Design systems are for everyone

If your impression was that design systems are just for designers, you wouldn’t be alone. Afterall, it’s a “design” system, right? Well, design systems mean much more than that. They comprise everything from what products you sell, your voice and tone, typography, colors, coding conventions, and more. They can affect every part of your business. A Design System is the single source of truth which groups all the elements that will allow teams to design, realize, and develop a¬†product.

Why use a design system?

Design systems help you build cohesive products. Imagine a quilt that was not sewn together. All it’s patches varying distances apart, at angles, and different sizes. With a design system, you remove those spaces, varying sizes, and angles. Everything fits together on one wholistic product. Customers are more likely to trust and feel comfortable with a company that is able to present their products and services in this manner.

Companies that produce and follow design systems also empower their employes to create and build products and services with little or no guidance. Communication is still key, but it can reduce a great deal of overhead and improve workflows. It also becomes easier and easier to provide consistency with your brand.

As your company grows, the conventions and reusability of design systems also helps alleviate some of the complexity of having a larger business. Decisions have already been made, and components and parts already ready to use. They can reduce misinterpretation and provide a single source of information.

Do I need a design system?

If this hits close to home, you may need a design system.

In general, there are two key things to look out for when you are thinking of implementing a design system:

  • Redundancies – Are you seeing duplicated efforts and inefficiencies?
  • Growth – When your organization scales a lot, and more people are working on the same or similar things.

It’s always better to start small and early with a design system, and grow it as needed. Unfortunately many wait until it is too slow and painful to implement one.

How do I start making one?

You will need buy-in, and a limited number of decision makers. Expect push back! The time spent making one is not going directly towards an actual product or service, so this is a normal reaction. You’ll need to find out who the design system will affect the most and get consensus with them. Get advocacy with peers and build that momentum. You can try choosing one contact from different “teams” or departments.

Be realistic. You won’t be able to solve designers, developers, and business managers problems overnight. Provide estimates and be transparent about how the process will go. At the end of the day it’s about having one core purpose. Having a consistent, efficient business.

Let’s build it!

What are your principles?

This is where you need the most input, from as many people as you can. Ask basic, open ended questions about what is important to the business: what is unique, interesting, or essential to the product or services you provide? When you start hearing overlap and repeated concepts, you’ve found your principles. Give them a priority and order once found.

Goals

Ask yourself how success will be measured. this can include cost, time, and other things. Look to management to set these priorities.

The team

Decide who the team that creates the system will be. You’ll want collective ownership, but keep in mind that you’ll need to limit the total number of people involved. Picking key people across teams can be a good way to go. Depending on your needs, you could also have a dedicated design system team, or a singular person managing everything and interacting with the different parts of your company.

Audit your visual inventory

On this step, you’ll need to look through all your products and services and find the inconsistencies or duplicate efforts. You’ll want to decide on which approach you want to continue with if you find differences.

Consolidate

After you have found all the interactions and design choices you have made, you’ll want to create a central location to organize everything you want to move forward with and reuse. This can be a document, URL, or some other software you have. Everyone should have access to it (but not editor privileges!)

Build

Give your design system a name! If can help further the company goal and create a tone and voice for what it’s doing for you. It can also create comradery around it.

Add all your components and resources to it, and directions on how they should be used. Keep it simple. Start with necessities and go from there. Keep rules to a minimum, and be sure to add the reasoning behind decisions in the design system.

You’ll also want to make as many parts as you can downloadable. This includes PDFs, pieces of code, icons, or anything else you can think of. Make it easy for people to find and use these parts. Keep these parts and components as agnostic as you can so they can work across projects and for different purposes. Technology changes quickly, so think about longevity.

Are we done?

Design systems are living projects. Iteration and keeping them updated are essential to keeping them relevant. Now that the design system is done, you may want to consider:

  • Do the same people that made it need to maintain it? You may have to trim down that team and consolidate to a few people.
  • Remind people to use it. It will take a while to become habit, and that’s ok!
  • Reduce. If you see problems arise, or contradictions, it’s almost always best to simplify and remove parts, rather than add them.
  • Don’t fall in love: it will and should change! Let people request or make changes, but be sure there is a specific reason or purpose behind them.
  • Review. It’s a good idea to have a yearly review of the system and see where you’re at and what may need to change or be corrected.

Time to go design those systems!

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