A Complete Guide to Design Systems: Types, Benefits, Elements and Best Examples

An illustration of design system

A design system is a single source of truth used to streamline the tasks of an organization’s design team. It establishes a common design language to bring consistency and efficiency to designs. Design systems have changed the way companies – big and small – build digital products. Leaders of large organizations implement it to make their operations design-led and robust.

Stanley Wood, the design director of Spotify, developed its design system, GLUE (a Global Language for a Unified Experience), to solve the lack of consistency in elements across the Spotify ecosystem. When he joined the team in 2012, he realized that not having proper design directions was affecting the output’s quality. In 2013, he created a set of principles to align the team, spread across time zones and projects, under a shared perspective. A standard system made the team more efficient, aligned and intentional towards a common goal.

Design systems are powerful tools that can transform organizations’ product design processes. This guide will help you understand all about it – from definition to types, elements, approaches, steps, and best examples.

What is a Design System

The Neilsen Norman group defines a design system as a complete set of standards intended to manage design at scale using reusable components and patterns.

A design system includes a set of elements that are gathered to create a consistent design experience for products. These elements are guided by clear standards and help to streamline, manage and scale designs.

Design systems are a source of information and provide a shared platform for design teams to collaborate. It is particularly important in today’s times, where providing a consistent user experience across multiple channels and touchpoints is essential.

Design System vs Style Guide vs Pattern Library

It is common to confuse design systems between style guides or pattern libraries. A design system is not simply a collection of design elements; it is more than that. It is a combination of design vision, principles, visual elements, and documentation.

A style guide focuses on the visual aspects, such as colors, fonts, shapes, icons and documents their usage. A pattern library, on the other hand, is a collection of functional components. A design system includes these assets, has structure, meaning, and records. Thus, it acts as a complete guide assisting the design team on all aspects. Every decision in a design process, from what to use, to how to use and why, becomes easier and clearer.

Kinds of Design Systems

When implementing design systems in organizations, it is good to know about the different kinds. The choice can depend on the size of the organization, the number of products and platforms, maturity of the users, etc. Let’s have a look at the three different kinds of design systems. 

Strict vs Loose

A strict system is very broad and comprehensive. It covers almost all use-cases. Every new addition to the system is done after a strict screening process. Such systems have detailed documentation and through coordination between design and development.

A loose system, on the other hand, provides more freedom to the team. Here, the idea is to set up a basic framework while leaving enough space for experimentation and creativity. The team has the flexibility to either use it or not, depending on the situation.

Note: Finding the right balance between strictness and flexibility is key. A highly strict system may feel too restrictive, while a very loose system defeats the purpose of design systems.

Modular vs Integrated

A modular system is composed of multiple parts that are reusable and interchangeable. It is useful for large scale designs like that of ecommerce UX or finance applications. A modular system makes it easy to scale projects quickly and is flexible to varying design requirements.

An integrated system is also composed of parts, but they are not interchangeable. These systems are created for specific circumstances and hence may not have many repeating parts. They are used to simplify designs that require a lot of creative thinking, like portfolios and marketing campaigns.

Centralized vs Distributed

A centralized system has a dedicated team for managing the design system. They are responsible for ensuring that the system meets the needs of users. It is their role to oversee the works of others and evolve the system as required.

In a distributed system, several people from different teams manage the design system and also use it in their daily work. As most users are directly involved and have a feeling of membership, distributed systems have higher chances of adoption.

Benefits of Design Systems

By implementing design systems, organizations can reap various benefits that contribute to their business growth.

  • Quick replication: Since design systems consist of reusable components, it is easy to scale designs with quick replication. It reduces the design effort required by minimizing designing from scratch. For large designs, such as e-commerce projects or enterprise applications, the ease of scale offered by these systems is helpful.
  • Unified language: Just like members of a team communicate in the same language over a meeting call, design systems enable everyone in a design team to talk about the design in one language, irrespective of their geographical location or the module they are working on. It improves cross-functional collaboration and reduces wasted designs.
  • Visual consistency: For designs having multiple checkpoints across channels and platforms, visual consistency is important for a smooth user experience. It can be hard to implement when teams work in silos and operate independently. A design system acts as a central source of components, patterns, and styles. This helps to bring visual consistency in designs across departments and products.
  • More efficiency: Design systems help to cut repetitive work with reusable elements. This saves the time and effort of the design team. It enables them to focus on innovative work that requires their skills. As a result, there is a notable improvement in efficiency and productivity.
  • Better teamwork: Design systems aren’t just about components and elements; they are also about creating a shared vision and aligning everyone to it. It lays the foundation for strong teamwork and also serves as an educational tool for new members of a team to adapt faster.

Approaches to Using Design Systems

To implement a design system in an organization, there are three common approaches.

One is adopting an existing design system as a whole. This approach offers low levels of customization but is cost-effective and easy to implement. It doesn’t offer any brand differentiation and is a good approach if an organization doesn’t need custom solutions.

The second approach is adapting an existing system to an organization’s needs. This takes some time and effort but offers more customization opportunities. Here, organizations may update, redesign, or replace some elements, but a foundation is already in place.

The third approach is creating custom design systems. It is a huge investment and recommended for organizations that require high brand differentiation. Organizations having unique needs which existing systems cannot fulfill opts for this as it offers full customization opportunities. 

Elements of a Design System

The key elements that compose a design system can be categorized into two – tangible and intangible.

Tangible Elements

Tangible elements consist of the design artifacts. These are:

  • Style guide: A style guide serves as a guideline for the visual design decisions. It encompasses aspects such as colors, typography, and iconography. Style guides are useful in creating a brand identity and bringing consistency to design across all touchpoints.
  • Components: Components are the individual UI elements, like buttons and text fields, that make the interface. Each component is created by designers and coded by developers. Reusing components helps designers minimize their time and effort.
  • Patterns: Patterns are libraries where the individual components are grouped together based on contexts to facilitate ease of use. Standardized patterns bring familiarity and consistency to designs.

Intangible Elements

Intangible elements help a design system have direction and unity. They consist of:

  • Design purpose: Aligning a design team around a design purpose/philosophy will strengthen the team and create a bonding. It helps the team have a clear set of goals and define the values that shape all aspects of the design.
  • Design principles: The principles provide a set of rules that guide the design team on how to use the components, patterns, and style guide to create a consistent design experience.
  • Documentation: Documentation describes the design system. It records everything from the UI pattern use cases to visuals, component attributes, code standards, best practices, etc.

Steps to Build a Design System

Five steps to building a design system are:

Step 1: Define the purpose

Before beginning the actual design work, it’s important to define the purpose of the design system. What are you building, and why? This will help to understand how the design system should be, who needs to be involved, what values should be relayed and what objectives are to be achieved.

Step 2: Perform a visual audit

With the purpose in mind, perform a visual audit of the current design. Identify the visual elements that are in use, their quality, how well they align with the design philosophy, etc. Analyzing these will help estimate the effort that would be required to build a design system.

Step 3: Create a design language

The design language is at the heart of a design system. In this step, the focus is on creating a style guide for the system. Colors, typography, and imagery form the core of the design language and they should reflect throughout the digital product.

Step 4: Build a pattern library

The next step is to build the UI components and pattern library. Here the actual components of the UI are examined at a micro-level. They are collected and merged to form the library.

Step 5: Documentation

The last step, documentation, is an unavoidable aspect of design systems. In fact, it is the aspect that separates a design system from a normal pattern library. It is best to bring design and implementation into the documentation as it will give both designers and developers a complete overview rather than just knowing their own part. This will help them make better design decisions.

Examples of Design Systems

Most design systems follow the same structure. They usually have a main navigation for the primary categories like branding, components, code, etc. These categories have sub navigations that frame every detail such as colors, guidelines, and typography. Exploring design systems will give much inspiration and learning opportunities to create your own system. 

Here, we look at the five best design systems of renowned organizations. 

Google Material Design System

When Google published Material Design, it was a turning point in the history of design systems and served as an inspiration to many. Its detailed categorization and cataloging of components stood out and gave order to design processes. Their design philosophy is to create a visual language that combines classic design principles with innovations in technology and provides a unified user experience across all channels. 

Apple Human Interface Guidelines

Apple’s designs are known for their elegance. The design philosophy of Human Interface Guidelines is built on precision, simplicity, empathy, and focus. It provides several developers and designer resources like templates, guidelines, and best practices that people can use in their projects. 

Microsoft Fluent Design System

Fluent Design System emphasizes on inclusivity and designing for all ranges of human diversity. Their design philosophy is to learn from diversity, recognize exclusions and use them as opportunities to create inclusive designs. They provide open-source components and design tools that people can use to recreate the look of the Microsoft ecosystem. 

Atlassian Design System

Atlassian is the name behind project collaboration tools like Jira and Trello and they focus on creating agile solutions to help teams plan and develop their products. Their design philosophy is to help people become more connected by building trust, matching purposes, and maintaining momentum throughout processes. 

Shopify Design System

An ecommerce platform trusted by more than 1 million users, the Shopify design system aims to help people start, run, and grow their businesses easily. The values they share through their design system are empowerment, efficiency, familiarity, and trustworthiness. For ecommerce designs, Shopify’s system is a great source of knowledge and inspiration. 

Impact of Design Systems

A design system is a comprehensive source of information. It can bring a design team together on the same ground and facilitate collaboration. For organizations working remotely with a globally distributed team, design systems are a blessing. It helps to institute direction, avoid overlap, and empower everyone to take right design decisions. 

For a design system to impart maximum benefits to an organization, it is important to make it unique to that organization. Different companies may have different objectives, hence a system that works for one need not work for another. So before building a design system, analyze the unique purpose, the problems to be addressed and the ways design systems can help. It can be a little work, but in the long run, it pays off and makes the organization quite efficient.

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