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2 Nov, 2020

What is a Design System?

More specifically than, “a single source of truth.”

For years, one of the biggest weaknesses of many brands has been unifying the way a product “feels” from inception to conception. And that’s usually the result of team members living out the “Blind Men and the Elephant” story — with each department seeing things differently.

While it may not be particularly dramatic, departmental misunderstandings do happen and disrupt production.

Many brands waste time on unnecessary back and forth communication between design teams, product development teams, marketing, and all other stakeholders when developing a product. The result can be chaotic, as each department tries to implement their own solution to a problem they see in the product.

This could lead to a finished product that feels incoherent to the end user.

For savvy companies, the solution is simple — a single source of truth makes clear to everyone what they should do, why they should do it, and how to do it.

And that’s exactly what a design system is — well, in a nutshell.

What is a Design System?

Ask a hundred different people what a design system is and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers. This is usually due to the fact that a design system serves different purposes for different organizations.

In its simplest form, a design system is a process built and maintained by a brand to help them align internal teams, develop superior user experiences, and strengthen their brand. It encompasses all of the reusable components (interactive building blocks used to create a user interface) that can be used to build different products — and it still maintains the standards you’re used to.

A design system is a living system — always evolving to keep pace with developments in:

  • The product
  • Tools and technologies used in the product development process
  • What the end-user wants

A design system is more than just a style guide, pattern library, or snippets of code kept to be reused when needed. It is a dynamic system designed to ensure consistency across different products.

Benefits of a Design System

Selling the idea of a design system can be a challenge due to the costs associated with maintaining it. Add to that the possible lack of universal adoption and it can be seen as a waste of time and resources. However, it does add a lot of value to product development and the brand as a whole by offering benefits such as:

Speed of Execution

One of the biggest advantages of design systems is that they help decrease time to market. Two key factors help achieve this efficiency:

  • Common source of truth. Having a common source of truth eliminates most of the back and forth communication that results in bottlenecks. As a result, the whole team knows exactly what to and how to do it.
  • Common production elements. Having a well-structured library of design components and a system that governs how to use them effectively reduces the time spent on technical tasks.

Getting products ready for market quickly without sacrificing quality is essential to every company, ergo so is a design system.

Consistent Product Quality

Thanks to design systems’ agreed-upon set of standards, the quality of products designed and developed becomes more consistent over time, resulting in:

  • Higher product value. When customers know that they can depend on you to produce quality products consistently, users value your product more.
  • Better user experiences. Using the same components for your products gives them the same feel across different iterations. As a result, interaction with your product becomes intuitive.

Consistent product quality is one of the best ways to grow a tribe of loyal customers.

Easy-to-Manage Design Assets

From clean code to easy-to-use UI pattern libraries and more, having a design system makes it easy to manage all of your important design assets. Additionally, it helps reduce design debt and makes it easier to keep your assets up to date.

Increased Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing Across Teams

When all stakeholders have access to the system, it becomes much easier for everyone to be on the same page. Easy collaboration and knowledge sharing allows people to come up with better design solutions and a more efficient design process, leading to a much-improved final product. A design system also makes it easier to onboard new team members.

But one of the biggest advantages of a design system when it comes to team collaboration is that it makes the designer-developer handoff more seamless. Of course, eliminating bottlenecks in this crucial product development stage is essential to your product’s success.

Key Elements Every Design System Should Have (Design System Best Practices)

Now that you know what a design system is and its importance in your organization, how do you build one? While a design system is not a one-size-fits-all solution, there are some critical components every design system should contain.

Mission, Vision, and Goals

One of the most essential elements to include in your design system is a clear mission and vision statement as well as your business goals. This will ensure that everyone involved is looking in the same direction.

Brand Identity System

A brand identity system is another critical component that every design system should have. Simply put, it’s a collection of different elements that work together to create unified and consistent brand assets that effectively communicate the brand’s value to its target audience. Here are some elements you can include in your brand identity system:

Your Visual Design Language

Your visual design language is the core of your brand identity system. It contains every visual component that is used to create your product. Examples include (but are not limited to):

  • Colors
  • Fonts
  • Shapes
  • Icons
  • Images
  • Animations

Brand Voice and Tone

This part of your brand identity system focuses on the language and tone you want to be associated with your brand. 

A brand identity system helps ensure that a brand’s voice, tone, and visual elements are uniform across platforms.

A Pattern Library

Your pattern library forms the heart of your design system. It contains both the components that make up the user interface of your product and the experience your product delivers to users. It includes elements such as:

  • Input Controls. Examples include checkboxes, radio buttons, dropdown lists, list boxes, buttons, toggles, text fields, date fields, etc
  • Navigational Components. These include elements like breadcrumbs, sliders, search fields, pagination, sliders, tags, icons
  • Informational Components. Informational UI components can include tooltips, icons, progress bar, notifications, message boxes, modal windows
  • Containers. Containers are UI elements designed to contain page elements to a reasonable maximum width based on the size of a user’s screen.

The functional behavior of your UI elements must be specified in order to ensure that they provide a consistent experience across products.

Documentation

Documentation is crucial to bringing together all the pieces of your design system. Document the standards, best practices, protocols, and everything else your organization needs to function like a well-oiled machine.

10 Examples of Design Systems and the Problems Each Seeks to Solve

Need some examples to inspire your own design system? Here are 10 examples from different industries from which you can draw inspiration:

No 2 design systems are exactly the same. While you can draw inspiration from these, be flexible and incorporate only what is necessary.

What is a Design System? It’s the Key to Efficient Product Design and Development

Design systems have fast evolved from being a second thought for product teams to a critical map that guides design teams in every industry. If you haven’t built up yours yet, now is the time to start. It will definitely save you time and money as well as improve your efficiency and product quality. Remember, a design system helps you:

  • Decrease your time to market
  • Consistently build great products
  • Manage your digital assets effectively
  • Improves collaboration and knowledge sharing between teams

As a result, having one will definitely save you time and money as well as improve your efficiency and product quality. So yes, a design system is an asset every product development team needs.

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