Some useful lessons here for strengthening a culture of sustained work on a design system.
Creating and maintaining a design system is like planting a tree—it has to be nurtured and cared for to reap the benefits. The seed of our design system has been planted, and now our teams are working together to maintain and grow it. Our new way of working supports gives people recognition, facilitates trust, and creates strong partnerships.
On the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think, Tim Berners-Lee delivered this address in 1995.
To a large part we have MEMEXes on our desks today. We have not yet seen the wide scale deployment of easy human interfaces for editing hypertext and making links. (I find this constantly frustrating, but always assume will be cured by cheap commercial products within the year.)
You could create components that strike the perfect balance between reuse and context sensitivity. But defining the components of your design system is just the first step. It has to make its way into the product. If it doesn’t, a design system is like a language with no extant literature or seminal texts.
Marissa Christy outlines the reasons why your design system might struggle:
- The redesign isn’t prioritized
- The tech stack is changing
- Maintenance takes discipline
But she also offers advice for counteracting these forces:
- Get buy-in from the whole team
- Prioritize a lightweight re-skin on older parts of the product
- Treat a design system like any other product project: start small
- Don’t wait for others. Lead by example.
- Finally, don’t compare yourself to others on the internet
Looking back on this classic explainer video from eleven years ago, I know exactly what’s meant by this comment:
its weird that when i first saw this video it made me think of the future, and now i watch it and it reminds me of the past..
The hits keep on comin’ from Clearleft. This time, it’s Danielle with an absolutely brilliant and thoughtful piece on the perils of gaps and overlaps in pattern libraries, design systems and organisations.
This is such a revealing lens to view these things through! Once you’re introduced to it, it’s hard to “un-see” problems in terms of gaps and overlaps in categorisation. And even once the problems are visible, you still need to solve them in the right way:
Recognising the gaps and overlaps is only half the battle. If we apply tools to a people problem, we will only end up moving the problem somewhere else.
Some issues can be solved with better tools or better processes. In most of our workplaces, we tend to reach for tools and processes by default, because they feel easier to implement. But as often as not, it’s not a technology problem. It’s a people problem. And the solution actually involves communication skills, or effective dialogue.
That last part dovetails nicely with Jerlyn’s equally great piece.
I know I’m biased because I work with Jerlyn, but I think this in-depth piece by her is really something! She suveys the design system landscape and proposes some lo-fi governance ideas based around good old-fashioned dialogue.
Developing a design system takes collaboration between the makers of the design systems and the different users of the system. It’s a continual process that doesn’t have to require a huge investment in new departments or massive restructuring.
It can start small.
This is a great piece by Alla, ostensibly about Bulb’s design principles, but it’s really about what makes for effective design principles in general. It’s packed full of great advice, like these design principles for design principles:
- Good principles are genuine
- Good principles have a point of view
- Good principles are memorable
I think we often focus on designing or building an element, without researching the other elements it should connect to—without understanding the system it lives in.
This is great advice from Lindsay Grizzard—getting agreement is so much more important than personal preference when it comes to collaborating on a design system.
When starting a project, get developers onboard with your CSS, JS and even HTML conventions from the start. Meet early and often to discuss every library, framework, mental model, and gem you are interested in using and take feedback seriously. Simply put, if they absolutely hate BEM and refuse to write it, don’t use BEM.
It’s all about the people, people!
Dan compares the relationship between a designer and developer in the web world to the relationship between an art director and a copywriter in the ad world. He and Brad made a video to demonstrate how they collaborate.
Digital things look ‘finished’ too soon. When something is a work in progress on a wall, it looks unfinished, so you keep working on it. moving things around, reshaping things, connecting things, erasing things, and making them again. Walls make it easier to iterate. Iteration, in my opinion, is massively correlated with quality.
This looks like a really good (and free!) online book all about design ops.
The transcript of a talk that is fantastic in every sense.
Fans are organised, motivated, creative, technical, and frankly flat-out awe-inspiring.
Susan writes about the challenges when trying to get widespread adoption of a design system. Spoiler: the challenges aren’t technical.
Change is hard. Communication and collaboration are absolutely necessary to make a system work. And the more people you can get involved from various disciplines the better chance you have of maintaining your system.
Amber gave a lightning talk about pair programming at the Beyond Tellerrand Düsseldorf side event. Here is the transcript of that presentation.
The fact that everyone has different personalities, means pairing with others shouldn’t be forced upon anyone, and even if people do pair, there is no set time limit or a set way to do so.
So, there’s no roadmap. There’s no step-by-step guide in a readme file to successfully install pair programming
A good developer…
- follows the KISS principle (and respects YAGNI)
- knows how to research
- works well with others
- finds good developer tools
- tests code
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall at a CSS Working Group meeting, Richard has the inside scoop.
The consensus building is vital. Representatives from all the major browsers were in the room, collaborating closely by proposing ideas and sharing implementations. But most fundamentally they were agreeing together what should go in the specifications, because what goes in the specs is what gets built and ends up in the hands of users.
An interesting piece by Jessica Kerr that draws lessons from the histories of art and science and applies them to software development.
This was an interesting point about the cognitive load of getting your head around an existing system compared to creating your own:
And just because I’ve spent most of last year thinking about how to effectively communicate—in book form—relatively complex ideas clearly and simply, this part really stood out for me:
When you do have a decent mental model of a system, sharing that with others is hard. You don’t know how much you know.