Within any product, there exists a large set of individual design elements, from buttons and colors to menus and form fields. Together, these individual elements make up the basic building blocks of a product’s design. Design systems are the means by which product teams document those individual components, describe how they behave, and provide usable guidelines for how to build patterns and workflows.
Many product teams write off design systems as being superfluous. But the reality is that they do far more than just create a “better-looking product.” They head off design debt, increase a product team’s efficiency, and facilitate innovation. For these and other reasons, a design system should be a core part of any product’s roadmap — yours included.
Design System Guidelines: How is it Different from a Style Guide?
First, it’s necessary to step back and take a look at what differentiates a style guide from a design system.
A style guide is a repository of the individual design elements that comprise your product’s design. It’s a helpful tool, but it doesn’t give your team much guidance on what to do with each of those elements.
Truly comprehensive design system guidelines, on the other hand, establishes principles that guide the usage of existing components and the creation of new ones. It gives your team a clear foundation for how to combine elements in consistent ways across different contexts. And it also provides ground rules for the creation of new components and patterns as your product evolves.
It’s important to note that the information contained in the best design systems is more than just visual. They also include development components and UX elements that show how different components should behave regardless of how they look.
Think of it this way: A style guide is like a spice pantry, but one that comes without any further instructions. It’s great to know that you’ve got cinnamon and bay leaves and cumin and cardamom to choose from. But without any further instructions, it’s highly unlikely that two chefs working in isolation would take those spices and prepare dishes that tasted like they belonged in the same restaurant. A design system provides just that sort of guidance. With a design system in place, our two hypothetical chefs would have all the information needed to creatively utilize the spices in separate kitchens and still achieve similar flavor profiles.
Building a complete design system is a pretty big undertaking. If your team doesn’t currently have the bandwidth or resources to go all-in on a design system, you can start by creating a style guide. Start with the smallest elements you have, like buttons, and go from there.
Whatever you do, just make sure you don’t stall out after putting together an initial style guide. If you do, you’ll effectively transfer debt to other phases of the project lifecycle as different designers make slightly different decisions with the individual components in your style guide library.
Much as grammar turns words into language, usage rules are what turn a style guide into a design system. Of course, these rules are much harder to document and discuss than the components themselves. You can (and probably should) start small to gain traction. But until you’ve completed that documentation, you won’t fully realize the benefits a design system has to offer.
Maintenance and Governance of Design Systems
Creating a design system isn’t a one-and-done project. It must be treated as a living document — and tended frequently — or it will quickly lose relevance as your product evolves. Plan to routinely audit and update your design system guidelines on a regular cadence. Larger organizations should appoint a design system team consisting of a product owner, designer, and developer. This team should be responsible for the long-term health and stability of the design system, including audits and updates.
In addition, you should ideally build governance into your approvals workflow. This can be accomplished by making sure that someone from the design system team reviews your team’s work as it’s done.
It’s not easy for smaller companies, in particular, to devote ongoing resources to your product’s design system. By putting your design system on the product roadmap (both in terms of its initial creation and ongoing maintenance) you ensure that the necessary resources are allocated to make it happen.
The Benefits of Investing in a Design System
Investing in a design system benefits both your product and your team in many ways.
Reduce Design Debt
Design debt is the accumulation of design-related inconsistencies in a product over time. For example, if your product includes “print” buttons in several different areas or workflows, those buttons should look and act the same in each instance. When they don’t, users are forced to mentally overcompensate for those inconsistencies. As a result, the users’ trust in the product suffers along with their experience.
As we discussed in part one of this series, design debt degrades your users’ experience and hampers your team’s efficiency, among other ill effects.
Some degree of design debt is unavoidable. But product teams that invest in a robust design system can head off a majority of would-be design debt at the pass.
Design debt often comes with a surprisingly high price tag. Simply addressing inconsistent button styles within a single product may cost tens of thousands of dollars — and that’s just one element!
By avoiding unnecessary design debt, design systems ultimately save your team money. That’s true even though design systems are a significant investment in and of themselves. After all, it’s a major undertaking to design, validate, document, develop, and test each individual element that serves as a building block in your product’s design. But the money you spend building and maintaining a design system will pale in comparison to the money you’ll save once you have it in place.
For example, when your team has a “source of truth” from which to pull validated design elements, the time spent testing each and every element of a new release plummets.
Further, the money you do spend will be put to better use. With a design system in place, your team is less likely to spend time recreating the wheel by redesigning individual components with each pass. Instead, designers can pull from an existing set of components, allowing them to focus their energy on testing usage within the context of the release.
Increase Efficiency and Innovation
Not having a design system in place is wasteful and inefficient. Without design system guidelines, your team will collectively spend more time than it should creating (and recreating) components and patterns.
With design system guidelines, your team will no longer waste time unnecessarily trying to figure out which version of a form field or button to use. And that means more time to focus on bigger, meatier design solutions.
The more your design system is rooted in principles that echo those of your product and brand, the more efficient the design team will be in creating new designs and solving new problems in a way that upholds the product and brand.
Far from locking down creativity, design systems should facilitate creativity by providing a loose framework for designers to work within. It should guide designers in creating new designs that make sense within the existing system.
In order to do this, design systems guidelines must be clear about what’s firm and what’s open to interpretation. Likewise, designers should know that they are expected to do more than simply follow directions. They must solve problems dynamically and connect the dots to extend beyond the limits of the design system in a way that still honors that system.
By making a design system a core part of your product’s roadmap, you invest in your UX team’s efficiency, productivity, and sophistication — and give your product a leg up in meeting and exceeding users’ needs, too.