4 Principles That Lead To Better Design Decisions

I haven’t always made good decisions in life. At times the only way I could make a decision was to fail to make one. I wanted to know in advance the outcomes of the decisions I might make and without any way to determine those outcomes, felt paralyzed by the decision making process. Fortunately I no longer do that.

Recently I was pointed to a speech by Robert Rubin, then Treasury Secretary of the United States. It was the commencement address for the University of Pennsylvania graduating class of 1999. In the speech Rubin offered 4 principles for decision making which resonated with me, since they align very well with how I now make difficult decisions.


4 Principles for Decision Making

A question I often hear new designers ask, is how to know if their design decisions are good and right and the best they can be. The person to best answer the question though, is usually the person who asked it.

The 4 principles Rubin offered can help you make better design decisions and also help you understand when you’ve made good and bad decisions. The entirety of his brief speech is worth reading as he offers additional thoughts and stories about each of the following principles.

  • The only certainty is there is no certainty
  • Every decision, as a consequence, is a matter of weighing probabilities
  • Despite uncertainty we must decide and must act
  • We need to judge decisions not only on results, but on how they were made

Allow me to share some of my own thoughts about these 4 principles and how they apply to design decisions.

The only certainty is there is no certainty — Accepting this is key. As much as we might like, we can’t know in advance the outcomes of our decisions. As a rule we have to make decisions with less than perfect information.

The world is not one of absolutes and neither is design. There is seldom, if ever, a single right solution to a design problem or a single right path to follow within a solution. A certain amount of design is subjective. Given the same problem definition and the same tools to solve it, you and I might come up with 2 entirely different and equally effective solutions.

The current practice of designing responsively is a good example of this principle. You can’t know in advance who will visit your design, with what device, and under what conditions. Accept uncertainty. Everything else follows.

Every decision, as a consequence, is a matter of weighing probabilities — If you can’t be certain about what is the best decision, all you can do is consider what might result from each possible choice and weigh the pros and cons; the risks and rewards of those choices.

As a rule we have to make decisions with less than perfect information

You won’t be able to accurately calculate the probabilities of unknown results, but you can make reasonable estimates based on the information you have.

Where design is concerned, lean on fundamental design principles. They’re principles because they’ve been show to work in the past and are more likely to work again now. They aren’t a guarantee for being right, but they do increase the probability of making a good decision.

Lean too on your own practice. The more you do something, the better you are in doing it again. Build a library of patterns. Develop a process. Know when to break away from both, but know both are there to lean on when needed

Despite uncertainty we must decide and must act — This is inevitable. Not deciding is still making a decision, though it’s seldom the best, or even a good, choice. It’s leaving things to chance.

Every design decision you make affects all the decisions that follow. If you fail to decide you compound one poor decision with the next one based on it. Taking the time to develop a concept can help. You won’t know that your concept is the best choice, but it will help make the decisions that follow easier as it sets a direction to lead those decisions.

Spend more time on key or important decisions that lead others.

You have to decide and act, but you’ll find many design decisions follow from a few key decisions. Isolate these key decisions and put more effort into weighing their possibilities in order that other decisions are easier to make.

We need to judge decisions not only on results, but on how they were made — You’ll have some criteria to judge success or failure of your decisions. Most of your decisions are meant to lead to desired outcomes and measuring their success or failure will help you judge the quality of your decisions.

You still won’t know whether or not you made the best decision, since you have no way of testing and measuring all the decisions you didn’t make. Would another concept have been better? Would a different grid have better organized the information? To accept uncertainty at the start of the process is to also accept it at the end of the process.

Judge how you arrived at your decisions. What was easy in the process? What was difficult? Why were they easy or difficult? What could help you improve your decision making the next time.

In designing websites you make decisions about similar things based on different criteria. All your sites use type and color. The information is contained within some kind of layout. Do you have more trouble making decisions about one aspect of design than another? What can you do to make it easier? Do you need more or better information to assess the probabilities? Do you need to improve certain skills? Would different tools help?

Evaluate your decision making process to understand how to improve it. It won’t change anything with the decisions you’ve already made, but it will help you make better decisions in the future.


Some decisions are easy to make. You have a good idea of what will happen given your options or you know the risk of a poor decision is so little you aren’t afraid to choose poorly.

Often though, particularly with design and all its subjective possibilities, making a decision can be difficult. You have little certainty to base your decision on and you may never know if you made the best decision. Accept this uncertainty so you can escape paralysis. Do your best to weigh the probabilities and then make a choice. Later you can evaluate your choices and the process that led to it in order to improve your decision making in the future.

Don’t let the difficulty of making a single decision keep you from making that decision. If you follow these 4 principles you’ll find yourself making the best decision you can in the moment and you’ll find your ability to make decisions improve over time.

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  1. Hey Steve, it’s great idea to combine design and decision making principles. The result can be fascinating…

    You said “Evaluate your decision making process to understand how to improve it” in principle #4 in your article. That’s a good tip! We need to focus on the proces of decision making and improve it continuously…Or to say it this way, it is important to recognize that the process itself is important… đŸ™‚

    I also like the sentence:

    “Despite uncertainty we must decide and must act”

    That’s the way I see it too, and the more we do it, the better we will be at it. Decision making is like a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it become.

    For end I would add the Toyota Way principle “Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement rapidly” That works for me. I always lay the strong groundwork for decision. It’s similar to playing chess openings.

    • Thanks Marko. I can’t take credit for the 4 principles, since they’re from Rubin’s speech. I did want to connect them to design given that’s what this blog is about.

      Absolutely the more we do something the better we’ll be at it. I think when we pay attention and think a little about our successes and failures we can get there quicker too.

      Interesting about the Toyota Way. I can’t say I’m a big fan of consensus decision making, but I think think you should consider all options.

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