The concept and principles of design systems are nothing new; since we’ve been designing experiences, we’ve been creating brand style guides, code libraries, wikis, frameworks, and more to share knowledge, encourage re-use and avoid a perpetual, ‘reinvention of the wheel.’ Our goals of creating workflows that make it easy to maintain brand consistency while eliminating tedium are noble — the less designers need to worry about creating every element from scratch, the more they can focus on solving the bigger creative challenges.

At SoDA, the Society of Digital Agencies, we have the distinct honor of working with the founders and leadership teams at some of the world’s most creative and innovative digital agencies and design studios. Among other things, discussions on industry trends and best practices are always bubbling within our community and the rise of design systems – their potential and limitations – has been a particularly active debate for us this year. That’s why we’ve devoted our latest SoDA Report On publication to this topic, in partnership with Adobe. In the report below, you’ll find a collection of articles tackling the good, the bad, and the messy when it comes to design systems. 

To explore these bigger questions, and to get a few tips on implementing one yourself from the industry’s leading agencies, click below to read the Soda Report On Design Systems:

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Download the SoDA Report On Design Systems.

Continue on for a few highlights from the latest report, and a few insights into the state of design systems now and where we’re heading as designers in the future. 

Why implement a design system in the first place?

Design systems take work; planning and implementing them is no simple feat, and it requires a lot of consideration and collaboration between all of those who will use it. That’s why a key factor that all design leaders need to take into consideration is why? Why is it so important to implement a design system, and what value will everyone get out of it? This is a key theme we’ve explored in this SoDA Report On, and one Ueno’s Halli Thorleifsson tackles in his article, But Why. Here, Thorleiffsson encourages design teams to look at their reasons for wanting a design system; how will it impact costs (saving resources to stay competitive on pricing)? How will it affect teams (spending less time on execution and more on problem solving)? And what about users, will this mean better experiences for them in the end?

Successful teams are amazing executors. But we won’t execute on the right things unless the ‘Why’ is clearly articulated and shared.

Halli Thorleifsson, Ueno

We’ve also looked at the question from the perspective of an agency’s own operations. Too often we think of design systems as something our clients need (and that agency design teams can build for them). But, as Kevin Vigneault from Viget writes in his article, the transformative effects of consistency and efficiency across products, sites, and teams that design systems have can benefit agencies themselves. 

Too often agencies work on projects that feel similar to previous work. By creating an organizational design system, the repeat energy is no longer wasted. Instead, designers and developers are free to invest in the most impactful part of our work like research, design, and brand messaging.

Kevin Vigneault, Viget

Designing a design system, and making sure it gets implemented correctly

While determining the reasoning for creating your design system is far from the ‘easy part,’ what comes next involves a lot of hard work and an intense amount of collaboration. But fortunately, you don’t have to tackle the task of designing and implementing your design system alone. Many people have done it before you, and in the SoDA Report On, they’re eager to share their experiences and advice. That’s why we start this report with a piece from Perficient Digital’s Brian Flanagan and Joey Southard, 5 Steps for a Successful Design System Implementation. In their words, 

With proper planning, alignment, and management, you can establish a design system that will guide experience creation and help you stay ahead of evolving technology and customer expectations.

– Brian Flanagan and Joey Southard, Perficient Digital

You can read their tips and guidelines on how to make sure it all goes smoothly. And for those design leaders that are truly starting from scratch, once again it becomes useful to look at what others have done in the industry. Zemoga’s Marcela Sánchez and Juan Velasco have some advice in their article about kicking things off (and not biting off more than you can chew), and keeping your design system evolving and improving once it’s up and running.

The foundational characteristics of our design system as well as the scope of the initiative are expected to evolve and adapt over time based on findings made along the way.

– Marcela Sánchez and Juan Velasco, Zemoga 

Break down silos with your design system, and keep it human

Design systems can have some incredible productivity results. They can boost designers’ ability to work quickly and efficiently, but they can also break down silos across organizations, and that can have powerful effects beyond the bottom line. That’s why it’s so important to be having this conversation now, as design demands grow along with the design teams that are tasked to meet them. As Adobe’s Cisco Guzman notes, 

The design systems conversation is critical because it drives a deeper, necessary dialog about transforming how designers, developers, contributors, and stakeholders work together to create digital experiences—and how we communicate across silos more effectively.

Cisco Guzman, Adobe XD

At SoDA, we’re thrilled to be part of the conversation on design systems with Adobe. We hope this report helps you better understand and evaluate the potential need for a design system and, when the time is right, create and implement one within your organization. We also recognize that every journey begins with a step. No matter where you’re at in your exploration of design systems,  we hope you’ll share your ideas, experiences, tribulations, and triumphs with other designers so we can all better navigate this new terrain together.