The Evolution of a Design System: How to Take It From Crawling to Running
Design systems aren’t necessarily a new concept, but they have become evangelized in the design community in recent years. Having a solid design system is key to any digital product if you want to ensure efficiency and consistency over time. There is no doubt that there is a lot of heavy lifting upfront to get the design system set up properly, but it is just as important to maintain and evolve the design system so that it can withstand organizational changes that may come.
This is something that is often overlooked and can lead to wasted time, money, and resources. Lack of clear maintenance of a design system can result in the need for a new design system earlier than necessary. This can be prevented if a proper plan is put in place from the very start of the project.
What is the purpose of a design system?
Design systems can be a great tool to align design and development teams by simplifying processes and creating efficiency. It can also allow teams to focus on solving more complex problems.
Reasons to use a design system:
Builds in maintainability
Creates brand consistency across multiple products
Creates a consistent source of information
Fixes design and code debt
Improves collaboration and workflow process of teams
Builds in efficiency and speed, which can reduce costs
Basics of building a design system
Before you get started, it is important to define the purpose of the system you’re looking to build. This will allow for a clear understanding of where to begin and how to tailor the system for its intended purpose. There are surely many ways to think about this, but the fundamental part is figuring out the needs of the organization and product. This will help you determine the type of design system and level of sophistication needed.
Design systems can be as simple as a shared design library, sticker sheet or design management tool or as complex as a fully built-out microsite. These approaches are not one size fits all, and careful consideration must be employed on which approach is best for a particular client or product.
Values and principles
As you get started, it is important to align your brand and system values and define the principles of those values. Principles are the rules of your system’s values. Some examples of values are accessible, powerful, technical, innovative, playful, fast, authentic, honest, fluid. I recommend choosing three or four and sticking to them in perpetuity. Values and principles are a guiding light to remind your team members why they are working so hard.
Foundation and structure
Building a strong foundation and structure at the start of this process is crucial to the success of the system down the road. Think of it as the foundation of a house. You’re building a hurricane-proof house in this case. Before you start thinking about what components you will need in the toolkit, start by identifying the basic foundational elements that will be the baseline you add to. You will unlikely go back from this point, so spend the time here to get it right.