5 Ways to Grow From Passion Project to Dedicated Design System — Fireside Chat Recap

Missed our fireside chat with Patrycja Radacyznska (Principal Design System Engineer at Babbel) about her journey from passion project to dedicated design system team or just want to refresh your memory? Here are the top 5 takeaways from the discussion.

Design systems often start as a passion project with a small team of contributors balancing multiple organizational priorities. These underground initiatives may grow into a full-time dedicated design system team with time and investment. But how can you navigate this path and balance creating a design system as a passion project while working on your full-time job?

We dive into this very question during our fireside chat featuring Patrycja Radaczynska. She is the Principal Design System Engineer at Babbel and has previously worked on design systems at Contentful and Brainly. At Brainly, she helped kickstart and build the first version of their design system, Pencil, as an underground initiative. She has a passion for bridging the gap between design and engineering.

Here are the top 5 takeaways from our fireside chat with Patrycja.

1. Create Opportunities For Overlapping Goals

When product engineers and designers work on a design system as a passion project, they’re often faced with the difficult task of finding time to work on the design system while balancing their other priorities.

“I [try] to incorporate this design system work or design system related work into my product teamwork.”

To manage this at Brainly, Patrycja tried to find ways to incorporate her design system work into her product teamwork. For example, you may need to build a component for a new feature, and there’s a need for that component for the design system, so you can build it for both your product and the system. In her experience, many managers welcomed this overlap and supported her design system efforts.

Patrycja cautioned that these were ideal case scenarios, and most of the time, she did design system work here and there in between product responsibilities. It’s important to understand that the priorities of the product team will not always align with design system work. Setting this expectation can help reduce the frustration that comes with working on a design system as your passion project.

2. Find Your Community

Design system work can be frustrating. You provide the glue work for teams across the organization that enables them to work more efficiently, but often your work feels invisible or underappreciated. To navigate this cycle, it’s important to find your community.

“Yeah, I feel your pain. This is what I can say. And I know that it might be difficult, but it is a process.”

Discovering your community, both internally and externally, helps you find advocates, mentors, and colleagues. Design system communities (like Supernova Friends) provide a platform for connecting with fellow practitioners who understand your frustrations and may guide you through the emotional ups and downs.

Patrycja also emphasized the importance of creating these connections within your organization. Building an open and inclusive community allows you to identify advocates, find contributors, and share the value your design system provides on a consistent basis. This foundation can set your design system up for future success and growth.

3. Over-communicate and Meet People Where They Are

A common theme across our expert talks is the importance of communication. Patrycja pushed this theme further by emphasizing being present and meeting people where they are. This is an essential part of driving awareness, gaining adoption, and garnering feedback for your design system.

“Design system work is really all about people and talking to them, meeting them, and being open to different conversations.”

Here are a few examples Patrycja shared on how you can accomplish this:

  • Spend time in different communities, like your organization's front-end engineering teams, to talk about design systems and how teams can benefit
  • Negotiate a time slot in engineering or design meetings to provide updates on your design system
  • Create a dedicated design system channel or consider a newsletter to share new components, progress updates, and celebrate contributors
  • Hold office hours, carve our time for private conversations, and be open to meetings to discuss design systems with people who are curious or have questions

Another way to over-communicate and meet people where they are is by providing a single source of truth for your design system. At Babbel, Patrycja and her team are using Supernova to unify documentation to establish it as the go-to resource for their design system. This consolidation creates more efficiencies for engineers and designers and reinforces the value a design system can provide which you can communicate through the channels you build.

4. Find Advocates By Developing Cross-functional Relationships

Developing relationships across the organization enables you to identify champions and develop critical feedback loops to improve your design system. As your design system incorporates feedback to drive more value for product teams, advocates have compelling cases to champion your work to leadership.

“Find advocates also within different products teams more on leader level, I think that was something that really was kind of important to do and I definitely try to do it on a daily basis.”

At Babbel, Patrycja was onboarded with a product team as a front-end engineer for over a month to understand the issues the team was trying to solve and how they used the design system. She identified areas of improvement by honing in on the ways the product team circumvented the design system. This hands-on experience guided her prioritization of Babbel’s design system to drive more value for stakeholders.

Developing these relationships and building these feedback loops make it easier to find and create efficiencies for product teams and create a business case for design systems.

5. Patience!

Design systems, especially when it’s a passion project, is a practice in patience. Building trust is essential which requires an upfront investment of your time to build a strong foundation for your design system to succeed. Trust is earned and cultivated over long periods of time.

“I think I've learned to be more patient with certain topics, of course, to some extent because it is hard, and I understand that it might be ups and downs when it comes to frustration and disappointment, but I also learned a lot like how to build connections with different people and build a community inside the organization.”

Whether you’re trying to create win/win opportunities, find your community, be present and over-communicate, or develop relationships across your organization, they all require patience. Your patience will lead to a strong community built around your design system that will help drive its adoption, growth, and value creation for teams.

“More and more people are actually seeing the value of the design system or shared or reused resources that design system provides.”

If you’re currently working on a design system as a side gig, we hope Patrycja’s experiences and insights help you better navigate this journey. For more insights and guides on how to grow your design system, check out the rest of the Supernova blog.

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