A Guide to Design Systems (With Examples)
A well-implemented design system can have a significant positive effect on the achievement of business objectives, the efficiency of operations, and the ability to mold the brand experience for both consumers and employees.
As technology evolves and expands, so does the complexity of UI and the speed at which features need to be delivered. To manage the evolving complexity and scale of their digital products, businesses have to be able to standardize their processes and documentation to maintain high levels of consistency across their products and product features. That’s where design systems come in.
What Are Design Systems?
At the core of UI rests the visual design language. A visual design language defines the way the patterns and components of a digital product look, feel, and behave. Visual design language lays the foundation upon which a design system is built. It establishes the User Experience that the larger Design System is built to deliver.
A design system is a living, organic entity that organizes components, patterns, and assets into a library of reusable UI elements and experience patterns. It's used by designers to implement the visual design language of their company's products or services in a consistent manner.
Design Systems are integral to the design process and serve as a resource for a digital product's entire UI. They are a library that contains all the components, patterns, and interactions needed to build an entire product or platform. They provide a standardized set of guidelines and interaction patterns that allow developers to have a consistent UI across the entire product and its iterations. This helps to preserve brand experience, establish consistent experience patterns, get features built faster, and give product teams an idea of how a feature should look and feel.
In a nutshell, a design system often consists of design principles, a pattern library, a UI component library, and process guidelines — alongside accessibility elements — that create a consistent brand experience across products. To see an excellent example of what we're talking about, check out Dell Technologies' design system here.
The Importance of Design Systems
Design systems are like a product team's cheat sheet, ensuring that all features of a product maintain the same level of design quality. Not only do they empower designers with a centralized framework to maintain consistency, and provide the tools they need to ship quality features faster. They also provide a single source of truth for the company.
By centralizing components, assets, a code repository, and guidelines, design systems facilitate more cohesive teamwork. Teams are able to replicate designs quickly by utilizing readymade UI assets without the risk of inconsistencies within the product's design. All of this allows for design to be done at scale. It’s also critical for getting vendors up to speed and getting the most out of agency engagements.
The Benefits of Using Design Systems
Creating Consistent Designs
There's a reason why we can pick up a new Apple product and immediately know how to navigate it. They have an all-encompassing design system applied across all of their products – whether it's an OS, their website, or physical product. If we’ve owned an Apple product in the past, we know the basic ropes.
Using a design system allows us to create predictability and cohesiveness across the product when different teams are involved. It saves time and effort as every unique design can be recycled for new product iterations.
The combination of patterns and design tokens in a centralized design system makes updating products easier. When a dependency is updated, all related products can be updated automatically, saving time and effort for the responsible teams.
Improving the Productivity of Design Teams
Consistently delivering quality experiences can be a determining factor in users choosing one product over another. The faster the development cycle goes, the more work can be done by a smaller team, and the more frequently new versions can be pushed.
Only design tokens and components from the design system are used in the product teams' work. Having a design system that minimizes deviation while maintaining flexibility frees up designers to tackle more substantial issues rather than minor ones like basic aesthetic requirements. For programmers, this means less work when bringing designs to life in code. Since most of the product's UI was assembled from premade parts, developers' efforts can be directed toward the core functionality of the product's system and the infrequent instances where a bespoke UI is required. Because the foundational decisions are already out of the way, designers can focus on meeting needs and engineers can focus on delivering more of that value to the customers in the product.
Basic Steps to Building a Design System
Now that we understand why a design system is key to not only a great UI but also a great UX (leading to a great product overall!), let's talk about how we build them.
Discovery (Audit Existing Products)
During the discovery phase, designers will audit the existing product, run a competitive analysis of other design systems in the space, and conduct or synthesize research around user needs and pain points.
If it hasn’t been done already, the team will create a catalog of every existing reusable component from any company product. Each pattern, color, font, and icon – basically, every single front-end asset – must be indexed from every page or screen and organized according to its use.
Once this bird's eye view has been built, searching for specific components or elements becomes a lot faster. Teams should be able to see inconsistencies and gaps. They’ll begin to choose what elements need to be standardized.
Define the Design Language
The next step in building a design system is to establish the product's design language. Design teams will often run a series of exercises like moodboarding or stylescaping to zero in on the design language of a product. The results of this work then gets translated into the core components of the design system.
Guidelines for visual elements like color schemes, icons, images, and typefaces are all part of the visual design language. All of these components come together to form a brand's aesthetic, which in turn evokes the desired reaction from the user. Gathering these key decisions, rules, and principles within the design system is important to be able to communicate them to external teams and relevant stakeholders.
Once the Visual Design Language direction is solidified, feedback is gathered from stakeholders and the language is applied to select screens in order to validate it with users.
Build the Component Library
With the concepts validated on core screens, it’s time to start creating a component library. This section of the design system serves as a visual encyclopedia of every reusable component that has been collected during the audit.
The core aspects of a component library are:
Color palette. Since colors are present in all design elements, they have the potential to affect every part of a design system. This is why it's important to first develop and settle on a color palette, including base colors and their names and a method for constructing secondary and tertiary colors to compliment them.
Typography. The second most important aspect of visual design is typography. This relates to all the fonts and typefaces that are used throughout the product's design, alongside the relative sizes. Remember that font sizes can affect other UI aspects, so ensure that these are tested during this stage.
Icons. Icons can be seen as the glue of a product, communicating an experience and aiding functionality. They can overcome language barriers and influence user behavior. The use of icons in a design system is also key for making it clear for users when a component is actionable or can be interacted with.
Grid & Spacing Grids have been around since the earliest days of print. Grids and spacing guidelines ensure that content can be arranged in structured positions and create more consistent and appealing UIs.
In addition to these core aspects, there are many other specifications including corner radii, line weight, component sizing patterns, shadow systems and more. These specifications all live within different component containers. For instance navigation bars, drawers, modals, popovers and cards can all contain different libraries.
Create Design Usage Guidelines
A design system will remain incomplete if it doesn't feature clear rules and guidelines on how and when to use specific design elements. Once the team has collected all the elements relating to a product's design, it’s important to note how the design team can best implement and maintain each piece of the puzzle.
There should also be a set of guidelines on how to use the design system itself. Be sure to detail instructions on how team members can contribute to the system or report issues within it. Remember to add how you intend to ensure uniformity between the code used in design and that used in production. Finally, explain how the relevant teams should deal with any lingering maintenance problems.
Create the Design System
Once you've completed the previous five steps, the product design system is ready to be completed. This is where you'll need to organize the collected and defined patterns into the design system according to an architecture that best suits the company.
Normally, patterns are divided into components, elements, and modules that should be a reflection of the product's front-end code. The architecture needs to be of a standard, and the language used is understood by everyone on both the design team and the product team.
Once this step is done, you can now implement the design system across the relevant product teams.
1) create design asset libraries for designers to build with
2) help support the engineering team as they build/update each component
3) support the neg team as they document the engineering side of the Design System as reusable component libraries.
4) iterate on system
Iterate Upon the Design System
The thing about design systems is that they’re never really done. Continuous iteration is key to ensuring that the UX is consistent. Each aspect of a UI that is iterated should have the relevant aspect of the design system updated to reflect the changes after rigorous testing.
A design system is a living thing that will continue to grow and change with business and user needs. The patterns you use for your products should either accurately portray the product's current condition or provide a glimpse into its future iterations. The design system should reflect the ever-changing nature of the products it creates.
A design system is the structure of a product's UI and includes the style, patterns, and behaviors that can be easily replicated. It should always be developing, as it needs to reflect changes in the product's design or even hint at what could be changed in its future iterations.
Funsize is a digital product design studio that helps inspiring product teams, small and large, uncover opportunities, bring new products to market, evolve digital products and services, and explore the future.
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