-The Human side of design

The liberation of design systems

The liberation of design systems

Dec 12, 2023

A design system, by definition, is a set of connected patterns and best practices and a well-organized way of listing the above to create an established digital experience. 

We, as product designers, spend an enormous amount of time crafting our design system. We carefully plan every aspect and scenario when our design product meets the users. A well-designed design system contains detailed information about our brand, foundations, the content we create, the voice and tone we use, and all our components and patterns. It also contains our manifesto, who we are, and our beliefs. We need to put considerable effort into doing this because, in the digital world, the success of the product we create relies heavily on its design, user interface, and user experience. 

Many other important aspects will define whether the product will be an overall success or a colossal failure, and their aspect could be organized to be a part of a design system. We still tend to think about a design system as a set of design values that are important for the design team and some of the front-end engineers of a product, but that is all. Design systems usually stand siloed within the organization and seem like some privileged “secret designer code” that only designers and engineers can read. It is high time for us designers to change this and work on liberating our design systems. 

The creators of Fluent Design System (Microsoft) have already started to work on making design systems relevant for everyone with their purpose of Incorporating design principles into all our design activities: in all-hands meetings, design reviews, design handbooks, and even onboarding. They started to implement a design system that ensures the quality of products and projects outside the work of design and engineering.

The more people within an organization find a Design System relevant and beneficial, the more buy-in the system gets. An ideal design system would benefit even an accountant at a big company rather than just providing value for a product designer. It would be a well-defined and established recommendation of standards that are easy to follow for people outside the technical team.

Most companies still consider design systems as tokens and components that live inside a Figma file or a React Storybook; for me, this is hardly even more than just a UI kit. They need to remember that a mature design system is not only digital or visual. Some experiences live outside of a screen. Sounds, scents, and physical experiences should be standardized and defined by design. I wrote about the importance of this earlier. All the features associated with a product define the user experience. 

Although everything that supplies the user experience is connected, we still cover and try to influence a small segment of things by creating and working on our design system. The final maturity stage of a design system could be a complex and comprehensive system that is useful and guides everyone within an organization. 

How many companies have a perfectly shaped Design System from a digital and visual perspective? Still, they fail so badly in other areas as there is no standardization, at least not something designers made. Overall best-practice guidance can be valuable and would mean a huge step forward for designers within an organization. This way, we not only get a seat at the table, but we can also help serve the food that is prepared by our standards. 

Consistent experiences

A mature design system should be an ecosystem of assets and tools, so people can work together to create harmony across products and platforms within every part of an organization. By every aspect of an organization, I mean even for people who work at the company. 

Most design systems are user-facing only. It is time to look forward and think about how we can create not only consistent customer experiences but consistent experiences for all within an organization.  

In an article I wrote for UX Collective, where I talk about possible extensions of our Design Systems. Employee experience is one critical area. A vital aspect that will define whether the product will be an overall success or a colossal failure is our experience as employees who work on the product and try to create the best outcome possible. The “great resignation” just made it crucial to care about employees. As an employer, companies should do the same and have the same consistency when interacting with their employees that they strive for with their customers. However, employee experience is at least as necessary as the user's experience. We hardly ever do anything about it as designers.

Have you ever worked at a company where the design system was perfectly shaped, but the internal communication went through loose and often lost random Google Doc links and hallway conversations without any sign of a designed structure or plan? If you have, you understand the context. If employee experience is considered, it usually doesn’t go as far as designing employees' work processes to navigate their everyday work. Still, employee experience usually stays in the hands of HR and annual engagement surveys to analyze employee benefits and social events, which usually only covers the surface. 

Employee experience is unfortunately not at the center of the focus at most places. Still, I want to be clear that I’m not just talking about employee experience here. A design system is a product for building better products, so we must ensure that this product helps everyone within the organization raise standards.  While having a public design system was a significant first step, an ideal future state of liberalized design systems is when you ask anyone within an organization–at least the office workers–what the company’s design system is about. They will be familiar with what it is and can list at least some things that helped.

Every designer should think about areas where a designer's touch could help the organization be more effective, including designing meetings or organizing a first-day experience for new employees. I’m sure it will not be hard to find these areas and the people dealing with them, because most departments will be happy if you offer them your help.

Don't miss it.

Buy the book