What is a Design System

In this article, we'll delve into what a design system is, its historical background, the content parts of it, the processes it supports, and more...

4 min read

In the fast-paced world of design and development, efficiency and consistency are key to success. Design systems are a fundamental tool that has revolutionized the way design and product teams collaborate and create seamless user experiences. In this article, we'll delve into what a design system is, its historical background, the essential components it comprises, the processes it supports, and the key players within product teams who work with it.

The Genesis of Design Systems

To understand the concept of design systems, it's essential to grasp their historical evolution. While the term might sound modern, the roots of design systems can be traced back to style guides and pattern libraries. Large organizations such as IBM and NASA were pioneers in developing comprehensive style guides to ensure brand consistency across various mediums.

Components of a Design System

A design system is a holistic approach to design and development, encompassing a range of elements to streamline the workflow and maintain consistency. Here are the core components of a design system:

Design Principles: These are the guiding philosophies that shape a product's user experience. They provide a clear understanding of the product's identity and purpose.

Typography: A list of fonts, sizes, and alignments that are used across the product. Consistent typography choices ensure that text elements across the product maintain a cohesive look and feel.

Color Palette: A well-defined color scheme helps establish brand identity and maintain visual harmony throughout the design.

UI Components: This includes reusable elements like buttons, forms, navigation bars, and icons. UI components reduce redundancy and accelerate design and development.

Spacing and Layout: Guidelines for spacing, grid systems, and layouts ensure uniformity in the design and promote visual coherence.

Pattern Library: A collection of reusable design elements, components, and patterns that maintain consistency and provide guidelines for creating user interfaces. It serves as a centralized resource for designers and developers to access pre-defined UI elements like buttons, forms, typography, and icons.

IBM's Carbon pattern library

Accessibility Guidelines: Ensures that the product is usable by all, including individuals with disabilities, by following WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).

Content Guidelines: Explained in the following paragraph.

Documentation: Comprehensive documentation provides detailed information on how to use and implement the design system components.

Mailchimp's button component guidelines

The Content Part In Design Systems

Beyond defining visual elements like colors, typography, and UI components, design systems often include a crucial component known as content guidelines.

Content guidelines within design systems play a pivotal role in maintaining a unified brand voice, tone, and messaging across all user interfaces and communication channels. Here's a closer look at what content guidelines typically include:

  1. Tone and Voice: Content guidelines provide clear instructions on the desired tone and voice for your brand. Are you aiming for a casual, friendly tone or a more formal, professional one? Guidelines help your team understand and adhere to the tone that resonates with your target audience.
  2. Language Style: They establish language preferences and rules, such as the use of active voice, avoidance of jargon, and consistent use of terminology. This ensures clarity and consistency in your content.
  3. Writing Style: Content guidelines often include specific writing style recommendations, covering aspects like sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar. This ensures that all written content aligns with the established style.
  4. Glossary: A list of terms that should be used, usually accompanied with their forbidden alternatives. Such a list ensures that every part of the product uses consistent terminology.
  5. Content Templates: Design systems may include templates for common content elements, such as product descriptions, FAQs, and error messages. These templates help maintain consistency in content structure and formatting.
  6. Localization Guidelines: For global brands, content guidelines often address localization considerations, ensuring that content can be easily adapted for different languages and cultures.

Part of Intuit's content guidelines for error messages

On a practical level, content guidelines in design systems usually refer to a content style guide, which usually acts as the source of truth for content guidelines. By incorporating content guidelines into the design system, the entire product team is empowered to create cohesive, on-brand content that enhances the user experience.

Processes Facilitated by Design Systems

Design systems play a crucial role in the development process. Here's how they streamline and enhance various stages of product creation:

Design: Designers can create user interfaces faster by utilizing pre-defined components, styles, and guidelines from the design system. This accelerates the prototyping and wireframing phase.

Development: Developers can easily translate design into code, reducing the risk of inconsistencies and saving time. Consistent UI components lead to more efficient coding.

Testing: Quality assurance teams benefit from design systems by having a clear reference for expected UI behavior, resulting in more effective testing processes.

Scaling: As a product grows, maintaining consistency becomes challenging. Design systems ensure scalability by providing a centralized resource for all design and UI-related assets.

Who Works with Design Systems?

Design systems are collaborative tools that involve several key players within a product team:

Designers: They are responsible for creating and updating design system components, ensuring that they align with the product's vision and user needs.

Developers: Developers use the design system to implement UI elements and ensure that the product's frontend adheres to the design guidelines.

Product Managers: Product managers oversee the integration of design systems into the development process, ensuring that they align with the product roadmap.

Content Designers and UX Writers: Content professionals can utilize the design system to maintain consistency in the language, tone, and content style used throughout the product.

QA Teams: QA teams use the design system as a reference point to validate that the product functions as expected and meets design and usability standards.

IBM's Carbon GitHub repository. Design systems don't end in design, but also implemented in code

Real-World Examples

To illustrate the impact of design systems, let's look at some prominent examples:

IBM's Carbon Design System: IBM's design system is a comprehensive resource that covers everything from user interfaces to AI-powered components. It has enabled IBM to maintain consistency across its vast array of products and services.

Google's Material Design: Material Design is a widely adopted design system that provides guidelines for creating visually appealing and user-friendly Android and web apps. It has set the standard for mobile app design.

Airbnb's Design Language System (DLS): Airbnb's DLS focuses on creating a cohesive and memorable user experience. It has allowed Airbnb to scale its product offerings while maintaining a strong brand identity.

Google's Material Design design system. Design systems include documentation websites that make it easier to use

In conclusion, design systems are more than just a collection of guidelines and components; they are the cornerstone of modern product design and development. By fostering collaboration, ensuring consistency, and streamlining workflows, design systems empower product teams to create exceptional user experiences. Whether you're a startup or a tech giant, embracing the principles of design systems can elevate your product to new heights, ensuring it stands out in a competitive market.

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