Be kind, be cool

I’ve sat through a lot of discussions about design principles and they always read like weak sauce to me. They focus on pixels or craft or some other wishy washy hand wavy faffery that I can’t apply to my work. Or they’re so generic that every design team on the planet could apply them and nothing much would change.

In startup land, these bullet point lists aren’t really meant to hold anyone’s toes to the fire or make anything truly better. Design principles are often used to brag about how great the design team is instead. And, well, meh. That’s not what they’re supposed to be for. These principles often reveal deep insecurities about what folks see as the weaknesses in their design org which is just very performative and silly to me.

So: I don’t think org-specific design principles are all that useful.

But as a designer you should always think about what guides your eye and what guides your cursor! So what guides mine? Well, there’s two principles that I think about every day:

  1. Is this kind?
  2. Is this cool?

Kindness is easy to quantify. Kindness will make you do things that’s bad for business but great for customers that will eventually make it great for your business again. At this one company many years ago I remember arguing that we should add unsubscribe links to our emails and someone said “nah, that’s bad for us and this number will go down.” Well, that ain’t kind! That’s super shitty and eventually decisions like that will make you lose trust with folks. People are highly sensitive to scummy behavior from ten thousand miles away and it’s the best way to differentiate yourself with someone else.

As soon as you see the world from that vantage point of kindness then I think you’ll do all sorts of work that other teams wouldn’t dream of. Performance is kind. Accessibility is kind. etc. etc.

That second principle though, coolness, is much harder to quantify and harder to reason about. It’s about style, sure. It’s about pushing back against visual trends and product trends and common patterns. But I think it’s about how a team is structured and avoiding the easy way out of problems. Are a million meetings every week cool? Nope. Are deadlines cool? Nah.

What is cool when it comes to building a thing then? My hunch: tiny, tiny teams with tons of autonomy where they can ship things without the endless bureaucracy and back and forth of a large organization.

(Cool teams build kind things.)

ANYWAY, these two principles have been helpful for me when building stuff and making decisions when writing too, but I think it’s also helpful when finding a job. During that whole painful process you have to find people who agree with you about the world, who see it the same way you do to some degree. And I know that if folks don’t agree with me about kindness and coolness then it’s impossible to work happily alongside them.

With that said, I’m not always cool and I’m certainly not always kind.

But I sure do try.