A great design system makes a company’s user experience and the tools behind it simpler and more efficient to use. Is the design system the solution to every design problem? It can be – but it’s important to get things right from the start.
Enhanced work processes and customer experience
A design system is a collection of design principles and reusable components with clear guidelines and standards that make the work process easier when it’s time to develop new services or platforms. A thoroughly developed structure lets you create new content and services much faster, with higher quality and a constant focus on the user.
Smarter, more efficient design work
Design systems aren’t just for improving the user experience. They also improve technical quality and overall appearance. Even small companies and startups with a small design team can benefit from thinking in terms of design systems. But it only becomes truly relevant when you scale up.
You need a design system when:
- Unintentionally, the company’s branding starts to look different for different services.
- Your design work feels inefficient – you might be reinventing the wheel by redesigning the same kinds of components over and over.
- You have trouble keeping track of your various design elements.
- You lack clearly defined design work processes and you’re not sure how to quality-assure the results.
- The company is expanding business or scaling up operations.
Designers work in a complex landscape
The point of a design system is to give users a uniform experience, no matter the environment. That’s becoming more and more necessary these days for a few reasons.
We’re designing for a more complex landscape. Companies work in a variety of contexts: different systems and information flows, intranets, logged in or not – and meanwhile, multiple design teams might be working on different areas of the organization. That makes it tough to maintain a cohesive design profile.
It’s common to have collaborations and multiple players to keep in mind – and everyone has their own ideas about how the design should work.
The work process is no longer linear; instead it’s iterative, on cross-functional and agile teams. That calls for equally flexible design solutions.
When the company grows or services evolve, the design has to be scaled up and able to be moved to multiple platforms.
Demand has increased to be able to deliver new features to market quickly.
Adapt the design system based on your needs
A design system can look different for different organizations. Its structure is informed by the target group, administration and purpose. And it will often include a component library, style guides, modular code, color and form, fonts, information structure and standards.
Setting up a design system involves not just what it will contain, but also how it will be used: our vision and goals, design principles, what good design means to us and how we work together in the organization. These softer questions are important for the system to work well.
Design systems, step by step
However you structure your design system, there are a few basic steps for how to start building it:
- Choose a purpose and goal
What is your definition of a design system? What are your motivations? What problems do you want to solve? Why do you need this? You should also decide on the effect you want to achieve in order to measure the result.
- Identify target groups and key people
Who will be involved with the design system? Who will use it and in what context? How will the system help them? What role will they play in its success?
- Current status
Take stock of where you are now: your design, architecture, CMS, technical platforms, guidelines etc. And take note of existing dependencies.
- Plan ahead
Formulate a roadmap with a clear strategy, process and activities for your project.
You’re going to need a product team to manage the design system. How they work depends on what works best in your organization.
- Start small
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the tasks a design system requires. But it’s smart to start small-scale, for example with design principles and the most common components. Test everything out before you scale up.
- Measure and share success
Make everyone a participant in the process and spread your successes across the organization – through newsletters, design workshops, lectures or posters on the wall.
Last but not least, a design system should be living and follow the development of its company. It’s never done – it just gets better with time.
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