What Are Design Tokens? And Why Should You Use Them

As a core part of design systems, we look into what design tokens are and why you should be using them.

When it comes to your brand, consistency matters. A brand that shows up consistently builds trust and connection with users, much like consistency in any relationship creates trust over time. This consistency manifests in various ways, from the behavior of a log-in experience to the tone of voice used in documentation content, to the colors and typography on your website and within your product.

The importance of consistency

When you think about it, there are millions of tiny opportunities for trust between a user and a brand. Every word, color, button, and interaction adds up to countless user experiences. However, as companies scale and more people work on creating these experiences, the chances of developing inconsistencies increase. Communication silos can develop, leading to tiny inconsistencies that grow over time.

Role of design systems in maintaining consistency

To ensure consistency, brands and the teams that create and maintain them—designers, developers, marketers, product professionals, and more—turn to design systems. These systems are vast libraries of guidelines and elements used across every part of a brand’s experience. Within these design systems are design tokens, which we will define and discuss in this article.

Origin of design tokens

Design tokens as a concept originated at Salesforce, specifically from Jina Anne, a former designer there who now consults widely across the design community advocating for the use of design systems. Jina and her team developed a process by which all the repeatable experiences and elements across Salesforce’s massive brand experience were turned into discrete chunks—tokens—that included both the visual and code details for those elements. These tokens were maintained regularly and used across teams to ensure a consistent brand experience. For more about the origins, see our article on Design System Examples.

Definition of design tokens

Design tokens are the atomic elements of design within a brand. They represent a named value of an agreed-upon entity that both designers and developers can use to create consistent experiences. Design tokens are a group decision about the pairing of visual properties and the code that creates them, packaged in a way that is usable across all platforms.

Platform-agnostic nature of design tokens

An important element of what makes design tokens useful and practical for teams is their platform-agnostic nature. They exist as a common language usable across all platforms and frameworks, regardless of a team member’s role. Design tokens use a naming convention that is consistent across teams, making them easy to implement and maintain. Learn more about platform-agnostic design systems in our article on Navigating the Future of Design Tokens.

Examples of design tokens

Tokens can store everything from color to dimensions, spacing, and padding to animation times and interaction rules. For example, a team’s primary button hover color might be #FFFFFF. The design token for this would be color.primary.background.button.hover = #FFFFFF.

Using design tokens

For design tokens to be effective, universal buy-in across teams is essential. Teams need to agree on the framework for developing and maintaining tokens, what should be included within each token, and a consistent naming convention. Additionally, teams must use a consistent process and storage method for maintaining tokens.

Benefits of design tokens

While it may seem like a lot to maintain, design tokens and the design systems they are part of actually prevent massive amounts of reactive back-work. This proactive approach helps teams avoid the frustration that accompanies developing inconsistent experiences, which can proliferate like a virus across a brand. For more insights into the benefits, read our guide on How to Manage Your Design Tokens.

Strategic value and insights from the State of Design Tokens Report

Incorporating design tokens into your design system is not just about maintaining consistency; it’s a strategic move that offers widespread benefits. Our recent State of Design Tokens Report highlights how leading companies are leveraging design tokens to enhance collaboration and productivity, ensure consistency, and scale their design operations effectively. Embracing these tokens can lead to significant improvements in both the efficiency and quality of your team's output, driving better business outcomes and fostering a more cohesive brand experience. Discover more about building an effective design system in our article How to Build a Business Case for Your Design System.

FAQs

What are design tokens?
Design tokens are the atomic elements of design within a brand, representing a named value of an agreed-upon entity used to create consistent experiences across platforms.

How do design tokens ensure consistency?
They provide a common language and naming convention that can be used across all platforms and frameworks, ensuring that design elements remain consistent.

What are some examples of design tokens?
Examples include storing color values, dimensions, spacing, padding, animation times, and interaction rules, such as color.primary.background.button.hover = #FFFFFF.

Why is universal buy-in important for design tokens?
Without universal buy-in, teams may not adhere to the tokens, leading to inconsistencies. Agreement on frameworks, processes, and storage methods is essential.

What is the platform-agnostic nature of design tokens?
Design tokens are platform-agnostic, meaning they can be used across all platforms and frameworks, providing a consistent design language for teams.

How do design tokens benefit teams?
They prevent reactive back-work and frustration from developing inconsistent experiences, ensuring a more efficient and cohesive brand experience.

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