Do you need a Design System?

Micro porcelain vases - Photo credit: Matteo Pescarin.

In the space of web design, the words "Design System" have started appearing more and more often in our feeds and tech news.

For those that were in the design space, this is nothing new, but the way we started considering this as an applied methodology, a transforming one even, is something that made a few heads turn, and it’s somewhat evident when it comes from large corporations. And now many are asking themselves if they actually need one.

A lot of companies are looking at design systems as a way to be aligned with new trends, a way to solve some of the inconsistency problems they have been accumulating over time. Many seem to have failed more or less miserably. Others have become somehow the inspiration for us nowadays.

I need to backtrack a bit in time to explain why this is so difficult, or in other words, why the initial question “Do you need a design system?” has no immediate answer, why there is no “20 seconds elevated pitch” to sell a design system.

The cake is a lie

I’ve worked in different projects and companies in the last five years where I’ve actively participated, as a developer and a manager, to achieve a design system, either by creating a pattern library or by collating efforts from different parts of the business with the intent of producing something of the likes.

The more I worked on these projects, and the more I talked with other friends and colleagues struggling in a similar situation, the more I realised that there was something more to it. It felt like working in quicksands. We did one step forward and three backwards.

Since I’ve joined Buildit @ Wipro Digital, I’ve finally started looking on how to create design systems, not the actual design system, but what makes it possible, as a way to transform the way companies operate.

Together with my dear colleagues Marcos Peebles and James Nash, who shared the same struggles in the past, we’ve started codifying what can be thought of as a way to implement, gradually, perhaps autonomously, this change. The more we started looking at the problem, the more we started realising that the Holy Grail doesn’t exist.

As in the myth of the Holy Grail, it can be seen as a metaphor for a way of being, of achieving it. The Holy Grail was within ourselves since the beginning. As many others have said before me,

It’s not the success you should be interested in, but the journey to achieve it.

The same goes for design systems.

So if you’re asking yourself how to create a design system, you’re asking yourself the wrong question; it should be instead:

What is a Design System allowing me to do?

Because a design system is enabled by different factors, and I can only but quote Mark Boulton here, when he describes in his brilliant article “Design systems in difficult places” the way to measure the success of a design system:

  • The design system becomes how design is talked about in an organisation. It becomes a shared vocabulary. And not just by other designers, but by management and all levels of an organisation.
  • The quality of design (and editorial and technical) becomes self-policing. It’s no longer the responsibility of just one person or team, but ownership becomes distributed. People start to care.
  • Design and KPIs. Clear lines get drawn between good design and measurable outcomes.
  • Lagging and Leading indicators become more apparent. So you can better predict how those indicators affect quality, brand, product roadmap. In this case, design can help indicate the health of an organisation.

Bringing order into chaos

If you were to stop me and ask me to convince you to have a design system, I would probably suggest that you might not need one. Not because you don’t need one, but because you might be way behind all of this, there is still too much to understand.

This is a bespoke journey we’re crafting for your own needs, where we look at what’s going on from top-down and bottom-up and work together with you to understand what’s the best way to achieve it. It might take months or even years, without any doubts. We’re here not to give you the easy and immediate answer, let alone the finished product. This is the fallacy of our society, and I would be lying to you.

We have started applying the first step of this radical transformation, which comes with sharing our experiences, what we started calling the Digital Burst. For as much silly its name sounds, it just brings everybody together and tries to give you a hint of what’s going on, of what’s possible, of what’s not working.

The results we’ve seen so far, by giving this talk and workshop to our colleagues and graduates alike was a series of “a-ha!” moments, and a better understanding of the domain we were talking about.

From here we started bringing order into chaos.

From here we started answering if you need a design system.

This post first appeared on Prototypr.