I’d maybe simplify this people problem a bit: the codebase is easy to change, but the incentives within a company are not. And yet it’s the incentives that drive what kind of code gets written — what is acceptable, what needs to get fixed, how people work together. In short, we cannot be expected to fix the code without fixing the organization, too.
Sunday, October 18th, 2020
Monday, October 5th, 2020
These survey results show that creating and maintaining an impactful design system comes with challenges such as planning a clear strategy, managing changes to the system, and fostering design system adoption across the organization. Yet the long-lasting value of a mature design system—like collaboration and better communication—awaits after the hard work of overcoming these challenges is done.
Saturday, October 3rd, 2020
A great talk by Ethan called The Design Systems Between Us.
Friday, September 18th, 2020
Don’t blame it on the COBOL:
It’s a common fiction that computing technologies tend to become obsolete in a matter of years or even months, because this sells more units of consumer electronics. But this has never been true when it comes to large-scale computing infrastructure. This misapprehension, and the language’s history of being disdained by an increasingly toxic programming culture, made COBOL an easy scapegoat. But the narrative that COBOL was to blame for recent failures undoes itself: scapegoating COBOL can’t get far when the code is in fact meant to be easy to read and maintain.
It strikes me that the resilience of programmes written in COBOL is like the opposite of today’s modern web stack, where the tangled weeds of nested dependencies ensures that projects get harder and harder to maintain over time.
In a field that has elevated boy geniuses and rockstar coders, obscure hacks and complex black-boxed algorithms, it’s perhaps no wonder that a committee-designed language meant to be easier to learn and use—and which was created by a team that included multiple women in positions of authority—would be held in low esteem. But modern computing has started to become undone, and to undo other parts of our societies, through the field’s high opinion of itself, and through the way that it concentrates power into the hands of programmers who mistake social, political, and economic problems for technical ones, often with disastrous results.
Monday, July 13th, 2020
It all started at Patterns Day…
(Note: you’ll probably need to use Reader mode to avoid taxing your eyes reading this—the colour contrast …doesn’t.)
Wednesday, July 8th, 2020
Design systems on the Clearleft podcast
If you’ve already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, thank you! The first episode is sliding into your podcast player of choice.
This episode is all about …design systems!
I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out, although as it’s the first one, I’m sure I’ll learn how to do this better. I may end up looking back at this first foray with embarrassment. Still, it’s fairly representative of what you can expect from the rest of the season.
This episode is fairly short. Just under eighteen minutes. That doesn’t mean that other episodes will be the same length. Each episode will be as long (or as short) as it needs to be. Form follows function, or in this case, episode length follows content. Other episodes will be longer. Some might be shorter. It all depends on the narrative.
This flies in the face of accepted wisdom when it comes to podcasting. The watchword that’s repeated again and again for aspiring podcasters is consistency. Release on a consistent schedule and have a consistent length for episodes. I kind of want to go against that advice just out of sheer obstinancy. If I end up releasing episodes on a regular schedule, treat it as coincidence rather than consistency.
There’s not much of me in this episode. And there won’t be much of me in most episodes. I’m just there to thread together the smart soundbites coming from other people. In this episode, the talking heads are my colleagues Jon and James, along with my friends and peers Charlotte, Paul, and Amy (although there’s a Clearleft connection with all of them: Charlotte and Paul used to be Clearlefties, and Amy spoke at Patterns Day and Sofa Conf).
I spoke to each of them for about an hour, but like I said, the entire episode is less than eighteen minutes long. The majority of our conversations ended up on the cutting room floor (possibly to be used in future episodes).
Most of my time was spent on editing. It was painstaking, but rewarding. There’s a real pleasure to be had in juxtaposing two snippets of audio, either because they echo one another or because they completely contradict one another. This episode has a few examples of contradictions, and I think those are my favourite moments.
Needless to say, eighteen minutes was not enough time to cover everything about design systems. Quite the opposite. It’s barely an introduction. This is definitely a topic that I’ll be returning to. Maybe there could even be a whole season on design systems. Let me know what you think.
Oh, and you’ll notice that there’s a transcript for the episode. That’s a no-brainer. I’m a big fan of the spoken word, but it really comes alive when it’s combined with searchable, linkable, accessible text.
Wednesday, July 1st, 2020
Smart thoughts from Ethan on how design systems can cement your existing ways of working, but can’t magically change how collaboration works at your organisation.
Modern digital teams rarely discuss decisions in terms of the collaborative costs they incur. It’s tempting—and natural!—to see design- or engineering-related decisions in isolation: that selecting Vue as a front-end framework only impacts the engineering team, or that migrating to Figma only impacts designers. But each of these changes the way that team works, which impacts how other teams will work and collaborate with them.
Monday, June 1st, 2020
Sara shares how she programmes with custom properties in CSS. It sounds like her sensible approach aligns quite nicely with Andy’s CUBE CSS methodology.
Oh, and she’s using Fractal to organise her components:
I’ve been using Fractal for a couple of years now. I chose it over other pattern library tools because it fit my needs perfectly — I wanted a tool that was unopinionated and flexible enough to allow me to set up and structure my project the way I wanted to. Fractal fit the description perfectly because it is agnostic as to the way I develop or the tools I use.
Friday, May 29th, 2020
I really, really like Andy’s approach here:
The focus of the methodology is utilising the power of CSS and the web platform as a whole, with some added controls and structures that help to keep things a bit more maintainable and predictable. The end-goal is shipping as little CSS as possible—leaning heavily into progressive enhancement and modern techniques.
If you use the cascade for everything, you’re going to run into trouble. But equally, micro-managing styles on every element will also get you into trouble. I think Andy’s found a really great sweet spot here that gets the balance just right.
CUBE CSS in essence, is a progressive enhancement approach, vs a fight against the grain of CSS or a pixel-pushing your project to within an inch of its life approach.
Yes! It feels very “webby” to me.
Tuesday, May 19th, 2020
Five moments in the lifecycle of a design system. They grow up so fast!
- Formation of the Design System Team
- First Page Shipped
- Consumable Outside the Main Product
- First Non-System Team Consumer
- First Breaking Change
Dave makes the observation that design systems are less like open source software and more like enterprise software—software you didn’t choose to use:
Often, in my experience, for an internal Design System to have widespread adoption it requires a literal executive mandate from the top floor of the building.
Also: apparently design systems have achieved personhood now and we’re capitalising them as proper names. First name Design, last name System.
“Please, call me Design. Mr. System was my father.”
Monday, May 18th, 2020
Hard to break
I keep thinking about some feedback that Cassie received recently.
She had delivered the front-end code for a project at Clearleft, and—this being Cassie we’re talking about—the code was rock solid. The client’s Quality Assurance team came back with the verdict that it was “hard to break.”
Hard to break. I love that. That might be the best summation I’ve heard for describing resilience on the web.
If there’s a corollary to resilient web design, it would be brittle web design. In a piece completely unrelated to web development, Jamais Cascio describes brittle systems:
When something is brittle, it’s susceptible to sudden and catastrophic failure.
That sounds like an inarguably bad thing. So why would anyone end up building something in a brittle way? Jamais Cascio continues:
Things that are brittle look strong, may even be strong, until they hit a breaking point, then everything falls apart.
Ah, there’s the rub! It’s not that brittle sites don’t work. They work just fine …until they don’t.
Brittle systems are solid until they’re not. Brittleness is illusory strength. Things that are brittle are non-resilient, sometimes even anti-resilient — they can make resilience more difficult.
Kilian Valkhof makes the same point when it comes to front-end development. For many, accessibility is an unknown unknown:
When you start out it’s you, notepad and a browser against the world. You open up that notepad, and you type
<div onclick="alert('hello world');">Click me!</div>
You fire up your browser, you click your div and …it works! It just works! Awesome. You open up the devtools. No errors. Well done! Clearly you did a good job. On to the next thing.
At the surface level, there’s no discernable difference between a resilient solution and a brittle one:
For all sorts of reasons, both legitimate and, as always, weird browser legacy reasons, a clickable
divwill mostly work. Well enough to fool someone starting out anyway.
If everything works, how would they know it kinda doesn’t?
Killian goes on to suggest ways to try to make this kind of hidden brittleness more visible.
Furthermore we could envision a browser that is much stricter when developing.
This something I touched on when I was talking about web performance with Gerry on his podcast:
There’s a disconnect in the process we go through when we’re making something, and then how that thing is experienced when it’s actually on the web, which is dependent on network speeds and processing speeds and stuff.
I spend a lot of time wondering why so many websites are badly built. Sure, there’s a lot can be explained by misaligned priorities. And it could just be an expression of Sturgeon’s Law—90% of websites are crap because 90% of everything is crap. But I’ve also come to realise that even though resilience is the antithesis to brittleness, they both share something in common: they’re invisible.
We have a natural bias towards what’s visible. Being committed to making sure something is beautiful to behold is, in some ways, the easy path to travel. But being committed to making sure something is also hard to break? That takes real dedication.
Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
I enjoyed talking with Chris about design systems (and more). The episode is now available for your huffduffing pleasure.
Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
Working in a big organization is shocking to newcomers because of this, as suddenly everyone has to be consulted to make the smallest decision. And the more people you have to consult to get something done, the more bureaucracy exists within that company. In short: design systems cannot be effective in bureaucratic organizations. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Who hurt you, Robin?
Monday, March 23rd, 2020
- Design systems haven’t “solved” inconsistency. Rather, they’ve shifted how and when it manifests.
- Many design systems have introduced another, deeper issue: a problem of visibility.
Ethan makes the case that it’s time we stopped taking a pattern-led approach to design systems and start taking a process-led approach. I agree. I think there’s often more emphasis on the “design” than the “system”.
Is making your design system public worth the effort? In short: yes, it is.
I agree with Dan. But I wish that more people would make their design system mistakes and misteps public, like Robin talked about.
Monday, February 24th, 2020
Through planning and architectural design, Le Corbusier hoped to create a scientifically rational and comprehensive solution to urban problems in a way that would both promote democracy and quality of life. For him, the factory production process applied to high-rise buildings with prefabricated and standardized components is the most modern and egalitarian of urban forms.
Something something top-down design systems.
Thursday, February 6th, 2020
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.
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.
This is something we’ve learned at Clearleft—you can’t create a design system for an organisation, hand it over to them, and expect it to be maintained.
You can’t just hire an agency to create a design system and expect that the system alone will solve something. It won’t do much before the people in the organization align on this idea as well, believe in it, invest in it, and create a culture of collaboration around it.
The people who will be living with the design system must be (co-)creators of it. That’s very much the area we work in now.
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.