In recent years, “design systems” have become a hot topic in user experience design. But what exactly is a design system? In simple terms, a design system is a set of standards that helps to manage design at scale. By reducing redundancy and creating a shared language, design systems help to ensure visual consistency across different pages and channels. This, in turn, makes it easier for teams to work together and helps to create a more unified user experience. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to design systems, they can be a potent tool for managing complex digital projects. When used correctly, they can help to streamline the design process and improve the quality of the final product.
With the rapid growth of apps and websites, UI design has come a long way from static designs. These days you need to be able to create fast-paced screens and manage them at scale with robust systems in place for large organizations looking ahead about what will work best now and later down the road.
As anyone who has ever worked on a large design project knows, the key to creating great work is in the planning. A well-thought-out design can save hours of wasted effort and frustration, while a poorly executed one can quickly become a headache. One of the benefits of design systems is that they can help streamline the design process by providing a repeatable framework that can be used repeatedly. Not only saving time but also helping to ensure that designs are consistent and cohesive. In addition, design systems can serve as an educational tool, providing junior designers with a resource to reference when working on new projects. By making the design process more efficient and effective, design systems can help designers to focus on larger, more complex problems and ultimately create better products.
It is essential to remember that creating a design system requires a dedicated team of designers and developers familiar with the nuances of the project. It also takes time to teach others how to use the design system. However, the need for design systems has increased as more companies move towards agile development processes. By definition, agile development is an iterative process, which means that changes are made regularly. Therefore, having a library of reusable components makes it easier to make changes quickly while ensuring consistency across teams and projects.
A well-organized design-system repository can be a valuable resource for new and experienced team members, providing a single source of truth for the product’s design language. Design-system repositories come in many shapes and sizes, but they typically contain a style guide, a component library, and a pattern library.
The style guide ensures that an organization’s products and services are consistent in design and communicate the right message to their intended audiences. Style guides help businesses avoid the pitfalls of ad hoc design and haphazard messaging by providing clear guidance on what is and is not acceptable. That can be the difference between success and failure in today’s increasingly competitive marketplaces. There are two kinds of style guides, one that focuses on visual design, and another that focuses on content style.
A great example of a visual style guide is The NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual. This design classic contains the scans of Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda’s modernist masterpiece, the NYC subway signs. The manual describes the design and construction of the signs, but above all it is a beautiful and important piece of design history. In terms of content style guides, the team at Intuit has one of the most robust guidelines I’ve seen so far. They recently redesigned their content design system to make their content more readable, scannable, findable—and beautiful.
The component library contains reusable UI elements that can be used to build new pages and features. As an essential part of any design system, the component library is a living and breathing document, continually evolving to meet the needs of the people who use it. It is the source of truth for all design and development decisions, big and small. It should be easy to use and easy to contribute to. And it should work equally well for designers and developers, and that’s the foundation for building better products faster.
The pattern library includes documentation on how these components can be used together to achieve common goals. While component libraries focus on individual UI elements, pattern libraries feature collections of UI-element layouts that are meant to be reused and adapted as needed.
By consolidating these three essential elements into one centrally-located repository, designers and developers can more easily stay up-to-date on the latest changes and additions to the product’s design system.
Some of my favorite component libraries include Material, a design system created by Google to help teams build high-quality digital experiences for Android, iOS, Flutter, and the web. Another one I discovered recently that serves as a great example of a component and pattern library is the Goldman Sachs design system; their collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, can be assembled in countless variations to quickly build a range of fintech products. And last but not least is Untitled UI, the largest UI kit and design system for Figma in the world.
Material Components are interactive building blocks for creating a user interface, and include a built-in states system to communicate focus, selection, activation, error, hover, press, drag, and disabled states.
BUILDING A DESIGN-SYSTEM TEAM
Creating an effective design system is a complex task requiring multiple experts’ input, including interaction designers, visual designers, developers, researchers, content architects, and content writers. These roles can help to ensure that the design system remains up-to-date, relevant, and accessible to all users.
But how do we approach a design system adoption? There are many benefits to using a design system, but it’s essential to understand the tradeoffs before deciding whether to create your custom system or use an existing one. One of the most significant considerations is cost: a custom design system will take more time and money to implement than an existing one. However, a custom system may be worth the investment if the organization has specific needs that an existing one can’t meet, so consider all the factors before making a decision.
When properly implemented, design systems can help to streamline workflows, improve communication between team members, and enable designers to tackle complex UX problems. However, design systems are only as effective as those who manage and maintain them. The main factors to consider when creating a design system are the scale and replicability of your projects and the resources and time available.
If there’s a long-term vision for consistent, high-quality design work, investing in a design system upfront can save considerable time and effort. And with careful management and a commitment to continual improvement, design systems are an invaluable asset for any organization. Contact us today if you want to establish or improve your design system—we’d love to help!