12 Laws and Principles to Aid You in Your Design

Centuries of observation by men and women from all walks of life have revealed important principles of design and orderliness that tend to naturally create a positive, common human reaction. David Hume described these as "the constant and universal principles of human nature." While these universal design principles may not always be absolutes, understanding them can help you achieve success in a multitude of fields including communications, products, services, engineering, arts and environmental design.

12 Laws and Principles to Aid You in Your Design

Products designed with appreciation for these natural principles will tend to be better received and more easily utilized by the general public. A working grasp of these guidelines can be applied to art, architecture, photography, interior design and even practical communication technology including such areas as advertising and website design. With the primary goals being ease of use and aesthetic attractiveness, understanding what subconsciously appeals to the human psyche is a powerful tool in promoting design and performance.

Rules of Design That Can Work For You

1. Ockham's Razor

Ockham’s Razor (also known as “Occam’s Razor” or the “Law of Economy”) dates back to Father William Ockham of the 1300s, but was understood as a principle prior to that time. This truth is not irrefutable, nor is it necessarily scientific; nevertheless it suggests that the solution more frequently lies within the simplest answer. Put another way, the simplest explanation or theory is preferred and more apt to be right.

Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Plurality should not be posited without necessity.

As Leonardo da Vinci remarked, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” In design application, Ockham’s Razor is a warning to avoid over complicating design, information or instructions.

Ockham's Razor

Simple, intuitive response is the goal, and all unnecessary complexities should be ruthlessly removed. Consistency is important, as are predictable results.

Read more: Occam’s Razor: A Great Principle for Designers

2. Hick's Law

Hick’s Law, the product of British psychologist William Edmund Hick in the 1950’s, indirectly supports Ockham’s Razor. This Law suggests that the more choices presented, the longer and more difficult will be the decision-making process.

The time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increases.

Just think about how much easier it would be to buy a bag of chips if there were only three or four choices in the food aisle. The more complex the decision process becomes, the higher the stress and frustration level.

Hick's Law

An overwhelming, multi-choice process can create an emotional response that is not conducive to a positive reaction. Once again, simplicity is more productive. Limiting buttons, tabs and choices will make a viewer more apt to participate and return to a website. More choices = more anxiety. Less choices = more control. At least in the mind of the user.

Read more: How To Improve Usability With Fitts’ and Hick’s Laws

3. Fitts' Law

Fitts’ Law, the brainchild of Paul Fitts in 1954, draws a connection between the length of time required to move to a target and the size and distance of that target. The easier the target is to identify and the shorter the distance, the quicker the task can be performed, and the more pleasant the experience.

T = a + b log2(1 + D/W)
where: T = Time, a = start/stop time, b = speed of device, D = distance, and W = width of target, or allowable error of tolerance.

For computer website designers, creating larger, centered buttons for functions they wish to encourage and smaller, less obvious buttons for choices they wish to discourage just makes sense. The same principle holds true in other areas as well.

Fitts' Law

Encouraging the participant to subconsciously choose one action over another is possible by making the desired choice larger, easier and closer to the person’s control.

Read more: Improving Usability with Fitts’ Law

4. Fibonacci Sequence

The Fibonacci Sequence, named for Leonardo of Pisa, who also went by the name Fibonacci, was first identified in the early 1200s, but previously understood by older Indian mathematicians. This list of numbers is created by repeatedly adding the sums of the last two digits. It begins with 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 and so on. What is fascinating is that this sequence appears repeatedly in nature, in tree branches, leaves on stems, in a wide variety of plants and the reproduction pattern of honeybees.

Fibonacci Sequence

Subconsciously, observers find such designs aesthetically pleasing. In fact, some consider this sequence to be the most influential pattern in both design and mathematics. It can be successfully incorporated into building grids, organic figures and visual patterns and even art.

Read more: Fibonacci and Golden Ratio in Web Design

5. Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio is actually similar in mathematical relationship to the Fibonacci Sequence. The golden ratio is an irrational mathematical constant, approximately 1.6180339887. Understanding of this principle dates back more than 2000 years, but it was Euclid who first gave it a definition. The Golden Ratio describes the most aesthetically pleasing proportionate shapes and designs.

Geometry has two great treasures: one is the Theorem of Pythagoras; the other, the division of a line into extreme and mean ratio. The first we may compare to a measure of gold; the second we may name a precious jewel." -Johannes Kepler

Basically, “The sum of the quantities of the larger quantity will equal the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one.” Also called the “Golden Rectangle” this ratio describes the relationship between the longer side and the shorter side of a rectangle.

Golden Ratio

Post cards, playing cards, movie posters and even innocuous light switch plates take advantage of the subconscious approval humans have of this shape. It can be incorporated into product design, advertising engineering, art and many other fields.

The golden ratio, otherwise known as Phi, is considered a ‘comfortable’ ratio, in that it is all around us and the eye has therefore been trained to find it attractive.

As a designer, you can use this ratio to place the elements on your pages to create mini golden ratio rectangles, which will be pleasing to the eye. It can be used for captions, text flowing beside images, advertising space and navigation buttons and menus. It is worth bearing this ratio in mind when creating rectangles for your pages.

Read more: Applying the Golden Ratio to Your Web Designs

6. Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds may at first seem similar to the Golden Ratio, but, in fact, it is not at all the same. This principle is first noted in 1797, in John Thomas Smith’s book Remarks on Rural Scenery. Smith understood his discovery to be a very general principle and not an absolute law. However, the reality is that when design honors this principle, the results are aesthetically attractive to the majority of observers.

Rule of Thirds

If a work of art, whether on the computer, in a painting or in a photo is divided into imaginary horizontal and vertical squares of nine blocks, the lines and intersections of those lines become the most interesting parts of the work. Additionally, dividing sky and land or water and sky along one of the third lines instead of in the middle is also much more appealing. It seems to create more tension and energy, thus increasing interest.

For artists and designers, understanding the Rule of Thirds can result in greater appreciation and response from viewers.

Read more: Applying Divine Proportion To Your Web Designs

7. Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle, also known as the “Law of the Vital Few” or the “80/20 Rule” is well known, even if not by title, to anyone who has the responsibility of managing a workforce, congregation or classroom of students.

The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

When Joseph M. Juran named this phenomenon after Vilfredo Pareto in 1906, it was as a consequence of observing that 80% of the land of Italy was owned by 20% of the population. It also explains why 80% of those convicted of crimes only commit 20% of all criminal acts and why 20% of those using the American health system use 80% of its services. Another way to explain it is that “80% of effects come from 20% of causes.”

Pareto Principle

In practical application, on a website, an instructional manual or similar reference site, if 80% of the viewers only use 20% of the supplied information, tabs, buttons, etc., then those tabs not being used can be minimized or eliminated for a cleaner, more efficient model. This then supports Ockham’s Razor and the positive value of simplicity.

Read more: The 80/20 Rule Applied to Web Design

8. Mental Model

The Mental Model Law has been around as long as there have been imaginative scientists, but it was Kenneth Craik, in 1943, who proposed that "the human mind constructs small-scale mental models of reality that it uses to anticipate events.” It is certainly true that learning becomes much easier when you can build upon a model of something that is already familiar. Computer designers tapped into this when they incorporated familiar terms such as desk top, files and folders into word processing programs.

Any time you can use a familiar experience as a model or introduction to a new development, the opportunity for success is increased and the stress level is reduced.

9. Tolerance for Error

Tolerance for Error, also known as Design for Error is a concept that attempts to minimize the inevitable problems and negative consequences that follow accidental or unintended actions. By incorporating Ockham’s Razor and the rule of simplicity once more, the tendency for errors to happen can be reduced; however, planning for their occasional occurrence is wise on any level.

By arranging information and elements as simply and minimally as possible and by providing warnings and fail safe features you can limit the negative effects of wrong actions. In the computer world, reminders before a pushed button activates can help users rethink what may have been a mis-stroke.

10. Signal to Noise Ratio

The Signal to Noise Ratio is actually an identification of the balance between the message and the background noise that could limit it or weaken its impact. When a 1:1 ratio is suggested, this means that the background distractions are competing equally with the intended message or performance. The results will always be less than desired when this happens.

Signal to Noise Ratio

Correction may involve turning up the primary focus, which could be either an audio or visual communication. It could also entail turning down or eliminating distractive sounds or visual complexities.

Letting important and useful information have center stage and reducing false or irrelevant information will produce more positive results.

Read more: What’s The Signal to Noise Ratio Of Your Design?

11. Equitable and Flexible Use Laws

The Equitable and Flexible Use Laws are simple universal principles with wide ranging implications. They simply urge marketing a product to the largest number of people with an appreciation of their diverse abilities and limitations. Without isolating or causing feelings of inferiority, the best means of use should be designed with the greatest number in mind.

Provisions should also be included to make those less knowledgeable or experienced be protected in terms of security, safety and privacy. A promotion or advertisement that appeals to all will definitely produce greater results and be worth the time and effort in design.

12. Law of Perceptible Information

The Law of Perceptible Information practically speaks for itself. Unless information and instructions are communicated in an easy-to-understand manner, effectiveness and positive response will be lost. Many times the best instructions are the shortest and simplest. By using both audio and visual formats, including graphics and verbiage, presentations can be redundant without being boring or insulting.

Using different elements to disseminate important instructions, directions or information is key to laying the ground work for a positive response.

Other Universal Design Principles Worth Considering

You might want to consider the important concepts explained by Proximity of Related Objects, Feedback and the Law of Physical Effort. There may be ways in which these principles can also play a role in how you structure your design process.

Understanding that "There is one mind common to all individual men" (R.W. Emerson) means that the more you understand human nature and what moves us to respond positively, the more you can create an environment for success and satisfaction.

Have you have discovered other guidelines that can be incorporated into your successful design strategy?