Design Systems can be incredibly helpful in delivering innovative user experiences. But much of their success is dependent upon having the right person in place to champion the system throughout the organization, and own the process.
Yet continuously creating and delivering innovative user experiences doesn’t just happen. And the faster and more significantly your business grows, the harder it can be to still deliver meaningful, consistent user experiences.
This is where a design system comes into play.
What is a Design System?
Put simply, a design system is a structure to organize, document, and manage the identity of your brand in order to deliver a great customer experience.
Design systems function as a point of reference for designers and developers. They’re made up of reusable components, branding information, and other relevant content, all contained in one central place. This significantly streamlines the workload for your teams.
Brad Frost, who coined the term ‘design system’ (sometimes referred to as ‘atomic design’) articulates the concept as being comprised of five components:
Atoms - basic building blocks, including: shapes, colors, icons, and fonts.
Molecules - simple groups of UI elements that function as a unit, like Input Groups.
Organisms - more complex components composed of groups of molecules.
Templates - page-level objects that layout the underlying content structure.
Pages - specific instances of templates that represent a design in its final form.
Stage 1: People who are passionate about creating systems and tools, and are doing so on their own time, though these elements have yet to be adopted throughout the organization.
Stage 2: Team members who have a small portion of their time allocated to systems tasks.
Stage 3: An official team of members with mixed backgrounds (i.e. design, engineering, etc.)
Stage 4: A true systems-oriented team, complete with leadership, design, development, etc.
Evangelizing a Design System
In addition to slowly growing the right team, you also need to constantly evangelize your Design System.
You can’t just create it and promote it, you have to get voluntary buy-in by not only proactively and positively talking about the system and its impacts, but by holding open discussions.
If an organization has many design teams, you’ll need to involve all of them in your Design System planning, in order to get their buy-in, too.
This may not happen overnight - often it’s a gradual process. Nonetheless, make sure to take the time to meet with every single team impacted, have transparent and clear discussions, and get those teams on board.
Great evangelists are also change management masters. They understand how to roll out changes to teams to ensure that everyone is excited about the new tool available to them.
Furthermore, a Design System owner has to go beyond evangelizing the tool. They also have to take care that it serves all constituents well.
This means that the system needs to work for your designers, your developers, and ultimately produce results that are beneficial for your end-users (most likely customers).
Design Systems Should Empower
Nobody likes rules. Unfortunately, a Design System is often represented as a set of rules. This is a quick way to ensure that people are at best apprehensive about a Design System, and at worst, rebel against the entire concept.
In actuality, Design Systems should not limit or restrain designers. That’s not their true intention. Instead, Design Systems should empower designers.
With a Design System to pull from, designers are positioned to go faster, have less rework (which we all know designers loathe!), and freedom to be creative.
This freedom to be creative is in part thanks to the fact that building a Design System involves both designers and developers. Consequently, designers already know that whatever elements they use from the design system will be easy for developers to code.
Design Systems Are Reflective
Design Systems also need to reflect the nature of the product. For example, an auto manufacturer’s products may need to prioritize “Safety above everything else.”
So, each design decision needs to be measured relative to safety - for both the driver and passengers.
This means that your Design System needs to center the purpose of your business throughout each and every element.
Wrapping It Up
Design Systems can be incredibly helpful in delivering innovative user experiences. But much of their success is dependent upon having the right person in place to champion the system throughout the organization.
That person needs to understand the nuance of each team involved and build teams that include the right mix of people, how to frame the concept in a way that teams will buy-in, how to center the system on the nature of the product and organization, and perhaps most significantly, how to ensure that the Design System serves all constituents well.
Digital pioneer with 20+ years of experience bringing innovative digital products and services to market successfully for many industries and within a variety of challenging environments ranging from start-up to Fortune 100 companies. Effective in gaining organizational alignment on strategy and delivering creative solutions that solve real business problems.