Designers face many challenges when proposing a design system in a large organization. Here’s how to get buy-in across teams.

Spectrum is Adobe’s ambitious new experience design system — it is at once familiar and foreign; a new set of experience guidelines that harnesses all the power of Adobe’s creative apps and tools while presenting them in a more intuitive, approachable, and collaborative way. It touches almost every facet of design at Adobe, and like any big change at a large organization, getting company-wide buy-in to shake things up wasn’t without its challenges.

Eric Snowden, senior director of design for Creative Cloud and Document Cloud, says he and his team tackled these challenges by looking inward; what were individual product teams doing that could contribute to creating a successful design system (one that places consistency of experience across apps front and center), and how could that be applied as best practices to other products to meet Spectrum’s key objectives.

“We see our role as a service — to take the best of the ideas individual teams come up with and then try to bring them across multiple products. Certain concepts were being talked about by many teams in slightly different ways. It was critical that we made some collaborative efforts; we got a lot of people together in the room and got everybody to work together,” he said, revealing some of his key strategies to getting teams on board.

Take what’s already working, and share it to scale it

Snowden’s advice to others looking to implement a design system is to see what’s already working within your organization, and connect teams together to figure out a way to amplify that across a product ecosystem. Too often, product teams can be siloed, not sharing their own intelligence; these product teams can interpret news about an overarching design system as a threat to their ideas. By gathering teams together, to share their own best practices for experience and visual design, you can get buy-in from those who might react negatively otherwise. In the end, it’s about freeing up designers to innovate, and cutting down the grunt work that often gets in the way.

App Frame Anatomy

The Application Frame represents the core of the creation UI. The primary control surfaces — header bar, toolbar, task bar and paneling — are central to feature organization and the overall experience of the application. The extended design team has collaborated to define team standards for each of these surfaces.

App Frame Anatomy

“Designers often want to control their own world,” said Snowden. “But my team and I ask product teams, ‘why are we designing the same [interfaces, interactions, icons, etc.] over and over again?’ Every one of our products is solving amazing new problems, every day, and it’s very easy to get a designer excited about that. I think that is really where designers want to be working, on new things that no one has ever done before — not on how to share a file. Some of those battles have been fought already, so let’s learn from our own intelligence and focus on innovation.”

When it comes to your designs, has anyone ever done this before?

At a 35+-year-old company, the answer is often yes; someone has probably thought about the design problem you’re solving before. The world may have changed since then, but Snowden says this question stimulates designers to seek existing models and tools other teams may have created that can be used to speed up production and innovation.

If the answer is no, and the product team is truly doing something that has never been done before, the Spectrum team encourages design teams to ask themselves if anyone else in the company needs their solutions. In the end, it’s about asking who else can benefit from the learnings and discoveries of each team, and making sure they’re part of the conversation.

Key examples of this, which have led to product teams working closely together, involve two of Adobe’s newer apps: Lightroom and Adobe XD. Lightroom is very cloud-centric in its approach to photos — that team’s discoveries about working with cloud-focused file systems have now influenced all of Adobe’s apps and services. The XD team, on the other hand, designed a highly intuitive workflow and UI system that now serves as a template for all new apps and changes to existing ones.

Adobe XD’s interface serves as a good blueprint for the Spectrum design system.
Adobe XD’s interface serves as a good blueprint for the Spectrum design system.

“They are obviously some new ideas in Spectrum, but most of our consistency efforts started in an individual product team. We wanted to make sure that when we talk about these components, we always reference where they came from maximizing buy-in and collaboration. There’s no one team that’s responsible for this work. We sort of acted as the conductors,” he said.

On the road to getting ‘buy-in,’ try, try, and try again

A strong visual language and point of view is key to creating a design system that not only makes for consistent experiences across apps but also helps product teams avoid duplication of efforts. Spectrum’s visual design system, focused on creating optimal design elements to be used across apps and devices, is an example of this. Shawn Cheris, Adobe’s director of experience design for Spectrum, says this effort started with him, a slide deck, and hundreds of meetings on the books.

“Once we had a point of view from a design perspective, then basically it was just me going around talking to product managers and designers making sure that everyone in Adobe Design from directors on down understood what we wanted to do,” said Cheris.

“Then it was talking to product teams and getting buy-in and commitment for them. It involved years-long conversations with product teams like Adobe Premiere, After Effects. We then did direct engagements with the engineers that built that framework those products are built on, to make sure we could bake Spectrum into the framework itself.”

An example of the Spectrum design system anatomy for iOS apps.

An example of the Spectrum design system anatomy for iOS apps.
An example of the Spectrum design system anatomy for iOS apps.

“I think Adobe likely has the largest integrated product offering in the history of mankind,” said Cheris. In meeting with teams, Cheris said he focused on the value of having that ecosystem of more than 120 products and services all ‘make sense’ together as a family. While the initial phase of Spectrum has passed, the implementing of Spectrum continues on. For Cheris and his team, this is an extension of efforts to ‘get buy-in,’ making sure teams feel supported and guided when implementing this design system.

“We’ve worked for years now helping product teams, one by one, integrate that new vision. A lot of our success came from direct engagement with engineering. We’ve been inserting ourselves for the last five years into every nook and cranny that we can,” he added.

“Spectrum started as a kind of organic grassroots effort and buy-in, but now it also has a sort of top-down mandate. It’s just proof if you go around with the same deck 300 times and tell a bunch of people the same story, you can turn a big ship.”

When seeking buy-in, approach different groups in different ways

Adobe has more than 15K employees spread across the world, so there are a lot of people to get on board with any new company-wide initiative. Simply dictating new ways of working and designing software won’t work in the long-term, even if many of those ideas are best practices from other internal teams. To truly work together in a consistency effort, that makes best use of the best ideas from Adobe’s many teams, you need to know how to speak to each individual team and make it relevant to them.

“Really, it’s about asking what the value of this is for them. For designers, craft, precision and beauty may be core values. But not everyone shares these values, and you and as a designer have to realize that. A marketing manager or a product manager may see things differently, they may be more interested in design efficiency and serving the customer better, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the system for all of these people including our customers,” said Eric Snowden.

“Finding out and communicating how your design system will help them, the stakeholder, and our customers, is key. I really believe that the big benefit to bringing more consistency to our products is our customers will have better, more logical, easier-to-learn experiences. It’ll be easier for them to pick up that second and that third Adobe application. Framing that in the right way, for different teams from designers to business managers, is the key to making sure you have buy-in across the board.”