Design Systems

Reading time:

7 mins

What are design systems and why your business needs one?

Pause for a second and try to imagine what the launch of a new product looks like for a corporation of Apple’s size and profile. Tens and hundreds of people from across the company’s structure are involved with multiple different aspects of the process.

It’s logical to ask how Tim Cook (or the person in charge) ensures that all those teams will succeed in reproducing the exact same vision, style or meaning in every product. And imagine how difficult it would be to produce millions of products of great complexity if there weren’t at least some pre-set elements and designs.

There surely must be some sort of a manual or a catalogue that contains all design elements that Apple`s employees should have available to them throughout the product building process.  And there is. That is what design systems are.

A design system is a large, easily accessible and understandable, well-documented and standardized database that serves as a convenient map to all stakeholders in the design process. It is the source of ultimate truth for all the characteristics a company’s product should possess. Let’s see how it works.

Who do modern businesses invest in design systems?

Design systems are the evolved successor of pattern libraries and style guides. A pattern library is a LEGO-box-like catalogue that contains pieces of functional components of a product, which many teams across a corporation can use to quickly put together a product.  A style guide is similar but it is concerned with the graphic styles of a brand, such as fonts, photos, illustrations, etc.

A design system marries these two into a comprehensive data bank that provides product developers with the complete set of tools to build products with efficiency and consistency.

Design systems are a must for modern businesses from virtually any segment of the global economy. Irrespective of whether you work with physical or digital products, or both, a design system is an essential aspect of maintaining a dynamic and yet consistent product flow.

How do you build a design system?

Design systems are products on their own. They are tools other stakeholders in your business use to build new products. As such, there are certain structural elements that you want to adhere to when creating a design system.

  1. Purpose, values and aims

    The first step of conceiving such a system is to agree upon a common purpose, aims and core values of the entire business. The design system should reflect those qualities, so that they can be later passed down to the products built out of the elements in the system.
  2. Rules and principles

    It’s important to pen down how and by whom the design system will be used, changed and upgraded. Here you should think about whether the system should be open to everyone or centralized, how and where will it be held, how will it be accessed and curated, etc.

  3. Brand language

    Your next step should be to consider and pinpoint the visual styles of your business - logos, colors, fonts, shapes, headers, illustrations, etc.

  4. Components and patterns

    The components are the building materials that developers will use to create let’s say a new landing page for your business. These include all drop-down menu styles, button designs and all other tools that shape up the actual user interface of your page.
  5. Document what everything is

    Documentation and standardisation of all elements in a design system is what sets it apart from a regular styles library. Every item in a design system must be thoroughly explained and described. Any member of your team should be able to obtain information as to why, how and when the elements in the system are to be used, combined and displayed.

What to keep in mind

Design systems are indeed extremely handy tools to maintain consistency in your products and greatly speed up their development. They strengthen your brand’s identity through the use of already finished and tested patterns, but there is an aspect to them that requires some extra attention.

It is vital that your design system is treated as a breathing organism. You need to perceive at as a living organism that needs to grow and evolve, otherwise it will become inadequate with the passing of time. Think about it, a design system from 2019 will probably not be up-to-date in 2022. That's why it needs to be constantly updated and revised to reflect your business in the best way. It is a never-ending process of improvement and growth.

Also, since design systems are sets of prefabricated materials, your designers’ creativity might remain constrained. In the long term this could lead to a stalled and inflexible system that hardly receives any innovative input.

This, however, is easy to avoid by setting some ground principles in the very beginning (look at step 2).

Since your design system will hopefully already be well-indexed and curated, it would be easy to add and change certain elements. As long as you keep this in mind, your business will continue to benefit from the system for years to come. We just started building our own design system and can`t wait to reap the benefits of these efforts.