How to Build Design Systems to Scale

Posted 3 weeks ago by Anthony Miller

In our ever-growing tech world, we need the design to scale as fast as other aspects of that world. But design doesn’t scale easily since it’s a mixture of art and science, form and content. So how to achieve this?

Design Systems can be the answer.

Let’s dive deeper into this and see what they are and how they can help scale design.

Anyone who has ever played with Lego can understand what a design system is. It’s basically a Lego-like method+process that product teams need to make design and development more consistent. In fact, a lot of folks have already come to the idea that they need design systems. 69% of enterprise companies either use a design system or are currently working on one.

The core benefit of design systems is that they help establish consistency between the design and development processes and eliminate repetitive work. In a design system, everything starting with design patterns and ending with code references for each little bit of design are being documented. As a result, design and development go hand in hand.

If this still sounds unfamiliar to you and you still cannot grasp the idea of design systems, just take a look at Google, Spotify, Atlassian or any other big brand. They have got their very own design systems.

When Spotify’s Design Director Stanley Wood joined the design team in 2012, he was shocked at the lack of consistency between Spotify’s products and features from the design perspective. And since a redesign didn’t solve the problem, he decided to find a better solution. He knew that a team of distributed designers that is spread across different time zones should have a chance to work together to create a coherent experience.

So, in 2014 GLUE (a Global Language for a Unified Experience) came into life as Spotify’s Design Language System. It is available throughout the company and it has helped align design across all design teams within the company.

Version 1 of Spotify’s Guidelines | Stanley Wood

Google’s Material Design is another successful design system. Note that it evolved over the last few years to become what it is today. And it’s still evolving. Do you remember how in 2011, Gmail was redesigned with flatter buttons? Then in 2012, Google Now introduced layered “cards.” These elements are now all formalized under Material design but those design upgrades back then were a part of a larger, very purposeful and deliberate process.

What has been most impressive is Google’s ambition to unify the design across a set of varied products. Hence, Material Design can serve as proof that design is POSSIBLE to scale.

Image source

But how?

Well, there are a few steps you would want to take to be able to build a design system to scale. Here you go:

Check if you really need a design system

There is always the possibility that you might be carried away by the trends, the hype. A lot of us often start looking for solutions for non-existent problems. Yes, this does happen. But then, it turns out that we have not checked the problem yet. So, if a simple redesign will work for you, then there is most probably no need for coming up with a design system.

The idea is that you should really do your homework and see if your company needs it or not. Building a design system or outsourcing it to a design and development company will take time and money. Estimate your needs properly before allocating resources to building a design system.

Make sure your people know what to expect

Not everyone understands the value that design systems provide. So, your responsibility will be to teach your team what a design system is and how it can help make work easier. Be the influencer, the trend-maker in your company. Call it whatever you want.

If you have decided to build a design system, the company is going to pay for it. So you might want to make sure all the stakeholders are positive about the idea. With this in mind, maybe it’s worth involving someone from your team who has done this before or has helped someone earlier to build a design system? Think about it!

Develop a game plan

Remember the famous quote? “By failing to plan, you are planning to fail.” It seems obvious that you need a game plan but a lot of people don’t plan the work in advance and then they get into trouble due to unexpected circumstance or force majeure. Of course, you cannot foresee a force majeure but you can at least have plan B if it happens.

So, basically, the idea is that you need to define your mission or goal or a set of values and go for them. Each company has got its own industry-specific challenges, so take your time to evaluate the situation, explore the opportunities, the pain points for your team and customer in order to build the right system for your needs. And most importantly, focus on creating a design system that is consistent and scalable.

Review and adopt best practices

Don’t start from scratch, it might take too much time and resources. Review existing design systems and see which one is closer to your vision. Many companies have made their design systems publicly available. So, why not take a look at them?

Conduct a UX/UI audit

You are conducting a UX/UI audit to know what you are working with. This whole thing is pretty much about documenting what exists. This can be time-consuming, but the game is worth the candle since through a UX/UI audit you will discover:

In other words, you will get a clearer understanding of who is using your product and what problems they are facing. After the audit, you will come up with improvement strategy based on the things you have learned.

Do it little by little

A design system is not a project, it’s more of a product. Hence, it needs to evolve and become more refined. It’s a living document. Make sure your design system has got a roadmap and all product-related stuff. Take it through a few iterations, talk to your team to clarify what’s coming next, and then set a new list of problems that you will be solving. Iterate as much as possible until you come up with something that makes sense.

Stay organized

Creative people love the chaos but it should not be the case here. Document everything! Sounds simple, right? But it’s sometimes really hard to do things the “neat and clean” way rather than the “quick and messy” way. Staying organized reduces clutter in email or Slack and helps keep the team sane and happy. Otherwise, you might end up where you started — chaotic styles everywhere!

Most importantly, know where you will be storing all your creations and how you are going to make them accessible to your team members.

Conclusion

As soon as you feel the need to have a design system for your company, you will want to jump into building one. If you are going to do that in-house, then make sure you communicate with your peer designers and take into account the above steps to build the best possible design product ever. And if you are thinking about delegating the work to another company, then make sure to choose a team that knows how to do it right.

This article was originally published on Anthony’s Medium page.

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Actor, and I run a digital product co, @millermedia7. Bill Murray blew off my May 11th wedding. www.millermedia7.com

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