Does Your Project Need a Design System?

by Andrii M. on Jan 14, 2022

As software development methodologies have evolved over the years, improving project velocity and helping companies achieve a faster time to market, so did the UI/UX design approaches to improve the speed and quality at which UI design is created. To streamline design work and manage further extension of an application or website with efficiency, designers create and maintain a comprehensive design system.

In this short guide, we will help you understand what a design system is, what benefits it can bring, and how to best approach using it on your app or website development project.

What is a design system?

Key takeaway
A design system is a coherently organized set of strict and clear design standards, interconnected patterns, and shared practices that your team follows in the course of digital product design to ensure visual consistency of an application or website in development.

Design systems have changed the very way we approach designing digital products and services. Today more and more organizations incorporate their own unique design systems (think Google and their Material Design) to create a shared design language that would improve the quality of new product design within their business, increase the pace of innovation, and drive success.

Despite some common misconceptions, a design system is not a single deliverable such as, for example, a Sketch library. It is a whole set of crucial UI/UX design deliverables that everybody on the project will refer to when building your digital solution.

The three core elements that make a robust design system

Style guide

A style guide is a document that includes graphic styles and visual references for colors, fonts, icons, illustrations, animations, shapes, and other design elements. Some style guides even provide language recommendations such as the preferred tone of voice. All these elements form the identity of your software product and ensure brand consistency. 

However, a style guide is just the first step in building your design system. Without some clear patterns and rules on how to effectively compose these design elements into a whole, you have smaller chances to succeed in building a consistent and recognizable UI.

Pattern library

A pattern library consists of reusable UI components, layouts, and templates. Here, the design elements are combined into functional blocks that are arranged in accordance with your technical documentation and design principles. Pattern libraries also include specific instructions for both designers and developers on how to properly use these components in building new screens/pages and features so that they deliver a consistent experience.

Design principles and methods

Sometimes a part of a style guide, this document provides specific implementation guidelines to support your design elements, graphic styles, and templates with some methodology. These comprehensive guiding principles help your project team make more meaningful design decisions. It helps create a visual design language with a focus on unique design features and recognizability. This includes documentation guidelines for creating new components and features.

How can your project benefit from building a design system?

When implemented well, a design system serves your project team as the single source of truth that guides their design decisions. Having a set of clear design rules and reusable building blocks enables your team to:

  • significantly decrease the likelihood of design inconsistencies in the course of design implementation, making it easier for your team to add new features avoiding design deterioration.
  • utilize ready-made UI components and design elements to implement new features, screens, and pages faster and without any damage to the overall quality of your product’s design.
  • prioritize solving large, complex UX challenges since all the simple problems are already covered by reusable UI components, consistent styles, detailed documentation, and strict design guidelines.
  • bridge the communication and collaboration gaps between the design and development teams, keeping them in sync and improving the quality of their outputs, which is particularly important when your team is geographically dispersed.
  • create visual consistency across all the products and services within the ecosystem of your application or website to avoid poor user journeys and disjointed experiences.

What are the difficulties in creating a design system?

Design systems are made of many various components, patterns, styles, and guidelines, which means that your own custom one may require significant time and money to implement. Depending on the scale and complexity of your digital solution, you may even need a dedicated team to effectively create and maintain a design system. When poorly implemented and maintained, it can become an unwieldy mess that will bring you more trouble than good.

It is also important that your dedicated design team takes some time to teach the rest of your troops how to use your design system properly. Otherwise, you risk wasting effort and development time around miscommunications, which is particularly relevant to enterprise-level development projects where teams sometimes work in silos, independently of each other.

The decision on whether to build your own design system or use an existing design approach should always be based on the scale of your project, the resources and time available, and the long-term business goals you’re pursuing. 

Considering the difficulties of creating your own design system, you may think that it’s better to use ready-made templates or open-source style guides. However, this only really works for proof of concept designs, initial prototypes, and small, “static” projects that don’t aim for scalability, thus, don’t require a complex design solution. In these cases, creating a full-fledged design system may actually be an overkill.

For projects that have a long-term strategy for expanding their solution and scaling their business, a custom design system is a worthwhile investment that can really help optimize design efforts and bring considerable ROI in the long run. Just be sure to consider the timescale and evaluate possible tradeoffs before you embark on this journey.