As the world of user experience (UX) continues to evolve, the demand for scalable digital experiences with a fast turnaround also increases. The pandemic caused a paradigm shift in consumer behavior, as many customers were seeking out companies that can cater to their needs online. 

So how can companies keep up with fast-paced demands, while holding on to brand integrity, great online experiences, and tight resourcing? To address these challenges, more and more companies are investing in the development of a design system to streamline the online experience and enhance their digital ecosystem.

Constituents of a Design System
More companies are embracing design systems — the principles, templates, and components (design and code) that guide a company’s design efforts — to drive a more cohesive experience across channels, power accessibility efforts, increase designer and developer efficiency, and unlock the other benefits. —Forrester

What is a Design System?

Think about your favorite global brand. Have you ever wondered how their experiences remain consistent across multiple online platforms? For example, if you visit the Nike website, view their mobile app, and look at their social media, you’ll find that the look and feel of each channel comes together seamlessly as one unified brand. Their use of a design system and adhering to its principles cross-platform serve as the starting point for a consistent experience.

Core Components of a Design System

In short, a design system is a single source of truth that unifies the digital experience across multiple channels. Designers and developers use design systems to serve as a point of reference for the use of assets when building out a new channel or experience.

Benefits of a Design System

Speed & efficiency

Design systems take the guesswork out of design and development, allowing for a more efficient digital build. Without a design system, designers and developers may spend hours of valuable time sifting through the company’s existing digital assets to determine what component they should use for a new development project.

In fact, most estimates find that with a full Design System, you can save up to 70% of the team’s time during the product development process. With a well-maintained design system, designers and developers can quickly pull from standard components that meet the current brand or product guidelines.

Improve team collaboration & consistency

Design system development requires a strong collaboration between designers, developers, data analysts and engineers to help determine what the design standard should be across the board, from colors and naming conventions to UI patterns and complex components.

Design systems collaboration also leads to UI consistency. For example, if two designers are working on two different pages that share the same feature, having access to a design system allows them to better work in tandem with developers to visualize and build out that experience.

Reduce cost

Think of the design system as benefiting your company using the three sustainable R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle. One major business benefit of a design system is they can reduce cost by encouraging component reusability to unify the digital experience. Resources, including developers and designers, no longer have to spend company time and money recreating components from scratch.

The goal of any company is to reduce costs, when possible, without compromising the quality or integrity of the brand and its experience. Projects that may have required a higher budget to accommodate digital component planning can still move forward with significantly reduced budgets. This allows companies to allocate those funds to other business improvements and opportunities.

Future proof your designs with scalability

Though you can’t predict consumer behavior long-term from a design standpoint, you can future proof your digital experience through a well-planned design system using iterations.

When setting up design system components, you have the ability to apply any changes you make to a component to all instances of that component. This way, as brand colors, typography, or other elements of a design component change over time, you can quickly update the standard across the board instead of having to go into each individual component to update.

This allows you to track design system versions and have a historical repository of design. You’ll have quick access to determine what worked, what didn’t, and see how your brand standards have evolved to better help you plan for the future.

Getting Started with a Design System

A design system is a complex digital undertaking; however, its planning and execution can be whittled down into three easy steps:

1. Audit

Conducting a complete inventory of your existing assets is a key step before building or updating any design system. You’ll want to have full visibility into the existing design components your company is currently using.  

This will require you to go through each page of your application to identify and categorize existing design/UI patterns. You’ll want to look for all elements and assets, including images, typography, color, input fields, iconography and more. You also want to document any variations in color, size, or shape of a component/asset, as well as how or how frequently those styles are used. This will help you decide what elements you should (or should not) move forward with.

During the audit process, it’s important to evaluate the entire scope of the site, from form-heavy pages like checkout, to image-driven sections like product pages.

2. Assessment

Once your inventory or audit is complete, you’ll need to move on to an assessment. During this step, you are to categorize the assets and get critical about the existing styles, components and patterns used. This will allow you to better understand the philosophy, or the “why,” behind the current design as you begin to shape your new design system.  

When creating a multibrand design system, you’ll also want to bring leadership in from the business side during this step. They’ll be able to assess the necessity and/or costs associated with the various components. This will help give your digital team guidance from the business standpoint and help them determine a cost-effective approach that also satisfies the business requirements.

3. Design

Once you have an inventory and directives from leadership, you can now start building your design system and its components.

Design systems are made up of reusable components, branding information, and other relevant content, all contained in one central place. According to Brad Frost, the digital consultant who coined the term, a design system is comprised of five components:

Five Components of a Design System


  • 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.
Design System Process graphic

As you build out these components in your design system, ensure you have a strong understanding of the taxonomy so that each designer and developer is speaking the same language when referring to certain elements. For example, what one designer may refer to as a ‘carousel’ might be called something different by another designer. Clarifying terms straight from the start can prevent miscommunications.

Summary

Planning an impactful design system is no easy feat. Its execution requires a firm understanding of your users, an aligned brand vision, and a knowledgeable team of designers. However, if implemented correctly, a design system can take the guesswork out of UI and UX design by creating a more efficient system to build, scale, manage and future-proof your user experience platform.

Next Steps

Design systems are a single source of truth that brings balance and consistency to your brand across all digital channels. Digital marketing and eCommerce consulting agencies, like Object Edge, can help you build a design system that will make your digital teams more efficient while unifying the online experience for your consumer.

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About the Author

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Sarah Falcon

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VP, Marketing Global

Sarah is a nimble and creative marketing leader with 15 years of experience in a mix of agencies, B2B, and B2C enterprises. She brings a background in building and driving impactful marketing practices and processes for growing businesses. Sarah has expertise in brand, content marketing, lead generation, and marketing operations. She’s a co-author of the 2019 book on B2B eCommerce Digital Branch Secrets: eCommerce Playbook for Distributors.

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