What Is a Design System and Why Is It Important to You?

by The Creative Alliance

team brainstorming on creative development

A design system is a set of practices and standards a company uses in designing and developing products, apps, and its website. While it’s not a programming language, a design system is a verbal and visual vocabulary that makes communicating about projects much easier.

Imagine going to your favorite coffee shop to order your usual and finding that they have changed how they refer to everything. The types of coffee, sizes, etc., all have names you’ve never heard before, and the people behind the counter don’t know any of the terms you’ve used in the past. The fast, friendly interaction you’re used to has become painfully slow and highly frustrating.

That’s an example of what life is like when stakeholders don’t have a shared design system. And clearly, it’s not a satisfying experience. Contrast that with you and your coffee shop being on the same page. “Hi, Laura. The usual large, half-caff dark roast with a shot of caramel and room for cream?” It’s an efficient, frictionless process that leaves everyone smiling.

Design System Components: From Visual Identity to UX

The elements of a design system may vary somewhat from company to company or from one user experience (UX) development partner to another. However, they tend to include:

  • Company principles. These are things like a brand’s values, goals, or purposes.
  • Brand identity. This includes colors, fonts, imagery, and other visuals but also sounds and intangibles like a brand’s tone and voice.
  • Best practices. An organization’s approaches to accessibility, training, and delivering the best possible user experience fall into this category.

It’s crucial to reach agreement among all stakeholders (designers, coders, testers, decision-makers, etc.) on these and other elements before a project gets underway. And it’s even more important if multiple projects are queued up.

10 Advantages of a Design System Framework

To be sure, you can develop a product or app without creating or maintaining a design system. Many companies, creative agencies, and others may tell you that a design system isn’t necessary simply because they’ve gotten from kickoff to launch successfully many times through the years.

However, they can’t tell you how much more efficient and effective their products and the efforts to create them could have been with a design system in place. People who take the steps necessary to standardize their development process enjoy many benefits, including:

1. Increased productivity. A design system means you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” every time you start a new project. For example, you might know that the company’s products all use the Arial font, a warm color palette featuring reds, oranges, and yellows, and checkboxes rather than dropdown lists on forms. Without that knowledge, you might spend many hours, days, or longer checking all the combinations and permutations of those and other characteristics trying to decide what’s best, when, in fact, the decisions have already been made.

2. Better consistency. When different products within a product line or subsequent interactions of a well-known one are consistent in how they look, the processes for operating them, etc., it gives customers a sense of familiarity and trust, improving their user experience.

3. Simpler upkeep. Imagine a problem arises with a specific type of field in one of your products. When you determine the cause and solution, you can implement it for that type of field wherever it’s found—in your product or app, on your website, etc. If the behavior of that field is different in every product, you’ve got significantly more work to do to correct the problem.

4. Improved scalability. As companies and their product portfolios expand, it becomes increasingly challenging to maintain the alignment of all offerings. A design system makes it less stressful to grow, as everyone is speaking the same language, regardless of what project they’re working on.

5. Better design quality and code. When people across many products use the same design system, spotting and correcting problems is much simpler. That includes issues with observable finished products, the code behind the scenes, etc.

6. More effective communication. The benefit above results mainly from the fact that with a design system, people can communicate more effectively within and across teams because everyone in the conversation is using the same lexicon. Free-flowing communication also breaks down information silos, which can harm companies in many ways, including that people who work within them are less exposed to new ideas and better ways of doing things.

7. A stronger brand. Each time someone uses or even just sees a new product developed with the guidance of a design system, the experience reinforces what they already know about the company and its offerings. On the other hand, free-form development projects that result in different user experiences—even just slightly different ones—start chipping away at brand integrity and can eventually cause brand confusion and a significant erosion of trust.

8. Maximum accessibility. It’s vital that your design system takes accessibility into account and that team members adhere closely to the system. What someone designing or coding a product update might consider a “minor tweak” can be a major problem for someone with a disability, and that includes roughly 15% of the population. Sticking to the established and tested standards helps ensure that products are welcoming to all and with less testing and fewer revisions because accessibility is “baked in.”

Designing Your Way to Happier Stakeholders and Higher Levels of Profitability

Developing a design system and promoting its adoption throughout an organization—and further to a third-party UX services provider—is a no-lose proposition.

Designers, coders, and testers all appreciate the system because it makes their jobs easier. Company decision-makers may or may not know that teams are using a design system, but they recognize the increased productivity and improved consistency in the products produced.

Perhaps most importantly, customers love it when every interaction with a company’s products, website, etc., feels familiar and comfortable, and they can focus exclusively on their goal rather than how to achieve it. And that comfort level keeps them loyal and often turns product users into product advocates, which is great for business!

For help developing and implementing a design system or using it to create a website, product, or app, contact The Creative Alliance.