are organized in alphabetical order in its English version. The authors propose a thematic summary with 5 main themes. The article is structured around these with details of a few of the principles.

Axis 1: Influence public perception

As you will have seen previously, design has immense power in the perception of your audience. Let’s see how this can be applied in different ways.

The importance of space

Space in design is synonymous with richness. Allowing oneself to have empty spaces is felt as a luxury. Let’s take the example of a discount store. You’ll have a lot of products available, a ton of posters, promotional labels.

Conversely, an Apple store will be very clean and will make the most of empty spaces. You will find a few large tables on which you will have a maximum of ten products on display. Stocks are not visible to visitors.

The space is clean.

This principle is very important to understand but depends on the type of product you wish to create. Otherwise, you may create cognitive dissonance.

If you put large bins with 178 iPhones in them in the Apple store, visitors will feel like it’s sold out.

You must understand this point based upon your product positioning: make the most of your message if you sell a premium product or service, or vice versa.

Priming or how to triple your money

An experiment set up by psychologists from the University of Newcastle. They put an image on top of cash vending machines. These are often referred to as free vending machines. But this has significantly altered the behavior of the users.

They alternately tested two images over several weeks.

The first image was neutral, the second was a close-up of eyes with an intense gaze.

Design and memory

Result: Users spent significantly more money! Nearly triple

This behavior is related to the priming principle. This concept was highlighted by an article by John Bargh, Mark Chen and Laura Burrows (2) in 1996 in another scientific experiment.

In this one, two groups of students were conditioned. Each group had a written test. The first group had a text with words related to politeness, while the second group was given a text with words that related to rudeness.

Next, the subjects were instructed to go to another room to give the experiment director their test.

They obviously don’t know what the real purpose of the experiment was and that the director would be in the middle of a conversation with another person when they entered.

63% of those who had been given the text related to rudeness interrupted the conversation between the manager and the third party, whilst only 17% of those who had been given the text related to politeness acted in the same way.

The principle of priming is to condition a user, thanks to a stimulus that activates a behavior.

In reality, it’s all about setting the stage.

In the previous example, this behavior was initiated by “staring”, which generated a feeling of observation and judgement and thus stimulated a sense of guilt.

Obviously, use this principle with caution.

Interference effects

Do you know this game, where you have to name aloud the color of a text, and not rely on it, as in the image below? Give it a try. You can practice it on the Lumosity application, which Olivier Roland recommends in his book Not everyone’s had a chance to flunk out of school.

There is a very high probability that your brain will not be able to process the information. So in the picture above, you would tend to say yellow for the first word instead of red and so on.

This is due to the fact that several processes of perception or cognition are in conflict.

In a design frame, this could mean that you place a green button to indicate stop or red to say start.

In fact, when I arrived in Quebec, I had this problem with road signs. Here a no left turn, for example, is not a red arrow to the left, but an arrow to the right circled in green.

Signage needs to be understood by all, especially on roads, and this type of variation can have serious consequences for users. Obviously, it is up to the driver to find out beforehand, but with the stress caused when you drive in a new country, failure to recognize a red flag for a bye-law could lead to unexpected results.

Of course, there are many other principles that influence the perception of users, which I will let you discover in the book Universal Principles of Design. But design is not only a matter of perception, it can also be a Learning experience.

Axis 2: Learn how to educate through design?

Most often, a designer’s mission is to solve a problem and make it easier to use. To achieve this goal, design must be able to support user learning.

In the context of a new application, how to help the user to take it in hand? Within the framework of a signage system, how can you help the passer-by to find their way to their destination?

Design and memory

Memory is a key to learning. So how can you influence memory through design?

Design and memory

A simple trick is to use the Von Restorff effect, which is based on the principle that the exceptional, the unexpected, is more memorable.

This occurs because we pay more attention to things that really stand out. For example, here, if I write XCVRWEQCMT and XCVRW5QCMT, you will find it easier to remember the 5 than the E, even though they are in the same place.

“Difference attracts attention and stays in the memory”.

This effect can be used through the integration of unexpected shots in your videos, color integration, or even through a huge mascot in a conference!

You can also use memory effects, which link an image with an idea or concept.

Narrative communication also allows you to mark the memory of your users. If you tell a story, you allow your user to understand a concept, an idea, an event. You activate their emotions, their imagination and finally their memory.

And if you combine these effects with the environment, the results can be even more powerful.

The impact of design on our ability to learn

Imagine for a moment that a simple factor within your environment allows you to become either very creative or very focused.

This is described in detail in the article The influence of ceiling height: the effect of priming on the type of processing that people use by Joan Meyers-Levy et Rui Zhu, journal of consumer research, 2007

I work in a room with very high ceilings, but I also have an office in a much smaller room with a low ceiling. Subconsciously, when I need to concentrate I go into that room.

While reading the book “Universal Principles of Design”, I discovered what is known as the cathedral effect: high ceilings stimulate the creativity of the users and conversely, low ceilings promote concentration.

This detail can have a huge influence on your employees’ lives or your own.

If you need an environment to learn, find spaces with low ceilings.

Surround yourself with greenery to help you to concentrate

You can also benefit from another advantage with the biophilia effect!

Indeed, environments rich in artificial or natural landscapes increase attention and reduce stress!

For example, Nancy Wells’ study At home with nature: Effects of “greenness”, on Children cognitive functioning, showed that students aged 7 to 12 who had more exposure to natural landscapes performed better on their attention tests.

Even though it’s more effective to have the real thing itself, an image of nature can have a positive impact on your concentration and of those around you.

Finally, a trip to the Gaspé Peninsula would surely do you a world of good to refocus.

Structure thoughts

You can’t tell your contact person everything at once when you give them information.

Design and memory

Imagine that an expert in quantum physics just gives you all the information that they know, they don’t categorize it, it doesn’t progress in sequence, they don’t explain the fundamental principles. Chances are that you will be overcome in a few seconds and your brain will implode!

In the same way, if you put an application like Photoshop in the hands of a beginner, then you try to explain ALL the available functions, menu by menu, without any established order; the user will be unable to grasp how the software works or how to carry out the work required.

So as a designer you have to sort out what is essential to know for a user and develop a hierarchy in the information.

And why not develop the principle of progressive disclosure? It’s a concept used in video games or in amusement park queues. It helps not to discourage the user when faced by a difficult task and it keeps them motivated.

Axis 3: How to ensure ease of use?

As a creator, designer or even entrepreneur, your goal is to make life easier for your users. You must therefore make choices to help them.

Facilitate through compulsion

Although it may seem counter intuitive, if you can compel the user to do so, it can improve and facilitate the use of a product.

There are several forms of coercion: physical coercion and psychological coercion.

This helps to limit errors in the use of an object, for example.

This type of system is used in electrical outlets: we can only plug a cable into a suitable socket. Otherwise, we know that the device could be damaged.

Psychological constraints can be put in place thanks to:

  • Symbols (e.g. skull and crossbones on a toxic product);
  • Conventions (e.g. a red light);
  • Or by association (e.g. a + and – button for the volume of a device).

This simplifies the use of your product and limits the effort that the user must make to make it functional. A reminder, your goal is to help!

Focus on the essentials

As noted above, the constraint makes it easier to use. This notion is to be cross-referenced with Hick‘s law. This principle holds that the more options available to us, the longer it takes us to make a decision.

For example, the more options you offer a customer, the longer it will take them to make a decision about which option they prefer.

This law is useful in cases where time plays an important role in decision making: for example in the case of road signs or a safety system. But the best way is still to carry out tests, because Hick’s law does not necessarily apply when the user is already immersed in a complex system.

This principle is also associated with the law of 20/80. It is well known by entrepreneurs for business issues, but this principle is also widely used in interface design: You must define 20% of the most used functions of your product to make them easily accessible and visible. The remaining 80% can be indented, but remain accessible through a logical process.

Axis 4: How to arouse interest with the universal principles of design?

Although you have designed the best product in the world, if you don’t get users interested in it, there is little chance your product will help them. In fact, you will never gain their attention in relation to what you offer them.

Imagine that you have written a book, spent months on it, or made a video that is particularly close to your heart. How successfully your message from your book or video reaches a new audience depends on how users view it.

Gradually attract

In any design, you have to design entry points. They can be physical or mental.

An entry point is your user’s first look at your website, your hotel lobby, your YouTube thumbnail?

This first impression influences your future perception. The authors point out that all good design must:

  • Limit barriers or friction;
  • Have a perspective;
  • Introduce progressive baits.

If you limit barriers it means, for example, in a blog, to get to the site quickly. The time to load must therefore be optimal. For perspective, the blog should have an easy-to-understand navigation structure. Finally, the progressive bait, in your articles are to insert titles, images, photographs, rather than to have a text of 3,000 words written in a single paragraph!

The strength of the composition

If you design spaces, images, or products, composition is your religion. It allows you to play with your user’s eye, to capture their attention, to attract their gaze, to stimulate their brain.

A good composition allows you to go from uninteresting to captivating.

In the book Universal Principles of Design, you will find many precepts: the strength of symmetry, the golden section, the Fibonacci sequence and the famous rule of thirds. The latter is widely used in photography and video.

The role of the face

In communication, the face has incredible power, but it also, and above all, depends on the way it is presented.

The first point is the power of a baby’s face. This is an approach that I have tested in a project for my clients and it has been very successful.

People or products that take on the characteristics of a baby’s face are intuitively considered fragile, honest, innocent.

This is a natural survival call. Adults must be made to want to take care of babies to protect them and make them grow.

This has an important impact for people with a baby face: they are taken less seriously and have difficulties with authority. But in legal proceedings, the tendency is for them to be more easily exonerated…

For example, the choice of the type of face of a character or a model can be important in a communication campaign. If you want to highlight the authority and seriousness of your product or service, put forward a face with strong features. On the other hand, if you want to inspire confidence and tolerance, choose a face with features that portray those of a baby.

When a crop makes you smarter

But that’s not all, there is also the influence of how you frame the image! It is the pre-eminence of the face, in other words the relationship between face and body in an image and how that influences the perception of the person represented.

This phenomenon means that when a person looks at an image, if the person is tightly framed, and only their face is seen in close-up, it draws attention to their intelligence and personality. On the other hand, if the image is a wide shot and leaves plenty of room for the subject’s body, then it draws the viewer’s attention to the physical and sensual attributes.

Thus, if in an image, the face takes up most of the space, people find the person depicted more intelligent, charismatic and ambitious.

Axis 5: How to make better design choices?

Intrinsic Simplicity

Architect Mies van der Rohe’s famous phrase “Less is more.“, has become a reference in design. Simplicity is what the architect or designer should look for.

This idea is illustrated by Ockham’s razor principle. The concept is to choose the simplest version of a product, if there are several design options with equivalent functional qualities.

Simply put, Google is the best example. Their home page is clean, corresponds to a specific action. Whereas the equivalent search engines, from when the internet era began, were over-complicated in terms of adverts and content overload.

This approach is also linked to the idea that form follows function. In design school, this is a phrase you often hear. Don’t add frills, rely on function. If the product has to meet a need, you must make sure that function takes precedence over form.

Versatility/comfort compromise

When you create a product, you will often be faced with choices between convenience and versatility.

If you take the example of a universal remote control, which has many buttons, it has a large number of functions. Yet anyone who has used this type of remote control knows the frustration they can cause. The complication is due to the number of functions involved, and our ability to quickly find the right button amongst the twenty or so available.

On the other hand, if you take a remote control with only 5 buttons: On, volume +, volume -, channel + and channel -, it is extremely easy to use. The use is easy to understand and can be taken in hand very quickly. On the other hand, a more advanced user will be frustrated by the limited number of functions, such as a numeric keypad to enter the channel number.

Once again, you must find the right balance! To do this, rely on a creative process.

The creation process

Don’t try to come up with the absolutely perfect product: it doesn’t exist! Instead, work sensibly with the use of repeated steps and trials.

But, before that, you have to understand the development cycle. Successful products are usually those that have gone through these four stages:

  • Definition of requirements;
  • Design;
  • Development;
  • Testing.

These steps are essential to the success of a project. If you define your customers’ needs, you can start to come up with solutions. You study the various options available and try to find an approach that will better meet the needs identified. At this stage, you will need to make prototypes, carry out tests and fine-tune things.

Then you will develop your product to make it a reality. Plans will become buildings, toys, websites. In this phase, you will have to ensure the quality of the product and the specifications established in the design phase are maintained.

In addition, you will test the product with your audience and analyze the feedback.

Finally, you will be able to incorporate a continual process of improvement for your product year on year and continue this design cycle.

If you compare the very first iPhone model to the latest one, you can see where this process takes you.

Innovation at the right time

But beware, innovation or the creation of a new solution is not always well received by your customers. Even if your proposal is excellent, you can still meet a brick wall. This was the case with Google Glass…

There is the principle of “the right amount of innovation“. Let’s take a closer look at this concept: For designer Raymond Loewy, the success of a design is measured by its commercial success.

In his opinion, the aesthetic appeal is down to the combination of familiarity and uniqueness of the object. If the designer finds the perfect balance between these two variables, they increase their chances of successful marketing and public acceptance.

This phenomenon can be contrasted with the von Restorff effect discussed above. However, to imprint your idea in someone’s memory doesn’t mean to make them want to adhere to it.

So if you design a product for a large audience, make sure it remains strongly connected to the image your customers have of the benchmark product.

Be careful not to pretend to innovate…

We need to talk about the NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome which can affect anyone. It is a tendency to reject ideas and innovations from elsewhere.

For example, the Phillips Group acquired Sonicare, a toothbrush manufacturer. Their product was excellent, yet Phillips wanted to totally redesign the product and how it was manufactured.

It is also a phenomenon found in institutions. When a new museum or hospital director is appointed, he or she wants to reinvent the wheel or redo the signage. You will notice that in many hospitals very different types of signage coexist. It’s not the designer who has done his job badly, it’s the result of NIH syndrome.

There are four social dynamics that give rise to this phenomenon:

  • The conviction that in-house skills are superior to those from outside,
  • The fear to lose control,
  • The desire for recognition,
  • Emotional and financial investment in internal initiatives.

Everything must therefore be put in place to avoid the need to reinvent the wheel and to accept input from those on the outside. Make sure you create connections with the outside, open yourself up to other people’s ideas and build bridges between creators.

Innovation is right under your nose.

Finally, I would like to remind you of the principle of sufficiency: Often, it is better to hold on to a solution that is sufficient rather than optimal. This may be hard to hear for a perfectionist, but if you try to reach the optimum it can boil down to: never take anything out !

Universal Principles of Design

This is in line with the point made above, about the idea that to improve your product can be done in small, continuous increments.

The authors example is the solution that was provided for the power failure in the control module during the Apollo 13 mission. The 3 crew members had to take refuge in the Lunar Landing Module, but its CO2 filters were only designed for 2 people and for 48 hours. They still had 96 hours of the flight to go!

The filters in the control module had square filters, and those in their refuge module were circular. They could not be used as is.

Imagine the panic! In short, NASA engineers worked as fast as they could to find a solution to make an adapter for these filters. They guided the astronauts by voice command to make an adapter from what was on board the module.

Universal Principles of Design

Obviously, it is not the most optimal solution, but it is sufficient since it eliminated the danger and allowed the mission to continue.

Simply put, choose your battles!

Conclusion on “Universal Principles of Design“:

In this article we have been shown some of the 125 principles presented by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler. I urge you to delve into this book Universal Principles of Design. In my opinion, this book “Universal Principles of Design” should be put in the hands of all designers. Entrepreneurs should also study it when they design their products or when they draft their marketing plan.

As you will have understood, a design principle that is not used correctly or ignored can have a major impact on the success of your project. These design principles can be applied in many creative, but also entrepreneurial fields. However, it is good to remember that rules are also meant to be broken. But this does have one important condition: master them first.

This book acts as a guide and allows the creator not to lock themselves up with their own convictions and self-interest. It is a mistake that can easily happen. Learn how to blend creativity, entrepreneurship, psychology and science.

Strong Points:

  • This book “Universal Principles of Design” is easy to read and browse, as each double page presents a concept.
  • The authors provide numerous case studies and references.
  • This is an excellent starting point to further develop the concepts and to implement some trials and tests.

Weak Points:

  • Its dreary design with old examples is not very attractive for a designer!
  • Some concepts should be more detailed.


Have you read “Universal Principles of Design”? How do you rate it?

Mediocre - No interestReasonable - One or two interesting paragraphsIntermediate - Some goods ideasGood - Had changed my life on one practical aspectVery Good - Completely changed my life ! (No Ratings Yet)


Read more reviews on Amazon about “Universal Principles of Design”

Buy on Amazon “Universal Principles of Design”

2 thoughts on “Universal Principles of Design: A Guide for Successful Visual Creators

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *