Design Systems | The Silver Bullet of Software and Product Development

Now that I’ve gotten that bulbous title out of the way, let me be blatantly honest for a second: design systems are something that I largely avoided creating, writing, reading or talking about for entirely too long in my career.

I perceived them as just another obstacle that prolonged the iteration and design process that added to the already overflowing mental load as a designer. They thrust another way of thinking upon me, which naturally gravitates towards the creative and away from the orderly. I viewed them as unnecessarily complicated engineering schematics, with brow-beaten business executives mulling over a multitude of diagrams. Maybe that’s a tad dramatic. :)

It wasn’t until I was tasked with forming a design system for a particular line of business with my current employer and began a long process of research, discovery and inspiration into what really makes a successful design system that it began to hit me just how creative, scalable and powerful they can really be.

I’ll document that process in and of itself into a post one day — hopefully — but for now, a short list of reasons why I find design systems to be so valuable.

1. Speed and efficiency

Design systems allow cross-functional teams that touch any part of the development process to work faster and more efficiently together. They completely streamline the design and development process — decreasing the amount of time it takes to design, build, and launch new websites, products, and features. They also enable design teams to rapidly prototype and experiment with ideas in high fidelity from the start — ultimately saving the business time and money.

2. Consistent user experience

Design systems help us design and build on-brand, quality digital products. Rather than iterating a design solution in a silo, teams are able to follow guidelines and stay consistent to the brand. This ensures interfaces are more familiar and accessible, which fosters trust in the interface by users and over time slowly builds towards conversion and retention.

3. Stronger branding

Design systems help establish brand identity throughout a product in a consistent, scalable way. I’ll forever be a huge believer that brand plays a crucial role in design systems. This is why it’s so important to design holistically — considering the brand and product as a whole, as opposed to tackling individual problems one-by-one and hoping the pieces will fit once launched.

4. They allow us to think bigger picture

Design systems help designers and engineers spend less time needlessly creating the same things over and over — but ever so slightly different every time — and more time focusing on user research, problem-solving, and building great products as a whole. They also help keep feedback focused on value to the user experience, as opposed to debating downstream items like padding, colors, and font choices.

5. Structure and organization

Design systems keep our work clean and organized and gives it structure, which makes everything for everyone easier — from accessing common design elements in a master library, to using a uniform approach for the structure and naming conventions in the code, to ease of maintenance, iteration, and syncing of the design and code.

6. Unified language

Design systems help our development teams communicate more clearly by establishing naming conventions and consistent terminology and references across the design and code.

7. Source of truth

Design systems and proper documentation are a source of truth for the whole team. A well-designed, implemented, and maintained design system sets high standards for your product and your process, and everyone becomes accountable for upholding these standards. And it makes it just that much easier because everything is in one place.

So do we ALWAYS need design systems?

It’s understandable for small design agencies, small businesses, and even freelancers to design and build without a design system, then move on. This is often fine, and it works for many companies. The resulting product may be online for only a couple of years before it’s replaced when change is needed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that process. It’s cost-effective, simple, and fast and has higher payoff than spending time building a design system first.

Design systems are useful when larger companies aim to iteratively work on a product over time — to not just build once, and replace later. This is why they’re more frequently needed for products than marketing websites. Design systems are especially useful when a team of people are working on the same product. I can’t stress this point enough.

A successful design system liberates your team from reinventing the wheel. It allows you to focus on what really matters: learning and improving digital products to meet user and business goals. And if you’re lucky, you might even create something amazing that you’re all proud of.

Resources: Laying the Foundations by Andrew Couldwell. Available in paperback and eBook formats and ships internationally. Click here to learn more about the book.