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Introducing Spotify’s New Design Principles

June 2020

Article

Spotify Design Team

Spotify has new design principles, and we're excited to share them with you! In this article, we'll look at how we distilled what's important to us, and how we’ve introduced the new principles to the team. Read on to see how we aim to make Spotify feel relevant, human, and unified.

Last year, a group of us got together to dig into a tricky question: As Spotify continues to grow, how can we maintain a high level of design quality in the experiences we create? 

After some research, we identified a key opportunity: To bump up quality, we need clear, useful design principles. Why principles? For one, we felt that we couldn't help teams assess if they were designing in "the Spotify way" unless we defined what the Spotify way even is—we needed some guidance. We also wanted to help designers speak the same language when discussing design goals and providing critique. An updated set of principles could offer some of this alignment. 

Where we started

Spotify’s original design principles were from 2013, and at the time they did a lot to help shape a collective voice across design in the organization. Spotify is a Swedish-based company grounded in music; our previous principles reflected this. (Note the very Swedish concept of lagom!)

Spotify's design principles from 2013: content first, be alive, get familiar, do less, stay authentic, lagom.

Now, in 2020, Spotify has changed quite a bit. We’ve grown into an audio first company and doubled down on podcasts; we create products for listeners, artists, and advertisers; and we went from a handful of designers to almost 200. 

Looking at the existing principles, we asked ourselves: Do they still feel true to all of the things we design? Are designers at Spotify even aware of them? The answer was...no. 

We identified three problem areas: 

  • Focused on consumer music experience: Spotify has grown, and the principles didn’t seem applicable to everything we design.

  • Overlapping concepts: Principles like “lagom” and “do less” were potentially overlapping, making them difficult to explain and use in assessing our work.

  • Difficult to remember: From our surveys and feedback from designers, we learned that there were just too many principles to keep track of. A smaller set would be easier to apply in practice. 

In short, the old principles needed a refresh. 

Crafting new design principles  

Last year, the members of our working group—about a dozen product designers and UX writers—got together to tackle this in a collaborative workshop. The aim was to get contributions from everyone in the group, instead of having one person articulate “this is what Spotify design should be.” 

We used three guiding questions to keep us focused: 

  1. Why are we creating these design principles?

  2. Who are they for?

  3. How will they be used?

After some lively debate, we agreed that principles serve as a framework to create and evaluate work—they can help product designers make design decisions, and give us a shared language for design critiques. The real challenge was defining what the new principles should be. What kind of values and design attributes should we aspire to when designing? What should the product feel like? 

Workshop activity board with post-its.

All the ideas went into a giant matrix, and we dot-voted to help us narrow down. Based on this, we came up with a draft of the new principles, shared it with our design leadership team, and did some fine-tuning. 

And voilà! Our new set of Spotify design principles were born.

Relevant, Human, Unified.

Let’s take a closer look:

Relevant 

It’s about reflecting you as an individual. 

Spotify is made for you—we want it to feel personalized. To be relevant, we need to be thoughtful about what we present, to whom, and in what context. In simpler terms, it’s relevant when we present the right info at the right time. The opposite value is that we don’t want “one-size-fits-all” experiences.

Examples of Spotify playlist covers and sign-up screen.

Human

It’s about communication, expression, and human connection.

Yes, Spotify is rooted in technology. But it’s all about people. Sometimes we dial up the emotion, and sometimes we stick to logic—just like people do. Spotify should feel dynamic, like culture itself. A way to see this is that human experiences are intuitive and conversational. It’s not human when things are overly clever, technical, or overly functional. 

Examples of Discover Weekly cover and Spotify Kids app.

Unified

It’s about how our brand manifests across our features and apps.

Everything we design looks and feels reassuringly Spotify. We aim for coherence across products as a way to build familiarity and trust. That’s why we follow our design system—we start by reusing rather than reinventing. We want our experiences to reuse and adapt for consistency; nobody should be reinventing the wheel. 

Examples of Spotify marketing campaign.

Rolling out the principles  

It’s one thing to just write principles...it’s another thing entirely to get everyone on board. If we wanted our new design principles to stick, we needed a roll-out plan. Here’s how we went about it. 

  • To start, we did a trial run of a workshop with one design team (yes, we love workshops). This let us spot any red flags, get a sense of whether the principles are useful, and go through examples of good (and not-so-good) execution in the context of real work.

  • We then incorporated the principles into existing design activities—for example, by presenting at design all-hands and adding them to our design handbook and new hire onboarding process. 

  • A few months later, we followed up with a series of workshops with all design teams across Spotify. This way, every designer could practice putting the principles in action during a design critique.

Cards showing how to use design principles.

Were these roll-out efforts too much? Not enough? Based on what we’ve done so far, two things stand out: 

The more examples, the better 

It’s easy to say that Spotify should feel “human” and “relevant”, but what does that actually look like? The examples were super useful, and we would have benefited from having even more. 

Don’t forget the swag

Looking back, the rollout should have had more swag, like posters, stickers, or other goodies. It takes time to internalize new ideas, and external reminders would have helped. In the absence of “official” swag, one designer made his own wallpaper! It was a hit.

Laptop with wallpaper that says relevant, human, unified.

Remote work has made it tricky to organize physical swag, but we’ve started on ideas for posters and other fun stuff, too.

Examples of swag for design principles. Mockup templates by deepyellow and dribbble graphics.

The outcome so far 

Now that we’ve rolled out the principles, what’s changed? 

Increased awareness 

The good news is that most designers are now aware that Spotify has design principles. A recent survey (run by our fab design ops team) indicates that yes, designers know about Relevant, Human, and Unified, and that they consider these principles when designing. This suggests the new principles are more applicable and easier to remember, compared to the six principles we had before. 

A shared language for design critique

Designers are (sometimes) referring to the principles when reviewing work, but there’s room for improvement on this front. It still takes some conscious effort to refer to the principles during critique, but over time we’re hoping it becomes more second nature. We’ll continue looking into this as part of ongoing efforts to improve our design processes, tools, and resources for designers.

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When we started this project, our hunch was that in order to have useful conversations about quality, we needed a shared understanding of what it meant to design “in the Spotify way.” So have our new principles impacted quality? It’s too soon to say. But we hope that “relevant, human, and unified” convey what we aspire to achieve in our products—and that these principles serve as constant reminders to do better. 

Special shout-out to all our Principal-level designers for contributing to this work, and to Marina Posniak, Heiko Winter, Shamik Ray, and Juli Sombat for this post. 

Credits

Spotify Design Team

We're a cross-disciplinary team of people who love to create great experiences and make meaningful connections between listeners and creators.

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