Scaling Design Systems

Habeeb Kolade Scaling Design Systems

At the beginning of design, the overarching arm is to create something that works and solves your users’ problems. Behind this are usually a set of team members who are deeply connected to the problem they are solving, and even without documentation, has the shared goal imprinted on their minds, enough to guide their design process. However, as teams grow and companies go from one or two designs to several, the challenges becomes more than just creating what works. New hires come with new perspectives and creative juices, and in the quest to deliver excellently, they may introduce new ideas to the designs of the company. Since they are also usually disconnected from the primary aim of the company, they will often design without it. This eventually kick-starts a chaos in the design room. And consistency in design is first to suffer it. 

Design systems are created to curtail these undesirable events and ensure designs within a company remain consistent as the product scale. From a few pages and functionalities, products develop into hundreds of pages with new technologies. It is easy to lose track and break the experience of users when products become cumbersome. With design systems, designers have a set of standards for design and concepts on which the designs should be used. However, design systems should be regarded as a continuously but harmoniously changing system. The essence of a design system is scale, and this includes when scaling teams, products or enterprises. 

What should be accounted for when scaling design systems. The first are the core principles and ethics of the company. Rather than being a combination of colours and lines, designs are meant to be meaningful. And this meaning, when not communicated properly and consistently, will leave products in the strange directions that are often undesirable to the owners, and users as well. Is your design meant to convey complexity or minimalism, exclusivity or openness, conservation or vibrancy? With multitude designers having different ideas on how the product should work, when the principles and ethics are not clear, your product may break rules that you do not enjoy breaking. 

When the company is clear on its core principles and ethics of work, it must sort out its leadership. Small teams often depend on a solitary designer who dictates the pace and pattern of all designs in a company. When building for scale, this type of leadership will likely crack, creating frictions that slow down work that it aimed to speed up. While a design system is created, it should allow contributions for the whole team involved in the design process at that company. This is exemplified by Google’s committee by design. The middle ground is to have a team that decides the design direction of the company. Knowing which stage of development you are should inform your decisions. Your goal is to reduce friction while staying up to date with the product’s design needs. 

Companies usually already have design libraries that designers can pick components to use. This becomes limiting when design is needed to scale. Design system comes to the rescue by not only defining what components are used in the design of products, but how they may be used. Creating an initial design system can sometimes take several months or years. To be able to define that works for a company, the company must have collected enough feedback overtime to help refine its direction. While this process does not stop, at some point, there is enough feedback for a company to set up guidelines for its design. An assembly of product components and how they may be assembled are put together. A popular approach is atomic design, which documents designs from their singular components to their appearance, along with other components, on pages. 

Even though design systems are a set of standards, these standards must remain flexible to feedback and changes. While design system are not meant to change abruptly, this will be chaotic, they are expected to evolve with time. Companies or product teams must continuously listen to feedback, measure the impact of their design and combine this data with their creative ideas to provide new design solutions. 

After design systems are created, and other values defined, companies need to develop an efficient and effective way of educating everyone in the company of the company’s design direction and system. When such information is broken and does not reach all the people who need it, the essence of the design system becomes defeated and companies may continue to see errors they sought to prevent with the design system. 

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