The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham
Design systems have dominated web design conversations for a few years. Just as there’s no one way to make a website, there is no one way to make a design system. Unfortunately this has led to a lot of misconceptions around the creation and impact of this increasingly important tool.
Drawing on her experiences building design systems at two highly visible and vastly different organizations, Mina will debunk some common myths surrounding design systems.
Mina is a designer who codes. Or an engineer who designs. She makes websites. She works at Slack, but she doesn’t work on the product; she works on slack.com and the Slack blog. Mina also makes design systems. She loves design systems!
There are some myths she’s heard about design systems that she wants to dispel. She will introduce us to some mythological creatures along the way.
Myth 1: Designers “own” the design system
Mina was once talking to a product designer about design systems and was getting excited. The product designer said, nonplussed, “Aren’t you an engineer? Why do you care?” Mina explained that she loved design systems. The product designer said “Y’know, design systems should really be run by designers” and walked away.
Mina wondered if she had caused offense. Was she stepping on someone’s toes? The encounter left her feeling sad.
Thinking about it later, she realised that the conversation about design systems is dominated by product designers. There was a recent Twitter thread where some engineers were talking about this: they felt sidelined.
The reality is that design systems should be multi-disciplinary. That means engineers but it also means other kinds of designers other than product designers too: brand designers, content designers, and so on.
What you need is a hybrid, or unicorn: someone with complimentary skills. As Jina has said, design systems themselves are hybrids. Design systems give hybrids (people) a home. Hybrids help bring unity to an organization.
Myth 2: design systems kill creativity
Mina hears this one a lot. It’s intertwined with some other myths: that design systems don’t work for editorial content, and that design systems are just a collection of components.
Components are like mermaids. Everyone knows what one is supposed to look like, and they can take many shapes.
But if you focus purely on components, then yes, you’re going to get frustrated by a feeling of lacking creativity. Mina quotes @brijanp saying “Great job scrapbookers”.
Design systems encompass more than components:
- High level principles.
- Brand guidelines.
- Coding standards.
- Accessibility compliance.
A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.
Rules and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Rules can be broken.
For a long time, Mina battled against one-off components. But then she realised that if they kept coming up, there must be a reason for them. There is a time and place for diverging from the system.
It’s like Alice Lee says about illustrations at Slack:
There’s a time and place for both—illustrations as stock components, and illustrations as intentional complex extensions of your specific brand.
Your design system is your pantry, not your cookbook.
If you keep combining your ingredients in the same way, then yes, you’ll keep getting the same cake. But if you combine them in different ways, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Find the key moments of brand expression.
There are strict and loose systems.
Strict design systems are what we usually think of. AirBnB’s design system is a good example. It’s detailed and tightly controlled.
A loose design system will leave more space for experimentation. TED’s design system consists of brand colours and wireframes. Everything else is left to you:
Consistency is good only insofar as it doesn’t prevent you from trying new things or breaking out of your box when the context justifies it.
A good design sytem helps you improvise.
Thinking about strict vs. loose reminds Mina of product vs. marketing. A design system for a product might need to be pixel perfect, whereas editorial design might need more breathing room.
Mina has learned to stop fighting the one-off snowflake components in a system. You want to enable the snowflakes without abandoning the system entirely.
A loose system is key for maintaining consistency while allowing for exploration and creativity.
Myth 3: a design system is a side project
Brad guffaws at this one.
Okay, maybe no one has said this out loud, but you definitely see a company’s priorities focused on customer-facing features. A design system is seen as something for internal use only. “We’ll get to this later” is a common refrain.
“Later” is a mythical creature—a phoenix that will supposedly rise from the ashes of completed projects. Mina has never seen a phoenix. You never see “later” on a roadmap.
Don’t treat your design system as a second-class system. If you do, it will not mature. It won’t get enough time and resources. Design systems require real investment.
Mina has heard from people trying to start design systems getting the advice, “Just do it!” It seems like good advice, but it could be dangerous. It sets you up for failure (and burnout). “Just doing it” without support is setting people up for a bad experience.
The alternative is to put it on the roadmap. But…
Myth 4: a design system should be on the product roadmap
At a previous company, Mina once put a design system on the product roadmap because she saw it wasn’t getting the attention it needed. The answer came back: nah. Mina was annoyed. She had tried to “just do it” and now when she tried to do it through the right channels, she’s told she can’t.
But Mina realised that it’s not that simple. There are important metrics she might not have been aware of.
A roadmap is multi-faceted thing, like Cerebus, the three-headed dog of the underworld.
Okay, so you can’t put the design sytem on the roadmap, but you can tie it to something with a high priority. You could refactor your way to a design system. Or you could allocate room in your timeline to slip in design systems work (pad your estimates a little). This is like a compromise between “Just do it!” and “Put it on the roadmap.”
A system’s value is realized when products ship features that use a system’s parts.
The other problem with putting a design system on the roadmap is that it implies there’s an end date. But a design system is never finished (unless you abandon it).
Myth 5: our system should do what XYZ’s system did
It’s great that there are so many public design systems out there to look to and get inspired by. We can learn from them. “Let’s do that!”
But those inspiring public systems can be like a succubus. They’re powerful and seductive and might seem fun at first but ultimately leave you feeling intimidated and exhausted.
Your design system should be build for your company’s specific needs, not Google’s or Github’s or anyone’s.
Slack has multiple systems. There’s one for the product called Slack Kit. It’s got great documentation. But if you go on Slack’s marketing website, it doesn’t look like the product. It doesn’t use the same typography or even colour scheme. So it can’t use the existing the design system. Mina created the Spacesuit design system specifically for the marketing site. The two systems are quite different but they have some common goals:
- Establish common language.
- Reduce technical debt.
- Allow for modularity.
But there are many different needs between the Slack client and the marketing site. Also the marketing site doesn’t have the same resources as the Slack client.
Be inspired by other design systems, but don’t expect the same resutls.
Myth 6: everything is awesome!
When you think about design systems, everything is nice and neat and orderly. So you make one. Then you look at someone else’s design system. Your expectations don’t match the reality. Looking at these fully-fledged design systems is like comparing Instagram to real life.
The perfect design system is an angel. It’s a benevolent creature acting as an intermediary between worlds. Perhaps you think you’ve seen one once, but you can’t be sure.
The truth is that design system work is like laying down the railway tracks while the train is moving.
For a developer, it is a rare gift to be able to implement a project with a clean slate and no obligations to refactor an existing codebase.
Mina got to do a complete redesign in 2017, accompanied by a design system. The design system would power the redesign. Everything was looking good. Then slowly as the rest of the team started building more components for the website, unconnected things seemed to be breaking. This is what design systems are supposed to solve. But people were creating multiple components that did the same thing. Work was happening on a deadline.
Even on the Hillary For America design system (Pantsuit), which seemed lovely and awesome on the outside, there were multiple components that did the same thing. The CSS got out of hand with some very convoluted selectors trying to make things flexible.
Mina wants to share those stories because it sometimes seems that we only share the success stories.
Share work in progress. Learn out in the open. Be more vulnerable, authentic, and real.