Design Systems make product development faster and easier for everyone involved. Products can be spun up, tested, and launched in weeks with the most basic design system in place. With a more robust design system, enterprise ecosystems avoid tech debt, duplicated work, and inconsistent designs across dozens of product lines. No matter the size of your company, designers and developers are coming to expect access to an internal design system.
And where there is not one, they will build one.
What Is a Design System?
People often confuse UI toolkits with an actual living and breathing system. It takes a team of dedicated designers and developers working together to bring a true design system to life. UI Toolkits are just one part of a bigger machine.
Complete design systems include:
And in the best cases, design systems also include a contribution model. Designers increasingly come into organizations expecting to contribute to your system. When a fully dedicated team maintains it, you can get creative with your governance and contribution models.
Why Having a Design System Matters
A well-designed, documented and maintained design system benefits both the business and the teams using the design system. It makes a massive impact on your end users as well. Do you want to influence the bottom line? Invest in a design system.
“Here’s the simple truth: you can’t innovate on products without first innovating the way you build them.”
―Alex Schleifer, Airbnb
Design Systems Benefit Business
In business, speed to market is everything. An integrated and well-documented design system enables organizations to:
- Build and scale products at speed
- Maintain consistent branding across digital ecosystems
- Standardize a shared visual language
- Eliminate tech debt & design debt
Design systems automate technical work through asset libraries and design tokens, giving teams more time to solve complex problems and pursue bigger business opportunities.
Think about it: Would you really want your top developers coding and recoding little design specs, like rounding a button just right, or would you rather they work on complex things like machine learning or data capture to solve real customer problems?
Companies are writing about it every day. Design systems accelerate innovation. And when everyone is empowered to be more innovative, the healthier your bottom line.
Design Systems Benefit Teams
From bottom lines to top talent, designers and developers have higher expectations in light of the new work-from-home, post-pandemic ways of working. With the rise of Figma and the increasing number of digital tools for building, scaling, and collaborating, developing a solid design system is a no-brainer. Your project managers, content people, BAs, and leadership teams will collaborate much more efficiently with a design system in place.
“Without a shared design language and practices, collaboration is difficult.”
― Alla Kholmatova, Design Systems
Better Collaboration is Better Business
High-quality work deserves high-quality collaboration. Designer-to-developer handoff has always been bumpy. That problem finally goes away with a design system in place. Everyone shares a common set of standards that are flexible and reusable, including:
Visual style guides
No more guesswork or frustrated team members. Product teams reference and work from a shared source of truth and a connected file system that guides developers and designers as they build out features. Everyone on the team knows where design documentation is, how to access design guidelines, how to use asset libraries, reuse code, and who to contact about bugs and updates.
How to Create a Design System
If you don’t have a well-oiled design system by 2024, you’re at risk. While many companies are finally investing in and developing truly robust systems, many teams don’t know where to start. Maybe you have a UI Toolkit but no developer counterpart. Or maybe you have lots of style guides, but there’s no source of truth. Whether creating products feels too slow or inconsistency and re-work is a constant battle, implementing a true design system will help.
The Atomic Design Framework, made famous by Brad Frost, is a great place to start. It uses science as inspiration to make sense of digital design systems. Using this frame, you can think of parts of your design system as basic building blocks. They’re referred to in atomic design as “atoms,” “molecules,” and “organisms.” These building blocks are built once and then used and reused by anyone in the org to scale products and services at incredibly fast speeds. This is the true power of implementing a design system.
Quick Exercise:Lay down all your foundational elements on one artboard and look at your colors, buttons, components, and overall toolkit currently used to create products. How defined are the elements? Are all necessary states represented? Are there usage guidelines posted? Are the components reusable? Where’s the code?
And, of course: How quickly can we design and launch a page? A template? A flow?
Go ahead and time yourself. See how well your system, or lack thereof, currently works for you. Remember, design is just one aspect. If you were able to quickly create an entire page or flow, how easy or how hard would it be for a developer to push it live?
Starting or Scaling your Design System
If you need help either getting started or scaling your impact, here are questions you can ask yourself as your team takes on 2023. Whether you design products internally or develop projects on behalf of clients, design systems will remain a top priority in the years to come.
Where is our design documentation?
Do we all design by the same principles?
Do we have a component library?
How reusable are our UI assets?
How is our UI toolkit updated and maintained?
Are design and development an equal partnership?
What's our governance model?
Do we have a contribution model?
How easy it is to onboard and start using the system?
Are we empowering our designers and developers?
“A design system isn’t a project. It’s a product serving products.”
— Nathan Curtis, EightShapes
At Bitovi, we are diving deep into design systems and will continue writing on the topic. Collectively we’ve helped dozens of teams build and maintain design systems for internal software and B2C applications. To discuss your design system questions with our team of experts, fill out this contact form for a free consultation.