When you have a large-scale business, your team can face numerous challenges while creating user experiences. One solution to these challenges is the implementation of a design system. This system speeds up the work of designers and developers, fosters a common language and understanding between teams, ensures visual consistency for all the products, reduces costs, enables scalability, and simplifies the development cycle.
What is a design system?
It’s a comprehensive set of standards designed to manage design at scale using reusable components and patterns. Sometimes, design systems might be mistaken for style guides, which strive to maintain a cohesive visual look. However, style guides have a broader purpose, which is described below. On the other hand, design systems are more grounded and detailed, typically including style guides, design principles, component libraries, and pattern libraries.
Style guides comprise comprehensive guidelines and visual references for crafting interfaces or other design deliverables. Most commonly, they emphasize the aspects of branding, including colors, typography, trademarks, logos, and print media. However, they also provide valuable guidance for content, such as tone of voice, language recommendations, and visual and interaction design standards, also known as front-end style guides. As revealed by the Nielsen-Norman Group, these guides are valuable for ensuring specific implementation techniques.
Component libraries serve as a repository for UI elements that can be reused. They are an educational resource for designers and developers to learn about and incorporate specific UI design tokens. Creating these libraries requires substantial time and resources but benefits your product’s design system. Apart from providing visual examples of components, they also consist of the following elements:
- Component name: a specific and unique UI component name so there are no misunderstandings between designers and developers.
- Description: a clear explanation of the element and its use. Occasionally, do’s and don’ts are included to provide context and clarification.
- Attributes: variables or adjustments that can be customized to adapt the component for specific needs, such as color, size, shape, and copy.
- State: default settings for the component and how it changes depending on the user’s behavior.
- Code snippets: the actual code excerpt for the element. Some design systems offer multiple examples and a “sandbox” environment where you can try out different component customizations.
- Front-end & back-end frameworks are required to implement the library to prevent painful and unnecessary debugging.
These libraries are meant to be utilized across various products and platforms. When used appropriately, you will begin to witness significant savings in terms of both time and money.
Design Principles serve as informative descriptions, phrases, or ideas crafted to ensure consensual content and tone throughout an organization’s diverse range of products.
Pattern libraries clarify the intricacies of multi-state, multipurpose elements such as buttons, accordions, and filter bars. Component libraries specify individual UI elements, while pattern libraries feature a set of UI-element groupings or layouts. They offer clear guidance on the intended usage and when to employ them. Testing patterns for usability and accessibility is crucial, ensuring they are practical for everyone. These resources often incorporate content structures, layouts, and templates — and just like the documented UI tokens, they can be customized to suit each feature’s requirements.
Benefits of design systems
- United appearance — Using a unified repository of elements, templates, and designs enables one to perceive distinct product features as integral components of a cohesive ecosystem. This fosters improved brand uniformity across various channels without using numerous shades of gray or primary buttons that deviate from the style guide. When brand guidelines are revised, the design system automatically adapts, making it significantly simpler, quicker, and more secure to implement modifications across all products.
- Time saver — By utilizing functional components and pattern libraries, your team can confidently utilize UI assets and code snippets, knowing they will function seamlessly. These assets and components are efficiently implemented, guaranteeing a quick and flawless process. Valuable time that was traditionally wasted on research, meetings, and development can now be reclaimed by your team, empowering them to focus on innovation, learning, and refining their projects.
- Efficiency of resources — designers can redirect their attention toward tackling more intricate challenges, such as organizing information, streamlining workflows, and managing user experiences, rather than constantly building new components. It also acts as a unifying language, fostering enhanced collaboration and synchronization among all teams and stakeholders, including design, development, QA, and business functions. The need for exhaustive audits and extensive onboarding during design and code handoffs is significantly reduced when there is mutual understanding and trust. This also implies a better scalability for new product features. While this payoff might seem small when you create just a small number of screens, it becomes crucial when coordinating efforts across dozens of teams and thousands of screens.
- Cost reduction — whether it’s through enhanced resource utilization, faster product development, or a seamless user experience, implementing a design system will undoubtedly have a positive impact on your costs. UI changes happen often. Sometimes, you make these changes to enhance accessibility and boost conversions after conducting an A/B test. Alternatively, you may update a brand or the operating system.
- Education tool — utilizing clearly outlined usage guidelines and style guides enables a smooth onboarding process for novice UI designers or content creators.
Challenges of implementation
Creating a robust design system requires considerable dedication. If implemented correctly, this process should consume a significant part of your systems team’s time for several months. To ensure the success of a design system, it must be adopted and embraced by all team members, who must have the knowledge and skills to use and modify it appropriately. Teams should feel at ease when employing and adjusting patterns and components, and this requires adequate training, ongoing communication, and cultivating a sense of ownership among the teams involved. Regular component updates and comprehensive documentation are indispensable to establishing trust in your design system.
When is a design system a must?
There can be several reasons why design system becomes a necessity:
- If it requires a long time to make prototypes. You can save it using a component library such as a UI kit. With just a few simple actions — dragging, dropping, and tweaking patterns in your prototypes – you can expedite the process eliminating any additional development time or hassle.
- Suppose time is wasted on waiting for feedback across teams. There’s a good chance that someone in your company has already created the component you’re looking for and has explained how to use it. But if not, teams can consider if they will use it in the future and collaborate to develop it. By utilizing that valuable time, you can create more user-friendly products, enhance the smoothness of your application’s animation, or discover innovative methods to boost its performance. This way, you can avoid the tedious task of fixing disparities and issues in your products’ codebases and focus on what truly matters.
- If you’re building one large or more products — take a moment to assess the potential time savings for your entire product range. Imagine the positive impact on your product teams as they gain a deeper understanding of each product. Think about the incredible flexibility this will provide. Furthermore, consider the speed at which you can release updates if code documentation is clear and consistent across all products.
When it may not be reasonable to have a design system
If your organization specializes in digital consulting or contracting and works closely with other organizations, you may not see significant benefits from standardizing components unless you offer templated products. Each company you collaborate with will likely have unique needs and standards, making it risky to impose a rigid system that could hinder genuine innovation for your clients.
As a small company or startup, shifting your focus and allocating resources toward creating a comprehensive system may be challenging. However, it’s crucial to remember that if some experts leave, their knowledge goes with them. Design systems serve as a means to transfer knowledge wholly and swiftly, ensuring you aren’t reliant on specific individuals.
If you’re not actively involved in product development, you may not find the need for a design system. The actual benefits of design systems become evident when you can leverage their building blocks and styles. However, setting up, designing, and developing all these elements requires significant effort. If there aren’t many opportunities to apply these blocks, it may not be sensible to invest excessive time in creating them in the first place.
Ways to use a design system
There are commonly three approaches to utilizing a design system:
- Adopting an existing design system and utilizing it entirely (e.g., Google Material Design).
- Adapting an existing design system and making modifications according to specific requirements.
- Creating a proprietary or custom design system.
When considering whether investing in a custom design system is worthwhile, it is essential to evaluate if the organization has specific needs that cannot be fulfilled by open-source design systems. As customization and adjustments to the design system increase, the cost savings derived from utilizing an existing design system will diminish. Developing a custom design system may be more advantageous in the long run. Design systems yield optimal results when a company anticipates substantial replicable design work in the foreseeable future.