Every day, a new marketing email, Medium post, or VC who will leave Twitter when they’re cold in a body bag tells us that machine learning (ML, which they call AI because it sounds more expensive) is going to change the way we work. Doesn’t really matter what your job is. ML is going to read, write, code, and paint for us.
Naturally, the excitement around ML has found its way into the design systems community. There’s an apparent natural synergy between ML and design systems. Design systems practitioners are tantalized by the promise of even greater efficiency and scale. We wish a machine would write our docs for us.
We are all, every single one of us, huge fucking nerds.
Craft vs Industry: Separating Concerns by Thomas Michael Semmler: CSS Developer, Designer & Developer from Vienna, Austria
Call me Cassandra:
The way that industry incorporates design systems is basically a misappropriation, or abuse at worst. It is not just me who is seeing the problem with ongoing industrialization in design. Even Brad Frost, the inventor of atomic design, is expressing similar concerns. In the words of Jeremy Keith:
[…] 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.
So no. It is not just you. We all feel it. This quote is from 2020, by the way. What was then a prediction has since become a reality.
This grim assessment is well worth a read. It rings very true.
What could have become Design Systemics, in which we applied systems theory, cybernetics, and constructivism to the process and practice of design, is now instead being reduced to component libraries. As a designer, I find this utter nonsense. Everyone who has even just witnessed a design process in action knows that the deliverable is merely a documenting artifact of the process and does not constitute it at all. But for companies, the “output” is all that matters, because it can be measured; it appeals to the industrialized process because it scales. Once a component is designed, it can be reused, configured, and composed to produce “free” iterations without having to consult a designer. The cost was reduced while the output was maximized. Goal achieved!
Design systems can often ‘read’ as very top down, but need to be bottom up to reflect the needs of different users of different services in different contexts.
I’ve yet to be involved in a design system that hasn’t struggled to some extent for participation and contribution from the whole of its design community.
Aaaaaand the circle is now complete.
It is a crisis of care.
As with anything, it’s not about the technology itself:
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.
Another follow-on to my post about design systems and automation. Here, Matthew invokes the spirit of the much-misunderstood Luddite martyrs. It’s good stuff.
Design systems are used by greedy software companies to fatten their bottom line. UI kits replace skilled designers with cheap commoditized labor.
Agile practices pressure teams to deliver more and faster. Scrum underscores soulless feature factories that suck the joy from the craft of software development.
But progress requires more than breaking looms.
Brad weighs in on what I wrote about design systems and automation. He rightly points out that the issue isn’t with any particular tool—and a design system is, after all, a tool—but rather with the culture and processes of the organisation.
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.
There’s a full-on rant here about the dehumanising effects of what’s called “agile” at scale:
I’ve come to the conclusion that “enterprise web development” is just regular web development, only stripped of any joy or creativity or autonomy. It’s plugging a bunch of smart people into the matrix and forcing them to crank out widgets and move the little cards to the right.
But 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.
Ethan shares his thoughts on what I wrote about design systems and automation. He offers this test on whether a design system is empowering or disempowering:
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?
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.
Dave follows on from my post about design systems and automation.
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.
Just last week I came across an example of what Ethan describes here: accessibility (in a pattern library) left to automatic checks rather than human experience.
Almost every technological innovation over the last 300 years has had side effects which actually increase the number of opportunities for employment. The general trend is that the easier something is to do, the more demand there is for it.
Cameron looks at the historical effects of automation and applies that to design systems. The future he sees is one of increased design democratisation and participation.
This is actually something that designers have been championing for decades – inclusive design at all levels of the company, and an increase in design thinking at all stages of product development. Now that we finally have a chance of achieving that it’s not a time to be scared. It’s a time to be celebrated.
When another company achieves success, there’s a lot of pressure to investigate what they did right and apply that to our own organizations.
But we still have a chance. As long as we run brave organizations made up of even braver souls who are willing to embrace expression, trust their intuition and experiences, and stand up when everyone else is sitting down, we will survive.