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.
Thursday, February 6th, 2020
Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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’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.
Wednesday, July 25th, 2018
I like the questions that the TELUS team ask about any potential components to be added to their design system:
- Is it on brand?
- Is it accessible?
- Has it been tested?
- Can it be reused?
They also have design principles.
Wednesday, June 20th, 2018
- Know where you stand before starting the journey
- Make sure everyone is speaking the same language
- Integrate the right tools into your team’s workflow
Sunday, June 17th, 2018
This looks like a really good (and free!) online book all about design ops.
Tuesday, June 5th, 2018
The steps that the Canva team took to turbocharge their design ops.
I’ll talk about why creating a shared design system has boosted our organizational productivity—and how you can help your teams improve product quality while reducing your company’s ‘design debt’.
Monday, June 4th, 2018
I really like the way that this pattern library includes research insights to provide justification for design decisions.
Monday, May 21st, 2018
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.
Saturday, May 19th, 2018
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.
Friday, February 2nd, 2018
A step-by-step account of trying to find a way to keep Sketch files in sync with the code in a pattern library. The solution came from HTML Sketchapp, a more agnostic spiritual successor to AirBnB’s React Sketchapp.
The contract was incredibly straightforward—as long as you generated HTML, you could import it into Sketch.
After some tinkering, Mark Dalgleish came up with a command line tool to automate the creation of Sketch libraries from HTML elements with
Thursday, January 25th, 2018
Design ops for design systems
Leading Design was one of the best events I attended last year. To be honest, that surprised me—I wasn’t sure how relevant it would be to me, but it turned out to be the most on-the-nose conference I could’ve wished for.
Seeing as the event was all about design leadership, there was inevitably some talk of design ops. But I noticed that the term was being used in two different ways.
Sometimes a speaker would talk about design ops and mean “operations, specifically for designers.” That means all the usual office practicalities—equipment, furniture, software—that designers might need to do their jobs. For example, one of the speakers recommended having a dedicated design ops person rather than trying to juggle that yourself. That’s good advice, as long as you understand what’s meant by design ops in that context.
There’s another context of use for the phrase “design ops”, and it’s one that we use far more often at Clearleft. It’s related to design systems.
Now, “design system” is itself a term that can be ambiguous. See also “pattern library” and “style guide”. Quite a few people have had a stab at disambiguating those terms, and I think there’s general agreement—a design system is the overall big-picture “thing” that can contain a pattern library, and/or a style guide, and/or much more besides:
- Styleguides, Pattern Libraries and Design Languages
- Design Systems vs. Pattern Libraries vs. Style Guides – What’s the Difference?
- Design Systems, Style Guides, and Pattern Libraries: Oh My!
- What’s the difference between style guides, pattern libraries, and design systems?
None of those great posts attempt to define design ops, and that’s totally fair, because they’re all attempting to define things—style guides, pattern libraries, and design systems—whereas design ops isn’t a thing, it’s a practice. But I do think that design ops follows on nicely from design systems. I think that design ops is the practice of adopting and using a design system.
There are plenty of posts out there about the challenges of getting people to use a design system, and while very few of them use the term design ops, I think that’s what all of them are about:
- Why Design Systems Fail
- Tips for in-house teams in a free market software culture
- Putting your design system into practice
Clearly design systems and design ops are very closely related: you really can’t have one without the other. What I find interesting is that a lot of the challenges relating to design systems (and pattern libraries, and style guides) might be technical, whereas the challenges of design ops are almost entirely cultural.
I realise that tying design ops directly to design systems is somewhat limiting, and the truth is that design ops can encompass much more. I like Andy’s description:
Design Ops is essentially the practice of reducing operational inefficiencies in the design workflow through process and technological advancements.
Now, in theory, that can encompass any operational stuff—equipment, furniture, software—but in practice, when we’re dealing with design ops, 90% of the time it’s related to a design system. I guess I could use a whole new term (design systems ops?) but I think the term design ops works well …as long as everyone involved is clear on the kind of design ops we’re all talking about.
Monday, January 1st, 2018
A great round-up of Leading Design—one of the best events I attended in 2017.
Thursday, December 14th, 2017
Great advice from Una on getting buy-in and ensuring the long-term success of a design system.
Wednesday, December 6th, 2017
A great in-depth report from Alice on creating, running, and most importantly, selling an in-house design system. This makes a great companion piece to her Patterns Day talk.
Where internal teams seem to go wrong is not appreciating that the thing they’re building is still a product and so it needs to compete with other products on the market.
Wednesday, November 15th, 2017
A collection of publicly available design systems, pattern libraries, and interface guidelines.