Tags: styleguides

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Monday, May 7th, 2018

Design systems

Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.

The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.

This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:

Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?

In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.

I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.

Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”

Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”

But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.

Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.

I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.

I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.

One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined

  1. the problem being solved;
  2. when to use this pattern;
  3. when not to use this pattern.

Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.

I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:

What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?

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:

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:

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.

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Herman: Automated Pattern Libraries | OddBird

A lightweight style guide generator. This one uses SassDoc to parse out the documentation for colours, type, etc.

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

Design Systems Handbook - DesignBetter.Co

A weirdly over-engineered online book with bizarre scrolljacking (I would advise disabling JavaScript but then all the links stop working so you won’t be able to go past the table of contents) but it’s free and the content—by Marco Suarez, Jina Anne, Katie Sylor-Miller, Diana Mounter, and Roy Stanfield— looks good:

A design system unites product teams around a common visual language. It reduces design debt, accelerates the design process, and builds bridges between teams working in concert to bring products to life. Learn how you can create your design system and help your team improve product quality while reducing design debt.

Monday, November 27th, 2017

A collection of awesome design systems

A table of design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, or whatever we’re calling them.

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Distilling How We Think About Design Systems

Advice on building design systems:

  • If you can avoid being ambiguous, please do.
  • Favor common understanding over dictionary correctness.
  • Make great operations a priority.
  • Don’t get trapped in defining things instead of explaining things.

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Design Systems | susan jean robertson

Susan reviews Alla’s superb book on design systems:

If you’re interested in or wanting to create a design system or improve the one you have or get buy in to take your side project at work and make it part of the normal work flow, read this book. And even better, get your colleagues to do the same, so you’ll have a shared understanding before you begin the hard work to build your own system.

Susan also published her highlights from the book. I really like that!

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Patterns Day 2017: Paul Lloyd on Vimeo

Paul pulls no punches in this rousing talk from Patterns Day.

The transcript is on his site.

Patterns Day 2017: Paul Lloyd

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Patterns Day 2017: Alice Bartlett on Vimeo

At Patterns Day, Alice shared what she has learned from shepherding the Origami project within the Financial Times.

Patterns Day 2017: Alice Bartlett

Saturday, July 29th, 2017

Patterns Day 2017: Jina Anne on Vimeo

Jina invented an entirely new genre for her Patterns Day talk—autobiographical fantasy.

Patterns Day 2017: Jina Anne

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Patterns Day 2017: Rachel Andrew on Vimeo

Rachel’s fantastic talk from Patterns Day. There’s a lot of love for Fractal specifically, but there are also some great points about keeping a pattern library in sync with a live site, and treating individual components as reduced test-cases.

Patterns Day 2017: Rachel Andrew

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

Patterns Day videos

Eleven days have passed since Patterns Day. I think I’m starting to go into withdrawal.

Fortunately there’s a way to re-live the glory. Video!

The first video is online now: Laura Elizabeth’s excellent opener. More videos will follow. Keep an eye on this page.

And remember, the audio is already online as a podcast.

Patterns Day 2017: Laura Elizabeth on Vimeo

The videos are coming! The videos are coming!

Here’s the first one: Laura Elizabeth opening the show at Patterns Day.

Patterns Day 2017: Laura Elizabeth

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

What’s the difference between style guides, pattern libraries, and design systems? – Joseph Fitzsimmons

Ah, the age-old question!

The Venn diagram here pretty much maps to how I think about these different terms, and how they relate to one another.

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Fantasies of the Future / Paul Robert Lloyd

Paul has published the slides and transcript of his knock-out talk at Patterns Day. This a must-read: superb stuff!

Design systems are an attempt to add a layer of logic and reasoning over a series decisions made by complex, irrational, emotional human beings. As such, they are subject to individual perspectives, biases, and aspirations.

How does the culture in which they are made effect the resulting design?

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

Meet “Design Systems”, A New Smashing Book (Pre-Release) – Smashing Magazine

Alla’s book is going to be a must-have (I know because I’ve been reviewing it as she’s been writing it). Pre-order it now. It’s out in September.

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

Style Guide Guide | Style Guide Guide

If you want to understand the thinking behind this style guide guide, be sure to read Brad’s style guide guide guide.

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Patterns Day speakers

Ticket sales for Patterns Day are going quite, quite briskly. If you’d like to come along, but you don’t yet have a ticket, you might want to remedy that. Especially when you hear about who else is going to be speaking…

Sareh Heidari works at the BBC building websites for a global audience, in as many as twenty different languages. If you want to know about strategies for using CSS at scale, you definitely want to hear this talk. She just stepped off stage at the excellent CSSconf EU in Berlin, and I’m so happy that Sareh’s coming to Brighton!

Patterns Day isn’t the first conference about design systems and pattern libraries on the web. That honour goes to the Clarity conference, organised by the brilliant Jina Anne. I was gutted I couldn’t make it to Clarity last year. By all accounts, it was excellent. When I started to form the vague idea of putting on an event here in the UK, I immediately contacted Jina to make sure she was okay with it—I didn’t want to step on her toes. Not only was she okay with it, but she really wanted to come along to attend. Well, never mind attending, I said, how about speaking?

I couldn’t be happier that Jina agreed to speak. She has had such a huge impact on the world of pattern libraries through her work with the Lightning design system, Clarity, and the Design Systems Slack channel.

The line-up is now complete. Looking at the speakers, I find myself grinning from ear to ear—it’s going to be an honour to introduce each and every one of them.

This is going to be such an excellent day of fun and knowledge. I can’t wait for June 30th!

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Evaluating Tools For Building a Component Library | Chromatic

A comparison of a few different tools for generating pattern libraries.

Spoiler…

In this particular case, Fractal comes out on top:

It has the features we need, and I’m happier than I should be with how simple the directory and file structure is. The documentation has also been super helpful thus far. We’ve customized it with our client’s branding and are ready to roll.

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

Designing inspired style guides presentation slides and transcript | Stuff & Nonsense

Having spent half a decade encouraging people to make their pattern libraries public and doing my best to encourage openness and sharing, I find this kind of styleguide-shaming quite disheartening:

These all offer something different but more often than not they have something in common. They look ugly enough to have been designed by someone who enjoys configuring a router.

If a pattern library is intended to inspire, then make it inspiring. But if it’s intended to be an ever-changing codebase (made for and by the kind of people who enjoy configuring a router), then that’s where the effort and time should be concentrated.

But before designing anything—whether it’s a website or a pattern library—figure out who the audience is first.