What is a "Design Virtue"?


We might instead call a “design virtue” a design principle, the difference being that what we’re calling virtuous are principles that we have so much faith in we treat them with more reverence than rationality.

Personally, or organizationally, we have them. Lately a principle like “design accessibly” — which describes the requirement that the service or product we put out into the world ought to be usable through any medium — has sort of ascended to community reverence, so that when you and I talk it up we’re not just using the language of good strategy (think mobile-first design) but the language of moral imperative.

Such “design virtues” hold-up to strategic scrutiny, too. To make products or services accessible is to make them available to a larger marketshare; to bake this kind of design practice into the way your organization works is to design accessibly at scale. We might call these kinds of principles that are both demonstrably practical and virtuous “righteous best practices.”

Look, I’m a sucker for fun-with-vocabulary but the idea is that this kind of criteria can help form a personal or organizational code that can infuse the work ya’ll do as a common set of axioms against which you judge the quality of your craft.

A design virtue is part of a virtuous design cycle

A further constraint to differentiate principle from virtue is that a design virtue can describe any part of a virtuous cycle. A good design process is one that loops-back on itself at the end, where the steps you take to explore and test ideas, then make the product or perform the service, then test that deliverable against some criteria will organically lead-in to the exploration of new ideas. Design is an infinity loop. Place a dot anywhere on that loop, you should be able to describe that mark with a design virtue regardless of where it is in the process.

Mobile-first design is not a virtue as you can only really describe a certain chunk of the loop as such, but user-centric design is: whether you’re highlighting part of your discovery process or delivery, you could describe it as “user centered.”

A good design process outlives specific design strategies. Design virtues tend to persist, and are sound bedrock around which to build a culture of work.

Mobile-first design is about a decade old and I would argue is no longer the best strategy - but still a good one. Before 2007 it wasn’t even a phrase. Rather, “accessible user-centric design” will still be top of craft ten years from now, just as it was ten years before the iPhone.

Craft virtuously.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield