Why are Design Systems so Important?

Originally posted on Medium on Jan 22, 2018

Design systems are all the rage in 2018, with companies like Shopify creating design systems and hundreds of other organizations both big and small doing the same.

Honestly, as a junior designer I wasn’t a 100% sure what a design system was, sure I’d read a couple of articles here and there about new design systems. But I couldn’t quite understand how a design system would revolutionize the workflows of designers and developers.

What I kept seeing were these screenshots of systems like Shopify’s Polaris, or Salesforce’s Lightning and to a designer fresh in the field they all just kind of looked like hyped up style guides where designers could pull pieces from.

I even had the amazing opportunity to attend a UXPA Toronto event where some brilliant speakers discussed how their organizations were using design systems.

But, for most of the presentations, I was pretty stumped as to why anyone would put so much work into a style guide.

I did some digging and eventually came to realize the value of having a well maintained, living library that the entire organization could depend upon.

Reduce Your Design Debt

I never understood what design debt was, since to me it didn’t seem as though elements that you designed would decay over time like objects in the real world.

But design debt is real, and is a real problem as organizations scale. New features get added, old features become outdated and, standards can change.

Since design systems are constantly being maintained and updated, either through a solitary, centralized team or federalized model, they can grow with the products they are being built to support.

Eliminate Inconsistencies

Typically creating a design system begins with an audit of all the visual components within the product which helps accomplish a number of things.

One of the most obvious benefits is that an audit can show you where the biggest inconsistencies within your designs are. It also helps teams see the most important and most commonly used elements and components of the product.

An audit can also reveal the weaknesses of the existing visual system, which can be communicated to the business at large, and help gain support for moving forward with a unified system.

Speed Up Your Process

As with anything we design, it needs to serve the user. In this case, the users aren’t necessarily the people buying your product (although a design system will help them too), but the people within the organization.

Creating a unified design system will speed up the design process while also helping build bridges amongst teams. Good design is a language, and when everyone is speaking the same language, that’s when things get done.

When the entire organization is on the same page, teams can move faster, communicate better and ultimately increase the speed at which products are updated and released.

Make Your Customers’ Lives Easier

Now how does better internal communication help the external customer?

By creating a consistent experience for the customer, we can reduce the cognitive load created when switching from a mobile app experience to a desktop browser experience.

Imagine if you were looking at Google Calendar on your phone, then a couple minutes later checked it on your browser. If they look and behave differently you’d probably be a little confused and maybe even a little frustrated.

*Google actually did recently redesign the browser version of their calendar to better align with their brand and mobile application. Thankfully it no longer looks like something that belongs on my Dad’s palm pilot.

By creating a consistent language that our internal and external users can understand we can create better experiences for the people who are using our products.

Resources

I still have a lot to learn about design systems, and there were a couple of places I turned to better understand this emerging trend of design systems and hopefully they can help you as well.

One of the best methods I’ve found to get a better understanding of design systems is to actually explore some.

Note, I am not affiliated with any of these companies, just thought they did a great job at helping me understand things a little better.

Design Better Co. Design Systems Handbook

Brad Frost and Atomic Design

Airbnb Design Language System Series

Shopify Polaris

Salesforce Lightning

Arjun Narayanan