Your Comprehensive Guide to Design Systems

AirBnb, Uber and IBM are a few of the major companies that have adopted unique design systems to great effect. Simply put, the design system (DS) is a collection of discrete components that can be recombined in a large number of ways.

The Design System: An Innovative Way To Leverage An Old Idea

Naturally, no DS is static or set in stone.

Each DS includes a comprehensive set of design standards. This allows you to safely add new building blocks to the system as you need them. Designing products using standardized parts is nothing new. After all, automobile designers discovered this philosophy of design generations ago. However, this dichotomy is fairly new to digital design. Most digital designers continue to follow an artisanal model. Arguably, designers can achieve more with a system that standardizes output without stifling creativity.

Design Systems and Pattern Libraries

It’s important to know the difference between a true design system and a pattern library (PL) There’s nothing innovative or special about the pattern library, a reconfigurable collection of assets. The DS takes the PL and turns it into something more. Pattern libraries have long been a mainstay in user interface (UI) design. A true DS is more than just an assortment of building blocks. The DS also comes with a detailed, well-reasoned set of standards. Quality documentation is what elevates the PL to a design system.

The Importance of Quality Documentation

Your DS needs documentation that is more than a list of tips for developers. This documentation must lay out a cohesive vision for all future products. If your documentation is written properly, every future product will represent the conceptual vision of your brand. With this overarching vision, your product line will stay cohesive even as specific DS components change. As society becomes more focused on technology, devices and browsers multiply at an amazing rate. In this environment, having an interface DS is more important than ever. If a mobile user doesn’t feel at home when using the desktop version of your product, this can harm the user experience.

The Essential Steps of Building Your Design System

Before you start building your system, you’d do well to invest in well-regarded design system software. Crucial elements for any DS include standardized colors and typography. Most design systems use exactly two fonts. You’ll also need standards for sizing and spacing. Establish guidelines for illustrations, icons and all other imagery associated with your brand. Next, you’ll create a pattern library that is in harmony with the standards you’ve established. Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch when building your UI. You can reuse a lot of the design components you’ve already got. Put together all of your buttons, forms, modals and images. Then you can review each item and discard any component that doesn’t fit your system.

With a well-considered design system, your developers can innovate while staying true to your branding. Far from restricting creativity, a good DS channels your company’s creativity into strategic pathways.