Organizational leadership and creative teams often lose sight of the fact that a design system is a foundational pillar that should be enhanced and refined to further empower product and marketing innovation.
So why does this happen? Typically, its because companies will fall into one of these common traps that doom design systems from the jump:
1. Viewing your design system as your brand
We’ve all seen it. Every pixel’s got to be perfect, not a single one out of place. You alone are the master of your company's design system. You’ve spec’d out the brand just as you envisioned, the rules have been laid out and are clearly stated, and now all the team needs to do is follow them to the letter.
A design system is not:
- Guard Rails
- A cure-all that solves everything
- A substitute for team members (actually quite the opposite)
- Viewing your design system as your brand
2. Same old, same old
Posters adorn the organization’s halls, bathroom stalls, and parking garages, but the design system the team rolled out back in 2015 and last updated who knows when — is collecting dust, all but forgotten.
Design systems should be viewed as living, breathing organisms that need to be nurtured, challenged, and curated to evolve with your audience’s changing needs, interests, and demographics. They should be continually updated to address changing accessibility demands, and, most importantly, your organization’s business objectives.
And remember, design systems fail in a vacuum. It’s essential that every team in your organization have skin in the game. Reach beyond traditional silos to include members of cross-functional teams: delivery, product, research, design, marketing, technology, and of course leadership. Ensure each department feels a sense of inclusion and ownership and is aware of the thinking and processes behind the decisions as they’re made.
Keys to avoiding extinction:
- Ensure the entire team is onboard at rollout
- Remember NO system is perfect
- Standards and accessibility should evolve with audience expectations
- Scale at your companies pace
- Consider systems as living, breathing documents
3. You alone hold the key
Are the user permissions of your design system locked and only you have the key? If so, then it’s all but guaranteed to fail. I cannot stress enough how important it is that your design system be flexible, collaborative, and inclusive.
For instance, as research shows there are better solutions available, those findings shouldn’t be ignored. Instead, infuse your design system with that data and let it play a key role in its evolution.
Maintaining the flexibility you need to stay agile and nimble:
- Digital experiences are always transformational
- As technology advances, so too must our approach to design systems
- Predictability is a good way to lead to ease of use
4. You wait until the end of the project to define the system
The last thing you should do is relegate defining your system to the last thing you do. Imagine your organization just wrapped the largest endeavor your company has ever undertaken and launched it to the world. Now you’re exhausted, the team has moved on to other projects, and now you’re piecing together the design system based on your recollections and reflection on the process. Chances are the resulting system will be less valuable to future endeavors.
Remember, you begin with the goal of creating a new foundation for all projects to come. That is not something you can do in a day. Instead, defining the design system should begin on day one of the project and continue throughout its completion. It’s an ongoing endeavor that chronicles every step along the way and incorporates every new lesson and warns of every learned pitfall.
A good place to start is in building your team. Appoint one lead from each functional group, and then assign roles and create a plan. The plan needs to support the priorities of the moment but also keep an anticipatory eye toward the future. A skilled project manager can keep you aligned on both (amIright, Jimmy?). As elements of your collaborative system come together, each piece of work then becomes part of the system — remember, it’s a living, breathing document, after all. As you ideate, build, user test, and design you’re building the foundation that will be expanded upon as needed.
Engineering a design system that works for you rather than against you:
- Avoid the "It was an afterthought..."
- Start small and grow the system
- Don't expect it to happen overnight
- Governance is the key ingredient - not one-and-done
5. Our hands are tied. The design system doesn't allow it.
I’m ending with one of the most common misunderstandings of design systems, “Our design system is limiting my or my team’s ability to be creative because it rigidly defines what we can do and how we should do it.” If this is your experience, chances are implementing a design system that serves as a jumping-off point rather than a straight jacket will come as a welcome relief. After all, as creatives, none of us likes to be boxed in. We like to run free. Think big. And ideate without limitations.
It’s with that in mind, you should strive for a design system that empowers that belief, facilitating innovation and creativity rather than stifling it.
An effective design system should:
- Empower innovation
- Free your team to build experiences quickly
- Inject personality into your digital experiences
- New engaging interactives
- Prompts exploration and ideation
- Craft a unique visual expression
- Deliver consistently on your message
- Uncover opportunities that may have been overlooked
Make sure your design system supports the following (not limited to):
- Creates team efficiencies and collaboration for speed to market
- Enables rapid prototyping for user validation
- Develops accessible toolkits for the entire product team (delivery, product, design, and development)
- Deploys a clear governance plan (Playbook to work with DS)
- Generates typography, color, illustration guidance
- Provides for increased accessibility
- Normalizes components + frameworks
- Distributes code standards
- Establishes consistent UX patterns (UI grid, interface elements, etc.)