The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Defining design principles at EMBL

– October 4th, 2017 –

For a little while, since leaving Monotype, I’ve been working with the communications team at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) on a holistic corporate design project. It’s pretty exciting work.

I’m lucky that the project is being headed by Dan Noyes, who I worked with at CERN, so he and I know how to work together pretty well. There is a fabulous team in place, and we’ve been tackling some fundamentals of the brand, the strategy to implement the it, all within the context of a complex scientific organisation.

To help keep us arrow straight whilst navigating this problem we defined design principles to do it. Now, I’m sure there are many ways to define principles but here’s how I do it and it’s really quite simple. I was shown this by Leisa when we defined design principles for the redesign of Drupal 7 years ago. All you do is be mindful of when the team repeats design desires. This could be several members of the team say the same thing in a slightly different way, or that you keep circling around and around a problem but struggle to articulate it. By being mindful at all times to this a team can quickly pull together principles that are derived from doing the work on their particular problem rather than principles which are imposed on the work. An important difference.

Throughout the sprint, we defined the following design principles for EMBL:

  1. Make it sustainable

We will create a long-term, sustainable system. Designed for efficiency, re-use, and scale.

Sustainable systems are diverse and productive indefinitely. Being holistically focussed on how EMBL interacts with its audiences internal and external, means we create meaningful, sustainable experiences over the longer term.

  1. Show our work

We will prioritise demonstration over discussion. Through prototyping we will show how these principles and values apply to the work.

We will embrace modern design practices by starting small and iterating quickly. We will avoid big reveals and develop a process of publishing early and often. This requires a change of mindset of the team: to be comfortable with ‘not done yet’; to be satisfied to prioritise function over form; to get the things we make in the hands of our audience so we can understand their needs more quickly.

  1. Keep it simple

We will do the difficult work to keep the things we make simple, approachable, and put the user’s needs first.

EMBL is complex. As are the audiences, services, applications, and communications material that operate within the brand. We will do the hard work to uncover and expose the simplicity of the core.

  1. We are all one organisation

We will cultivate cross-pollination of services, products, ideas, and collaboration.

We will proactively seek out opportunities to collaborate on the design of services across all channels throughout EMBL and invite feedback and new perspectives. We will share and discuss our methods.

  1. Physical, digital, and environmental are in sync

We will ensure a holistic approach for one system for all printed, digital and environmental touch-points.

Design systems across media evolve at different rates. We will ensure systems across all channels are relevant to the media, but also share nomenclature, design patterns, and are built from the same principles. We will think and act as a cross-disciplinary design team.

  1. Pave the cowpath

We will make the design language accessible where people are already working.

Forging a new path is hard. And sometimes a waste of energy. By understanding how the brand is expressed currently, we develop new ways to provide the ingredients of the brand to the people already doing the work, in the place they are doing it. We will invent new ways with which to distribute the brand across a constantly moving, evolving system. We shouldn’t press pause.

  1. Repeat the words we use

Through consistency and repetition, we will create and maintain a design nomenclature that will become part of the EMBL vernacular.

The words we use are important. By repeating these words about EMBLs products and services, they can remind us many times every day what we believe. Changing the words we use can help change the culture of an organisation to be more design and brand aware.

Another important aspect to these is the way they are structured. A design principle is a belief. It’s something we promise to do and should be worded as such.

You can read more about the design process on EMBL’s communications blog.

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Previously: Moving on from Monotype