What are design systems?

what are design systems?

Design systems are the talk of the town lately! A design system is centralized documentation of all the different user interface components for designers and developers to reuse in their designs. It looks like an exhaustive library consisting of documentation, your brand’s style guide, and design components such as banners, buttons, headers, icons, and imagery.
A design system can exist on a website or prototyping tool document (such as Figma or Sketch). If you are part of a large team at a corporation, having a design system can significantly reduce redundancy and save time spent designing.
Similar to a style guide, all designers can pick and pull components and patterns from the design system as needed. This can be quite handy when redesigning your brand, adding new products to your ecommerce site, or launching a new campaign across multiple channels. Even if you work solo or at a small startup, design systems can greatly boost both productivity and efficiency while solidifying your brand and design consistency. We’ll break down the essentials of a design system and how it benefits your business. Stick around for several examples of the best design systems!
Design systems take significant amounts of money, resources, and time to build.
You might have to persuade stakeholders or other members at your organization why it’s necessary: they can greatly improve the user experience of your product or service, which will keep your visitors happy.
Having a design system is a great way to get multiple teams aligned on the same page. Designers, developers, and engineers can refer to the design system for guidelines for app and web elements. These guidelines consist of illustrations, images, sizing information across multiple devices, and templates.
At the core of any design system are design languages. These provide documentation on brand language and tone as well as any visuals. They guide users on how to use the design system and implement elements contained within it. A highly effective design system provides content and branding guidelines for marketing and social media teams. It can be used as a collaborative tool and create a unified language across all teams to communicate and work with.
Additionally, design systems prevent silos from happening, which is when individual teams create their own work without input from other teams. This will strongly impact brand consistency across all channels, products, and services. A design system can help boost the collaboration and productivity of an entire organization, improving workflows.
If you’re concerned that your product or service looks and feels inconsistent, implementing a design system will streamline the product experience across all platforms.
Imagine you are in charge of developing a brand new neighborhood. Think about how it might accommodate all types of families and residents. You might create templates for homes of various sizes: a 2-bedroom home will have different accommodations than a 4-bedroom one.
Consider designing the homes to resemble each other to establish a common resemblance or design language. All homes would have similar appliances and bathrooms. Having organized housing templates for the neighborhood based on needs while retaining a shared language would greatly speed up the homebuilding process compared to designing and constructing each house individually.
A design system works the same way. If your team is struggling to quickly create new designs on a large-scale project, having a design system will swiftly speed up the process due to the ability to rapidly produce designs at a high scale. Training new designers? Onboard and familiarize new employees with your business brand and design guidelines within its design system.
Design systems take a lot of time to create and maintain. If you are working on a one-off project or small design, it might not be beneficial to implement one. For larger businesses and projects, however, the initial time invested will pay off dividends in the future. Invest time in the creation of a design system to save substantial time later on for all teams.
Honestly, everyone within your organization should be using and referencing its design system, including designers, developers, engineers, marketers, new employees, and anyone else across all teams. It can serve as documentation for your brand, products, and services. Anyone who is involved with your business’s offerings should have access to the company design system.
Before getting started on a design system, determine what are your goals for it. Are you trying to streamline the design process across multiple products and services? Will the design system serve as a centralized place for all branding assets and documentation for all teams? Who will use it? Will this design system cover one project or multiple? Once you have the answers to these questions, you’ll be ready to create a design system. And as you work on it, remember to frequently discuss what will be included with stakeholders and other teams.
Your business’s design system should detail the language and tone of your brand. Let’s say you run an online makeup store. Documentation for your design language will provide clear instructions on which fonts, logos, and tone of voice to use on your website, mobile application, social media, and any other content.
In turn, this would bolster your brand’s consistency across platforms, which builds user trust and makes for a seamless user experience: ultimately making your cosmetics brand more appealing to potential customers.
Be sure to incorporate rules for how users will navigate your website and mobile app. This is a great way to guarantee your navigation is consistent across different devices and platforms. You may also add layout and usability guidelines.
Modular components cover interactive elements, including different styles for various use cases across your designs.
For example, let’s say you want to implement a dark mode theme to your website. Your design system can include dark-themed components which change the theme without affecting content, sizing, or other elements. It is imperative the details and documentation for this section are clear and thorough, as it will be the most used aspect of the design system. Here contains the instructions for how to design containers, dropdowns, menus, and many other elements.
All of these may be plucked and pasted into new designs, allowing for vast scalability and rapidly iterating numerous designs. Elements within a design system may be easily adapted and customized to fit unique pages or products without sacrificing consistency while adhering to your formatting rules.
As mentioned earlier, the first step to implementing a design system is to persuade your organization and stakeholders why you need one. Determine how you will be making your design system. Will it exist in Figma, Zeplin, or another tool your organization uses? If your business uses Figma for wireframing and prototyping, stick to the same tool to create your design system.
On the other hand, if your business wants to switch design tools, it would be wise to do so before getting started on a design system. This saves tons of time from transplanting lots of information from one tool onto another. Once that is done, compile your business’s branding elements, including colors, logos, tone, and typography. After your components and patterns are created, provide documentation for each component so others know how to use them.
When it comes to creating and implementing a design system, there are no exact guidelines or processes to follow. Every design system should be tailored specifically to business needs or organizational goals. Your design system will evolve as your brand evolves.
Therefore, it is imperative to create an adaptable, robust, yet scalable design system. You can do this by defining multiple styles, providing design guidelines for multiple devices, and allowing users to mix and match components. BMW offers many different types of cars: compacts, sport sedans, large luxury sedans, convertibles, crossovers, and SUVs. Each car is designed for different uses but all of them share a unified design language. Almost all BMWs are identifiable thanks to their kidney-style grilles and the Hofmeister Kink. Just like BMW’s model offerings, ensure your design system is flexible and expandable.
Keeping a design system up to date is an enormous task, but routine maintenance may be done at scheduled intervals to add new components and clean up outdated elements. You may also keep previous versions of your design system for future reference. This is called versioning. Components and patterns should be easily adjusted or updated without impacting the rest of the design system. It should also support variables of individual components. And most importantly, a design system should be robust: it should not falter when elements are added, changed, or removed.
Looking for some inspirational design systems? These design system examples, which are free to explore, will give you a better idea of how design systems work. You might even generate some ideas for your own! Here are some of the best design systems out there.
British news source The Guardian has its own design system, G Source. It is clean, organized, and easy to sift through. The language is clear, yet conversational. The design system starts off with a list of The Guardian’s design and user experience principles and a quick start guide for designers. Branding guidelines, such as colors, logos, and typography, are also available.
G Source states “the contrast ratio of all text and interactive elements featured in our digital outputs must meet level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1).” This is a huge plus to remind designers to test their work for accessibility.
The level of detail and thorough documentation makes this design system a real winner. It teaches designers how to implement their interaction states, covering buttons, hover interactions, and highlights for news articles.
G Source gives rules for marketing emails as well, covering grids, font sizes, spacing, and more. Components may be marked as “in development,” “beta phase,” or “stable.” The process section illustrates their criteria in further detail. Best of all, this design system allows users to contribute in multiple ways: design, development, and documentation.
Many travelers use Kiwi to plan their next vacation. Kiwi has its own design system called Orbit, which is wholly interactive and uses a welcoming tone.
This design system is more detailed than G Source, especially when it comes to their components and design patterns sections. It is quite user-centric, always keeping their users’ goals in mind. Orbit offers in-depth directions for creating and writing content on their social media platforms. There is plenty of information for developers as well, including support for right-to-left languages. Pictured above is a screenshot of their Figma library where you can see many different designs for modals across different platforms. It may seem intense, but the best design systems cover every possible design scenario.
The World Wide Web Consortium, known as W3C, establishes web standards. Their design system, which might be a bit dry for some, provides plenty of information for both designers and developers. It uses simple language, giving digestible definitions for web design terms such as containers, breadcrumbs, and pagination.
And for developers, there are plenty of code examples to work with. W3C includes the HTML code required to implement design elements, such as buttons and forms. This alone makes it a great resource to learn from, especially if you are a designer looking to learn more about web development for your business.
Microsoft’s Fluent UI design system integrates components, elements, and patterns which makes it seamless to design for multiple platforms: Windows, macOS, web, mobile including Android and iOS, and even cross-platform.
Fluent UI harnesses three traits that make up any successful design system: modular, robust, and highly scalable. This is the design system that powers the Microsoft Office suite and Microsoft Teams. Because Fluent UI is highly complex, it serves as an umbrella for many smaller libraries such as Windows UI Library, Fluent UI Apple, Fluent UI Android, and others.
A large-scale corporation such as Microsoft has the bandwidth and resources necessary to create such an exhaustive system, which can be readily adapted to multiple platforms, applications, and devices. Smaller organizations will not need such a vast design system.
Fluent UI adheres to the guidelines set by the W3C and provides side-by-side examples of designs with their code. Because of Microsoft’s ubiquitous nature, there are so many communication channels, resources, and support streams for Fluent UI. Though it may seem daunting, the sections are well-organized and relevant documentation is always readily available.
Lastly, this design system does a wonderful job breaking apart different platforms while maintaining a cohesive design language. That’s astounding, given the mammoth footprint Microsoft has across multiple industries.
The Government of Canada has an open-source design system, Aurora, which is used by the Canadian government for many mobile and desktop experiences. It has resources for designers, developers, writers, and data scientists. The landing page clearly dictates its philosophy. Under the resources section, designers can snag a UI kit for use in Adobe Illustrator and XD. Developers can download CSS and Javascript packages.
Like W3C, Aurora gives HTML code for design elements. This makes it a cinch to implement on a website, saving development time. The design system mentions small tips to maximize the performance of your application, such as only loading necessary elements. It even has a glossary of common words so designers, developers, and writers have an understanding of the design system’s offerings. Aurora invites everyone to collaborate and submit feedback.
Craving to learn more? The following resources take you for an in-depth ride through the world of design systems.
We all want to keep our customers and visitors happy, but it is significantly important to keep your designers and developers content too. A design system could collaboratively speed up their productivity.
Despite it being a big time commitment, creating a design system will pay off huge dividends for the organization’s entire team in the same manner as constructing predefined homes in a neighborhood based on adaptable, scalable templates. Your products and services will lead to better, more enjoyable user experiences. After all, if your employees, customers, and visitors are satisfied, this will create a higher level of cohesive harmony across your business and its products and services.
Though creating a design system might seem like a daunting task, it offers plenty of thrilling opportunities to really highlight what your business is all about! Aren’t you excited to get started?

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Our newsletter is for everyone who loves design! Let us know if you’re a freelance designer (or not) so we can share the most relevant content for you.
By completing this form, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.