Design systems roundup

When I started writing a post about architects, gardeners, and design systems, it was going to be a quick follow-up to my post about web standards, dictionaries, and design systems. I had spotted an interesting metaphor in one of Frank’s posts, and I thought it was worth jotting it down.

But after making that connection, I kept writing. I wanted to point out the fetishism we have for creation over curation; building over maintenance.

Then the post took a bit of a dark turn. I wrote about how the most commonly cited reasons for creating a design system—efficiency and consistency—are the same processes that have led to automation and dehumanisation in the past.

That’s where I left things. Others have picked up the baton.

Dave wrote a post called The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it. What I said resonated with him:

This kills me, but it’s true. We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it. We operate more like Taylor and his stopwatch and Gantt and his charts, maximizing effort and impact rather than focusing on the human aspects of product development.

But he also points out the many benefits of systemetising:

At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.

Emphasis mine. I think that’s a key phrase: “a willing team.”

Ethan tackles this in his post The design systems we swim in:

A design system that optimizes for consistency relies on compliance: specifically, the people using the system have to comply with the system’s rules, in order to deliver on that promised consistency. And this is why that, as a way of doing something, a design system can be pretty dehumanizing.

But a design system need not be a constraining straitjacket—a means of enforcing consistency by keeping creators from colouring outside the lines. Used well, a design system can be a tool to give creators more freedom:

Does the system you work with allow you to control the process of your work, to make situational decisions? Or is it simply a set of rules you have to follow?

This is key. A design system is the product of an organisation’s culture. That’s something that Brad digs into his post, Design Systems, Agile, and Industrialization:

I definitely share Jeremy’s concern, but also think it’s important to stress that this isn’t an intrinsic issue with design systems, but rather the organizational culture that exists or gets built up around the design system. There’s a big difference between having smart, reusable patterns at your disposal and creating a dictatorial culture designed to enforce conformity and swat down anyone coloring outside the lines.

Brad makes a very apt comparison with Agile:

Not Agile the idea, but the actual Agile reality so many have to suffer through.

Agile can be a liberating empowering process, when done well. But all too often it’s a quagmire of requirements, burn rates, and story points. We need to make sure that design systems don’t suffer the same fate.

Jeremy’s thoughts on industrialization definitely struck a nerve. Sure, design systems have the ability to dehumanize and that’s something to actively watch out for. But I’d also say to pay close attention to the processes and organizational culture we take part in and contribute to.

Matthew Ström weighed in with a beautifully-written piece called Breaking looms. He provides historical context to the question of automation by relaying the story of the Luddite uprising. Automation may indeed be inevitable, according to his post, but he also provides advice on how to approach design systems today:

We can create ethical systems based in detailed user research. We can insist on environmental impact statements, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and human rights reports. We can write design principles, document dark patterns, and educate our colleagues about accessibility.

Finally, the ouroboros was complete when Frank wrote down his thoughts in a post called Who cares?. For him, the issue of maintenance and care is crucial:

Care applies to the built environment, and especially to digital technology, as social media becomes the weather and the tools we create determine the expectations of work to be done and the economic value of the people who use those tools. A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement. Tools are always beholden to values. This is well-trodden territory.

Well-trodden territory indeed. Back in 2015, Travis Gertz wrote about Design Machines:

Designing better systems and treating our content with respect are two wonderful ideals to strive for, but they can’t happen without institutional change. If we want to design with more expression and variation, we need to change how we work together, build design teams, and forge our tools.

Also on the topic of automation, in 2018 Cameron wrote about Design systems and technological disruption:

Design systems are certainly a new way of thinking about product development, and introduce a different set of tools to the design process, but design systems are not going to lessen the need for designers. They will instead increase the number of products that can be created, and hence increase the demand for designers.

And in 2019, Kaelig wrote:

In order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need “to see themselves in the objects they have created”.

When “improving productivity”, design systems tooling must be mindful of not turning their users’ craft into commodities, alienating them, like cogs in a machine.

All of this is reminding me of Kranzberg’s first law:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

I worry that sometimes the messaging around design systems paints them as an inherently positive thing. But design systems won’t fix your problems:

Just stay away from folks who try to convince you that having a design system alone will solve something.

It won’t.

It’s just the beginning.

At the same time, a design system need not be the gateway drug to some kind of post-singularity future where our jobs have been automated away.

As always, it depends.

Remember what Frank said:

A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement.

The reasons for creating a design system matter. Those reasons will probably reflect the values of the company creating the system. At the level of reasons and values, we’ve gone beyond the bounds of the hyperobject of design systems. We’re dealing in the area of design ops—the whys of systemising design.

This is why I’m so wary of selling the benefits of design systems in terms of consistency and efficiency. Those are obviously tempting money-saving benefits, but followed to their conclusion, they lead down the dark path of enforced compliance and eventually, automation.

But if the reason you create a design system is to empower people to be more creative, then say that loud and proud! I know that creativity, autonomy and empowerment is a tougher package to sell than consistency and efficiency, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.

Design systems are neither good nor bad (nor are they neutral).

Addendum: I’d just like to say how invigorating it’s been to read the responses from Dave, Ethan, Brad, Matthew, and Frank …all of them writing on their own websites. Rumours of the demise of blogging may have been greatly exaggerated.

Have you published a response to this? :


Evan Travers

Books Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

I’ve been slogging at this one for a bit… the first part is basically an extended version of the same story from Deep Work, but then eventually it opens up into a compelling series of arguments to detach from screen addiction and embrace a healthy and vigorous personal leisure time. I enjoyed it, after I got through the first third.

Links The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it

Often the concise description of the problem is the solution. It can of course be improved, but not bad for two minutes of work. But it only works if people feel they have autonomy and are a part of a cohesive team. Otherwise, they’ll go rogue.

This is a great design system pulse check for where we are as an industry.

Read more…

The smart phone as pacifier - Marginal REVOLUTION

In other words, in a sense, smartphones are not unlike adult pacifiers. This psychological comfort arises from a unique combination of properties that turn smartphones into a reassuring presence for their owners: the portability of the device, its personal nature, the subjective sense of privacy experienced while on the device, and the haptic gratification it affords.

Well, this is terrifying.

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Being a Noob

But if the feeling of being a noob is good for us, why do we dislike it? What […] purpose could such an aversion serve?

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Architects, gardeners, and design systems

In that light, design systems take their place in a long history of dehumanising approaches to manufacturing like Taylorism. The priorities of scientific management are the same as those of design systems increasing efficiency and enforcing consistency.


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Innovation Can’t Keep the Web Fast | CSS-Tricks

If we’re to make progress in making a faster web for everyone, we must recognize some of the impediments to that goal:

  • The relentless desire to monetize every square inch of the web, as well as the army of third party vendors which fuel the research mandated by such fevered efforts.
  • Workplace cultures that favor unrestrained feature-driven development. This practice adds to but rarely takes away from what we cram down the wire to users.
  • Developer conveniences that make the job of the developer easier, but can place an increasing cost on the client

Read more…

A new technique for making responsive, JavaScript-free charts

This is pretty doggone rad. What a unique way of doing charts… I wonder how performant it is with multiple charts on the page?

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Twitter Thread from @skuwamoto on the line between product manager and product designer

This is a question me and my colleagues have been wrestling over for a while… this thread has a lot of great resources and thoughts.

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Building an accessible autocomplete control by Adam Silver | Designer, London, UK.

This is a great resource for building a typeahead or autocomplete. I especially like he walks you through it step by step, explaining both the reasoning and the code.

He even has a good demo here.

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Git the Princess!

I love toggl and this delightful comic only makes it better.

H/T to @codinghorror

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Design systems roundup

Given how many wonderful thinkers have weighed in on this topic in the past few weeks I’m sure you’ve seen this, but it’s a great resource.

There’s a big difference between having smart, reusable patterns at your disposal and creating a dictatorial culture designed to enforce conformity and swat down anyone coloring outside the lines.

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Why recursion matters, part 1: proof by induction – The If Works

In Douglas Hofstadter’s classic book Gödel, Escher, Bach , the philosopher Zenointroduces his famous paradox by saying: Not the wind, not the flag—neither one…

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The design systems we swim in. —

Which brings me back to my earlier question: when was the last time a design system empowered you to make a decision about the best way to proceed?

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Setting Up Your Webcam, Lights, and Audio for Remote Work, Podcasting, Videos, and Streaming

Great resource for anyone with regular internet calls.

(H/T to @chevinbrown for the link)

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CEO By Day. Internet Sleuth By Night.

Recently, I was up until midnight one night after I put my kids to bed, just sitting there and doing research for no reason into the origins of a particular quote.

And at the end of it, I found an answer that I don’t think anyone else in the world has ever found. And that’s fun.

As a rampant consumer of readily available information, this dedication to go deeper, to uncover the truth is intriguing and somewhat convicting to me.

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Why I Quit Google to Work for Myself

February 28, 2018 12-minute read For the past four years, I’ve worked as a software developer at Google. On February 1st, I quit.

This is a good warning to those who think an ‘unbiased fair system’ can replace a healthy line of communication about work and how people should be rewarded.

I proudly and lovingly nursed the pipeline back to health. I fixed dozens of bugs and wrote automated tests to make sure they wouldn’t reappear. I deleted thousands of lines of code that were either dead or could be replaced by modern libraries. I documented the pipeline as I learned it so that the institutional knowledge was available to my teammates instead of siloed in my head.

The problem, as I discovered at promotion time, was that none of this was quantifiable. I couldn’t prove that anything I did had a positive impact on Google.


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How to Take Smart Notes: A Step-by-Step Guide - Nat Eliason

The core idea of Smart Notes is that purely extracting highlights is generally a waste of time. A highlight speaks to you when you take it, but if you don’t capture the idea that the highlight gave you, you’re unlikely to remember the importance of that highlight later. Or even if you do feel some spark when revisiting the highlight, it might be a different interpretation.

If you’ve ever looked back at your book highlights and thought to yourself, “why did I highlight this?” then you know what problem we’re solving here. And if you don’t already take book highlights, even better! You’re going to dramatically level up your reading comprehension and retention.

That’s the cleanest description of the capturing part of zettelkasten I have ever encountered.

Read more…

You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus

COVID-19 is already reported to have killed more than twice that number. With its potent mix of characteristics, this virus is unlike most that capture popular attention: It is deadly, but not too deadly. It makes people sick, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways. Last week, 14 Americans tested positive on a cruise ship in Japan despite feeling fine the new virus may be most dangerous because, it seems, it may sometimes cause no symptoms at all.

The assertion that this virus could just be uncontained and we’d have a COVID-19 season next to flu and cold season is kind of frightening. God is in control of all things, but it is worrisome.

Read more…

How to Dox Yourself on the Internet

A step-by-step guide to finding and removing your personal information from the internet.

I’m probably going to need this eventually.

Read more…

1 Like

# Liked by Marty McGuire on Wednesday, February 5th, 2020 at 2:51pm

Previously on this day

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