Answering Your Questions About Design Systems

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Great designs are the product of hard work, ingenuity, innovation and a significant investment of time and energy. The problem is, no business has unlimited stores of these attributes and resources.

In order to conserve some of that precious time and energy, and in order to keep those creative sparks from burning out too soon, increasing numbers of businesses are relying on design systems.

But what exactly is a design system, and why does your business need one? We’ll be taking a look at these questions, as well as dispelling some of the myths that surround this crucial tool.

What is a design system?

The term “design system” simply refers to a set of various design elements that can be used again and again. They are stored in different categories and can be applied on a drag-and-drop basis or switched out or mixed and matched as and when required.

If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. If it sounds like a user-friendly asset that is going to save you an awful lot of time and money, that’s because it’s that too.

Let’s think about this in terms of something simple yet specific — like a toy car. The toy car has a chassis, bodywork, wheels, paintwork, etc., and you might have several different options in each category.

You can then mix and match the options from the relevant categories to create new iterations of the toy.

Along with these components, there are design templates and elements from each component that you can use to create completely new options. These options can then be added to the design system and used to create other toys in the future.

This is a basic example, but you can see how this model can be applied to all kinds of design projects, from straight-up websites through to booking apps, games and social media platforms.

What are the advantages of a design system?

If you make a closet for your bedroom and end up with some of the wood and screws left over, you wouldn’t just throw them out — you would keep them for use on your next project. Despite the obvious commonsense benefits of a design system, many business owners are still reluctant to invest in one.

This is a shame because it means they are missing out on a whole lot of good stuff.

  • Business scalability

With a design system in place, you have a handy reference point that you can use to view all the different components that make up the design of a product. Without this reference point, what do you do when the demand for your product increases? The answer is: it becomes difficult to respond with agility and to scale up production. In this sense, the design system becomes an important scalability asset.

  • Brand identity

Your brand is made up of many different elements that customers come to associate with your organization. This means that each and every detail must be considered whenever you are crafting a new product, whether it’s a mobile app, an email template, a 3D printable or even letterhead for your office communications. With a design system, you know exactly which element to put where ensuring consistency.

  • Team productivity

This is a straightforward advantage — if your designers have access to a library of design elements, along with best practices and guidelines for use, are they going to become more or less productive? Of course, they are going to become more productive, which means they can focus their creative talents on more innovative projects.

  • Smoother handovers

Holding a fleet of meetings between each stage of the design process, or having to go back to fix mistakes that weren’t spotted earlier on, makes life seriously difficult. The design system makes sure that everyone is on the same page each and every step of the way, ironing out any costly errors.

  • Long-term sustainability

If your best designs are all in the head — or, more likely, the hard drive — of your key designer, what happens when he or she leaves your company? This is an extreme example, but it does demonstrate how difficult it can be to onboard new personnel to your design team without a codified set of rules and best practices in place.

Design system myths debunked

Unfortunately, there are still many myths surrounding design systems, so let’s put these to bed once and for all:

MYTH: A design system is basically just a style guide.

FACT: A design system is so much more than a style guide. It works like a Custom Style Sheet, or CSS, into which design teams can place pre-crafted inputs. A well-planned design sheet then builds upon this basic functionality, making for a design sequence that can be easily repeated, refined, scaled up and modified whenever required.

MYTH: A design system reduces the creativity of the design team, as it teaches them only to think inside the box.

FACT: Design systems do not replace the efforts of design teams. Instead, they support these efforts. Rather than having to design something new from scratch each time modifications are required, the team can use a pre-determined set of processes based on previous actions and existing design elements. This gives design teams the time to push their creativity to the max, creating new and exciting innovations for future products.

MYTH: Design systems are rigid and inflexible, only permitting actions within a very specific set of parameters.

FACT: Design systems are, in fact, evolving all the time. Whenever your design team needs to come up with something new, the elements and processes used are added to the system’s library. This helps the design system grow organically so it always reflects the design identity and objectives of your organization.

Hopefully, this has given you some insight into what makes a design system so crucial for modern businesses. The landscape of digital design is accelerating, and without the right tools and support in place, it’s all too easy to get left behind. Design systems help to ensure that your organization stays on the front foot.