Defining Design Systems

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As the demand for exceptional and seamless user experiences continues to grow, organizations at large must acknowledge this and work to create thoughtful, user-centered designs through more systemic approaches. A design system is essentially the collection of standardized components used to build out any number of products or applications to uphold brand identity and produce seamless user experiences.

This consistency, formed through generating reusable processes and standards, is the most productive way to allow a design team to succeed and scale just as quickly as the company itself. However, it is important to note that a design system will only be as successful as its users’ ability to generate a holistic understanding of why it exists. Considering not just the “what” but the “why” behind each decision made is the only way to create a genuinely delightful user-centered experience.

According to this recent Forrester article on the importance of design systems, “Over the last year, we’ve seen a significant increase in companies adopting design systems. Sixty-eight percent of companies tell us they use design systems.”

Beyond the visuals

While many people envision design systems as the operational interfaces that a user interacts with, they are so much more than that. Effective design systems work well beyond visual presentation, and touch on all aspects regarding how users feel when interacting with a given product.

Style guides and pattern libraries are just two of many components surrounding a comprehensive design system, but it is important to note the differences between them.

  • Style guides are collections of consistent graphic styles, including but not limited to color, icons illustrations, brand logos, etc.
  • Pattern libraries are foundations of and sources for all streamlined components and appearances, including but not limited to consistent page layouts, reusable buttons, navigations, etc.

Considering the attitude your brand is trying to present is, along with the visuals, critical to the overall user experience. How you wish to communicate with your customer, whether through a website, a mobile app, or a product, is an important part of any design system.

How will this add value your company?

Design systems are increasing in prominence and will continue to become more prevalent in the near future. Aside from a more streamlined interface and overall experience, design systems successfully:

Save both time and money

  • It’s not about the size, but the productivity of any given design team. Building effective design systems means working at scale and providing designers with more time to focus on other, more valuable projects.
  • Building the same thing over and over again costs designers precious time and, therefore, money.

Reduce concerns of design debt

  • Without an effective design system, the overall brand, can easily lose its identity. Cutting corners before, throughout, and after the design stage, oftentimes means additional costs down the road.
  • Decreasing the probability of accruing long-term “design debt” can be achieved through creating a foundational design system for future design work. This can ensure that brand identity and enhanced user experiences will be upheld.

Eradicate inconsistencies

  • Creating unified style guides and pattern libraries across internal teams will emphasize irregularities across the board.
  • Streamlining collaboration amongst design teams, development teams, marketing teams, etc., while classifying all visual and communicative components of a given product will help to increase cohesion.

Three myths of design systems

These commonly assumed myths about the value that design systems can bring to an organization represent some key takeaways on this topic:

Myth: Design systems focus only on perfecting and harmonizing the interface or style of a given product.

Truth: A truly effective and efficient design system will address the overall feel and attitude that the product, and brand as a whole, will to convey to its users.

Myth: The process creates too much standardization and will therefore eventually limit creativity.

Truth: Once properly implemented, design systems will shed light on opportunities to create more innovative products and experiences, benefiting the business overall.

Myth: A design system is a one-and-done deal. Once created, all components can be used as they stand.

Truth: A valuable design system is highly interactive and constantly evolving. It must be frequently fine-tuned in order to uphold brand identity and ensure continued stability.