The use of design systems is becoming increasingly prominent today, especially for user-interface (UI) design. What is the reason for this? Design systems let designers structure their design workflows, communicate design-related decisions to their team members, and build consistent, reusable UI elements. Let’s begin by looking at the basics of a design system.
What Is a Design System?
A design system is a repository of reusable UI components. Using a design system, you can define UI elements such as navigation bars, buttons, text blocks, and dialog boxes that you can use repeatedly, throughout your UI designs. Consequently, a design system facilitates an easy design workflow.
A design system leverages specific design practices and patterns that can help you develop consistent, accessible digital products. Although there are multiple models for design systems, most comprise some standard features, including design tokens, a pattern library, guidelines relating to the brand and its style, and user documentation.
The biggest, global tech giants—such as IBM, Salesforce, and Google—leverage design systems to codify and scale their design efforts across the organization. Google Material Design is currently one of the best design systems available. The benefits of design systems are twofold:
They accelerate all product-development stages, from conceptualization through testing.
They ensure familiarity, consistency, and accessibility at all touchpoints.
Thus, design systems lead to improvements in the product user experience, which is highly beneficial to any organization.
Why Should You Use a Design System?
Let’s explore some of the benefits of design systems in greater depth.
Most organizations need help scaling up their product development—in part, because of a nonlinear increase in effort, usually during development and maintenance. Adding more features and increasing a company’s range of products increases complexity significantly.
Owing to the problem of scalability, aligning the user experience across new features and products requires extra resources. A user-interface design system enables design and development teams to create more products without growing their team. Plus, this method of design centralizes UI design decisions, improves design consistency, and enables alignment across product teams.
In its basic form, a design system is a compilation of code and design decisions. Think of it as a framework of design components that is based on centralized design decisions.
Maintainability and Continuous Improvement
The unified and centralized nature of a design system automatically enables teams to maintain products more easily. Changes and improvements to design systems quickly propagate to all products.
User-interface modifications occur frequently for several reasons. For instance, there may be a need to boost accessibility or optimize conversions after an A/B test. Brand updates or operating-system (OS) enhancements are other common reasons. While business-logic changes are usually restricted to a single product, component updates impact all products, so making them can become time consuming. Plus, if teams do not implement such changes immediately, they could face the issue of inconsistencies in their designs.
You can reduce these problems by externalizing the user interface to a centralized design system. Using design-system components and tokens together makes it easier to update your products and reduces a product team’s workload.
Greater Speed and Productivity and Lower Costs
You can expect the benefits of using a design system to persist into the future. These benefits include improvements in speed, productivity, consistency, and quality, and, thus, have significant impacts on business metrics. Many businesses consider these benefits to be the primary reason for incorporating a UI design system in their development process.
Higher quality and consistency positively impact the user experience, as well as the product’s brand image. Prospective customers will choose your product over other brands if it makes an excellent first impression!
An accelerated design and development process means you can deliver products faster, which can increase your company’s goodwill with customers. Better productivity means your business requires fewer people to produce more UI designs. Being able to quickly implement and introduce new products lowers design and development costs.
The innovations that design systems have delivered reduce the workload of UI designers considerably. They also aid developers in easily translating these designs into code. You can create new features and products cheaply and quickly with a design system.
Consistency leads to better visual quality and makes it convenient for people to use a product. There should be similar patterns throughout the product. An effective design system can define and standardize patterns that enable all of your product teams to maintain consistency.
When a customer uses your app to interact with your business, that person expects an application’s similar features to work in exactly the same way. When using the app, once the user sees and interacts with one button, the user expects the same button pattern throughout the application.
Therefore, reusing the same elements of a UI design system can help maintain design consistency and reduce friction, leading to a better user experience. This, in turn, boosts conversions, making potential customers choose your application over others.
What Are the Six Types of Design Systems?
There are six different types of design systems, as follows:
Strict systems—These systems are extremely comprehensive and cover most use cases. Such systems employ a strict screening process when implementing new additions to the system. Users can expect detailed documentation and excellent coordination between design and development when leveraging a strict system.
Loose systems—These systems provide users with more freedom. When using a loose system, you can establish a basic UI framework. However, there would still be room for creativity and experimentation, depending on the situation.
Modular systems—These systems contain numerous reusable, interchangeable UI components. A modular design system benefits big-scale projects such as designing an enterprise finance application or creating an ecommerce user experience. Modular systems also allow you to scale your work quickly and meet changing design requirements.
Integrated systems—Unlike modular systems, integrated systems do not consist of interchangeable parts. You may find them useful in particular circumstances. They might not have any repeating UI elements. An integrated system can help simplify designs that demand plenty of creative thinking. For example, marketing campaigns and portfolios require design-system components to deliver effective results.
Centralized systems—For such design systems, a dedicated team usually manages the whole thing, ensuring that the entire system meets users— needs. The same group of people supervises the work of others and changes the system as necessary.
Distributed systems—Multiple people from various teams typically manage distributed design systems and utilize it for their daily tasks. These systems have a better chance of adoption because most of its users have been directly involved in its development.
How to Create a Design System?
Developing a design system can be daunting, especially if you lack technical expertise. However, the insights that I’ll share next can help you create a design system, using the following six-step process.
1. Define Your Brand.
Define your brand before proceeding with the development of your design system. Consider some key elements such as business values, visual identity, and brand messaging. These design decisions should be based on your brand and be implemented in your newly created design system. Thus, you must first define your brand and establish a guide that portrays the key elements of your brand.
2. Identify Your Components.
Numerous UI design elements comprise a design system—for example, typography, buttons, and forms. Identify the various attributes that you need to utilize in your designs. Next, make a list of these components. Determining every UI component in the design system helps you to work in an organized manner and ensures consistency across your designs.
3. Establish Guidelines for the Components.
Create guidelines that illustrate how all the UI elements should appear and work. Consider details such as typography, color, behaviors, and spacing. Plus, you can leverage visual explanations and examples to help others understand these guidelines better. There must be clarity when creating design guidelines, leaving no room for doubt or confusion.
4. Create the Design-System Library.
Once you’ve established your design guidelines, the next step involves creating a design-system library. This should comprise all the guidelines and components you decided to create earlier. You can leverage an efficient design tool such as Figma, shown in Figure 1, or Sketch in creating this library of components. Base Web is also an effective UI framework that can aid your design-system creation process.
You can then build reusable templates and components and use them across your designs. Also, be sure to organize your design-system library conveniently—for instance, either by design pattern or component type.
5. Test and Iterate the Design System.
You can always change or modify your design system. So test the system, then repeat the iterative design and testing process as necessary. Obtain feedback from stakeholders and staff to ensure that the system works perfectly and serves its purpose well. Usability testing and analytics are helpful here. They can help you to recognize the scope of necessary improvements and in making the modifications to the design system.
6. Maintain the Design System.
Efficient maintenance should be among your top priorities for your design system’s continued success. When you produce new designs, update guidelines, or implement additional components, ensure that you update the design-system library. You must review your design system frequently to ensure that it stays up to date and continues to make your design process more efficient.
Building an efficient design system may initially seem overwhelming. But by paying close attention to design details and through meticulous planning, you can bring consistency to your designs and make your design process more efficient.
A design system is a collection of reusable UI elements and components. There are six types of design systems that designers can leverage for their purposes. Consider creating and using a design system to make your design and development efforts more efficient and effective.