Design systems are everywhere these days. It seems like every big brand now has one, and for good reason. They can save design-led companies countless hours of manual design work, freeing up designers to devote their time to more creative or innovative goals, and can also help brands create cohesive experiences for their user base; but they can also go off the rails easily without the right stewardship. Fortunately, there is a growing number of design leaders out there who have learned (sometimes the hard way) exactly what to do, and what not to do, when it comes to creating and implementing a design system that improves business outcomes.

In 2020, and into the near future, design systems will no doubt continue to grow in importance. At Adobe MAX 2019, we had the opportunity to hear from several design leaders on how they’re approaching design systems challenges; from creating one that is truly accessible, to the role of an agency in creating and maintaining one, to assessing whether you actually need a design system at all. We’ve collected some of their insights.

Building an inclusive design system: Lessons learned from getting it wrong (and then very right)

Hayley Hughes is a UX manager at Shopify, responsible for helping steward the company’s Polaris Design Language System. She has a long history working with design systems, previously at both Airbnb and IBM. To her, it’s extremely important to have a design system that helps teams collaborate to create valuable user experiences. “This is the power of the system, the shared language that it builds between designers and engineers, which ultimately impacts the products that they make and the people that they serve,” she said.

However, she also learned the hard way that design systems can create more problems than scaling solutions. If an inaccessible design element or workflow is baked into a design system, it can lead to products that exclude and alienate some users. While at IBM, she and her team worked to create an exceptional accessibility design handbook which guides designers, developers, and product managers on inclusive decision-making and best practices. The idea for the handbook came, initially, from an oversight when IBM was about to publicly launch its newly minted design language. Right before the deadline, the company’s chief accessibility officer identified that key aspects of the site were not accessible, and the company delayed the launch in order to fix it.

“That was a big let down for the team,” said Hughes on stage at Adobe MAX 2019, reflecting on the break-neck speed with which she and her team developed the design language website. “We hadn’t been working with accessibility specialists or people with disabilities…We had thought about a few things, like color contrast, but there was a lot we didn’t know about accessibility. As we fixed things and began learning from our mistakes, we decided to bounce back not just with a new site, but a new mindset.”

Illustration of the IBM Accessibility Handbook cover
IBM’s Accessibility Handbook, developed by Hayley Hughes and her team. Image credit Evan Maeda.

Hughes and her team created an open source handbook about accessibility best practices in design, which they launched alongside a new version of their design language. By putting accessibility front and center, and making it a top priority to speak to accessibility experts and people with disabilities, Hughes said IBM saw (and continues to see) levels of success in design that have made the company the design leader it is today.

“For a design language system to last, people really need to have inclusive mindsets, and tools like handbooks all the way up to plugins to integrate it into their workflows that encourage positive behaviors,” she said, adding that this wakeup call forever changed her and her team’s way of thinking.

To make your design system successful, focus on people, not just product

It may seem like the key focus of a design should be product-focused; after all, you’re building a library of elements for designers to reuse in creating features. But, in the end, it’s as important to focus on the way stakeholders — designers, developers, management, and others — interact with it. Is it providing them with the guidance they truly need to work more effectively?

“[We had to] reframe of our team’s mission, not just focused on the product, but also on the people,” said Hughes, reflecting on her later work at Shopify. “How can we operate as stewards who build trust with the community that uses our system?” To do this, she and her team began a mission to find out what stakeholders thought of the design system, even having them write love letters and break up letters to the design system to uncover the positives and the negatives. She also created an open forum for designers to share their concerns.

“I can safely say that our design system is only as strong as the relationship we have with the teams who use it.” For Hughes, understanding people’s relationships to the design system is key to making sure it’s serving its purpose, as is rewarding teams and individuals who participate in systems work and strive to make it better.

Assessing whether you really need a design system at all

While design systems make sense for many big brands and companies, they don’t make sense in every situation. For Helen Wallace, founding creative director at Deloitte Digital UK, this goes one step further: for certain types of companies, design systems may actually hurt productivity.

“The whole purpose of a design system is to maximize the work that you’ve done by reusing it. And if there’s no opportunity to reuse it in the future, then you may not need one,” said Wallace. To her, a clear example of a company that needs a design system is one that must constantly meet certain compliance requirements or regulations; financial services, pharmaceuticals, etc. must be able to ensure consistency of branding, messaging, and experience across touchpoints.

For other types of companies, like those that create a single product or operate on a smaller scale, heavily investing in a design system will likely provide little payoff for the investment. It also may become restrictive, hindering designers’ ability to innovate or come up with new creative applications for their elements.

For companies that are building a new design system, Wallace has this advice: don’t try to build Rome in a day.

“Start off with what your core components and elements are that are most regularly used by your design team. And if you don’t know that, you should ask a design team. A design system should be a living thing, and it should be iterating over time.” she said.

Every design system needs a champion

When you’ve assessed that you will get ROI from a design system, that’s when the hard part begins. Creating buy-in for a design system from business teams can be a challenge. In order to see success, you need to identify a design system champion within your organization who knows the right words to use with the right stakeholders to motivate them to take part.

For creatives, it’s very much around saving time and being more creative and not stifling them with too many rules,” said Wallace. “But for business stakeholders, it’s very much around changing the conversation around business outcomes.” This role continues long after a design system is established, too.

“You need to be able to demonstrate measurable impacts,” she added. You or your champion need to be able to demonstrate how design has helped the business, through cost efficiencies, time efficiencies, or scaling design output with the same size of team.

“I think if you can’t talk about the successes or the impacts of your design system, then it won’t keep the momentum behind it. I think keeping the momentum behind a design system is extremely important for its success,” Wallace said.

The role of an agency in creating, and maintaining, client design systems

What do you do if you have the desire and need to build a design system, but don’t have the resources or expertise in-house to pull it off? For many companies, the answer is to turn to an agency. Building design systems for clients is a specialty of Erik Norgaard, creative director at Publicis Sapient. Design systems require a lot of resources to build, which can take companies long periods of time to build up — very few have the ability to scale up or repurpose design teams in a timely fashion.

“A lot of the clients that come to us, they may already have the advertising branding tools, but they don’t have the digital tools. They may have some general banner stuff and fonts and that kind of thing, but they don’t have the full complexity of system components. We will take what they have, find out what they like, what they don’t like, modify it and rebuild the system,” he said.

For Publicis Sapient, it’s important to pay attention to the brand identities of their clients. Norgaard says it’s important that design agencies don’t over-disrupt these identities to ensure they stay authentic. A recurring trend, over the few years he has been building these systems, is that some companies ultimately have the desire for a design system but lack the ability to keep it up. Publicis Sapient has been invited back to the table a few times, a year or two after building a design system for a client, to help with continued implementation.

“It’s paralysis through analysis. You can get paralyzed if you just over analyze everything, which applies to designing and maintaining a design system. Nobody will ever see what you put all your heart and energy into. So make it really good, share it, and then make it better, and an agency’s role is to help with that,” he said.

Design systems and the opportunity to unlock good

Design systems ultimately mean a more organized approach to workflows; with that structure in place, and the ability to easily find and reuse elements, you are free to focus on “doing good work.” In fact, the building of a design system may even help you define exactly what that “good work” is, thanks to the necessary relationship building.

“If good design is good business, then the common denominator is doing good,” said Hayley Hughes.

“Remember, that it’s not just good enough to be good in design. It’s really important to impact the world in a way that does good for people.”