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What is a design system?

An AI interpretation of what design system component gallery sheet looks like, with very little detail, with a the sheet looks like in its slick dark theme with red and white elements.
Design System component gallery according to an AI image generator

There are already plenty of pages answering this question from all possible angles. This post adds very little to the discussion but it helps me organise my thoughts. By the way, I typically organise my thoughts through systems.

Typical definitions of design system define the concept by what you can usually find in the systems, some times also hinting at a purpose of improving "consistency" and "efficiency".

  • Wikipedia - a set of interconnected patterns and shared practices
  • Invision - a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards
  • Interaction Design - a library of reusable components and guidelines
  • UXDesign - a library of guidelines and reusable components
  • UXPin - a set of standards for design and code
  • Adobe - a collection of reusable functional elements, components
  • Forbes - a set of rules and standards to maintain consistency

Libraries, collections, patterns, components. While technically some of these terms can refer to very precise things, they're also some times used interchangeably. With practice and familiarity we learn how to recognise the nuances, but in essence these "things" can typically be grouped in two:

  • design decisions (principles, language, patterns);
  • implementations (libraries, docs, tools) for designers, copywriters, and engineers.

Humans and interactions

Aside from the what is in a system, it's important to recognise that the foundations of a design system - metaphorically what allows it to stand - is a social system of interactions, decision making, and agreement.

In the end the system is just:

the way we design things around here

In my opinion, this angle is essential to build successful design systems, as the challenges you face when getting started, or scaling up, are similar to those faced by other practice related disciplines.

Agile and lean adoption challenges immediately come to mind. 😅

Different lenses, same angle

Focusing on the tangible elements of a design system, while useful to have an understanding of the what to build, usually limits the understanding of how to go about building it, how to contribute, and eventually even leads to questioning why bother with all "these things" anyway.

People tend to appreciate new ideas anchored on their own background, personal context, and other biases, and this influences heavily how they perceive both the system and their own role in it.

Centering the conversation on the building and on tangible elements, no matter how much you zoom out, can lead to takeaways such as:

the figma library, pattern and asset libraries ...

(and some stuff for developers)

While, for others:

component libraries, packages, documentation ...

(and some stuff for designers)

Most dramatically, for business people, it might lead to questions such as:

How much will it cost?

How long will it take to be done?

In the first case we are missing the forest for trees, missing the scope, depth and breadth, almost certainly missing our potential to contribute.

In the second we are missing the nature of the system altogether, and how the system still exists with its glorious inefficiencies and inconsistencies whether or not there is an effort to invest and intentionally improve it.

The systems angle

Some people take the word system as a synonym to software, so it's important to clarify that "system" is here always used in the systems thinking sense:

  • What functions does it perform?
  • What are the components and actors of the system?
  • What other systems and environment elements does it interact with?
  • What inputs does it need?
  • What outputs and waste does it generate?
  • What are its internal components and processes?
  • What are its contextual and structural constraints?

Looking at a design system from this angle, and this distance and height, puts everything into perspective - pun intended 🤣 - and highlights the limitations of thinking of the system as just artefacts.

The obvious conclusion is that if an organisation is designing anything, then it already has a design system, even if it does't think about it on those terms, even if it's a poor and accidental one.

More importantly, the system angle is always a human angle, as what we are doing here is knowledge work.

A design system is the community and the processes that binds it together.

In her talk at Schema 2022, Patrycja Rozmus illustrates with some pretty epic slides what a comprehensive design system coverage across an organisation looks like. Spoiler: it looks like a lot of people. 🤣

The business angle

The business angle is always, primarily, an exercise in identifying purpose, measuring impact, assessing threats and opportunities, and taking wise, timely investment decisions. 💰

So what function does a design system perform in the overall organisation? How does it help other functions, and the overall system, perform?

Design systems support key functions in brand, marketing, and product development, contributing to waste reduction and cost optimisation across the board, and increasing the chances of success.

A design system is a set of standards to manage design at scale by reducing redundancy while creating a shared language and visual consistency across different pages and channels.

Design Systems 101 | Nielsen Norman group

The above definition hints only slightly at the role of the design system. In my opinion it is quite shy.

Smart investments in design systems yield high returns through increased business performance in the form of shortened lead times, operational efficiency, stronger brand equity, and more potential for innovation.

You can group the benefits of design system in 2 simple buckets:

  • 📉 cost efficiency, waste reduction
  • 📈 increased potential for growth, increased chances of succeeding

And while this is already an appealing value propositions, I believe that design systems truly shine in how they contribute directly to adaptability and survivability agendas.

A design system with the right capabilities in place is key to allow rebranding, even pivoting, with reasonable costs and acceptable risk.

So, what about this much more assertive and business wise definition, then?

A design system is one of the most important strategic assets for your company. It is a living digital product that requires a team, a plan and a set of specialized tools.

Build Better Products Faster With Design Systems | Gartner

A design system is a strategic asset. It's capital. ⚙️

This resonates with my background in economics, so I need to try my best at coming up with my own words here. 😅

Design systems are the way organisations capitalise on design decisions and turn them into assets.

Makes sense? 🤓

But beware of going all in into this capitalistic language, as it can easily overlook the knowledge work nature of the system. Ultimately, design systems are investment in knowledge and culture. 😉

Design systems are culture change disguised as a UI Kit

Lauren LoPrete on design systems and culture change

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