Imagine design systems as LEGO pieces. A LEGO set contains bricks, plates, studs, tiles, and tiny human figurines. And you can re-use LEGO sets to build an unlimited variety of things.
In the same way, design systems consist of a series of elements that can be reused in different combinations, to make it easier to manage design at scale.
In this article, you are going to explore why design systems are so crucial for every design team and project and the steps to creating an efficient design system.
Meaning of Design Systems: Simply Explained
A Design System consists of UI components and a clearly defined visual style, released as both code implementations and design artefacts.
It allows for sharing of assets, fonts, etc. across multiple designers and creates an organized, central repository for common usage throughout your team.
A design system enables the design team and UI engineers to collaborate and create a seamless user experience while maintaining the consistency of the brand.
4 Key Benefits of Building and Using Design Systems
Every UX design team should consider building a design system for each project as they offer these 4 key benefits:
Design systems introduce a shared set of principles and rules to build components. They allow the designers to re-use the components virtually infinite times.
Also, they eliminate any kind of duplication in the components. Hence, it becomes much easier to create consistent experiences across different platforms.
Design systems allow designers to automatically update shared elements in a design after updating just one of those elements. This not only saves time and effort of updating elements and styles individually but also removes any chance of errors that can occur.
In the case of time-sensitive projects, it becomes an absolute necessity to create and use design systems. Without it, the team can never meet the intended deadline, and it also puts immense amounts of pressure on the designers to deliver. This causes designers to create products with design inconsistencies and incorrect prototypes.
In the case of small design projects such as designing a simple website or a landing page, design systems are not required. But in the case of enterprise projects, designing a digital product without design systems can quickly turn into a nightmare.
This is because enterprise-level projects involve designing in coordination with large, multi-functional teams both within the brand and with the agency partners. Without design systems in place, the entire project can go haywire.
Another important factor to consider is competition. Enterprise products need to be designed and developed quickly, in order to react to the competitors. Without design systems, even a small change would take weeks, and as a result, it can be delayed for an extended period of time.
Another advantage of design systems is that they can be expanded as and when the project scales. This allows designers and developers to work in perfect sync without having to create redundant elements which are added to the project.
Just as design systems offer benefits of collaboration, which is highly useful, especially for enterprise-level projects, it also helps achieve scalability for the same.
Enterprise products are destined for continuous evolution, repetitive testing and frequent iterations. Here, the role of design systems is of paramount importance as it offers avenues to designers to make changes in the master component and the rest of the instances are updated automatically.
Steps to create an efficient design system
So now that you have read why design systems are so important, let’s now see the process of actually creating one. It comprises of 7 steps, which are listed below.
- Discuss project requirements
- Obtain brand guidelines from the client
- Conduct a component audit
- Create a list of required components
- Design the foundation
- Design the components
- Conduct a quality check and implement
Let’s explore each step one by one.
1. Discuss project requirements
Once you have the brand guidelines, you can discuss them with your design team as well as the client regarding the project’s scope.
It is very likely that the client already has references with them and they want to create their product on similar lines.
For example, an online hotel booking company may provide you with the reference of Airbnb, Makemytrip, Goibibo etc.
Basically, you need to know about the client’s expectations of how their product should be. You along with your design team should finalize the same with the client before starting the project.
2. Obtain brand guidelines
The next step is to obtain the brand guidelines from the client. It will help in choosing the colour palette, typography, icons, illustrations and images.
If the client doesn’t have brand guidelines, you may advise them on selecting the visual elements based on their nature of business and target audience.
For example, if the client is a banking organization, you can go with a blue colour scheme and sans-serif fonts to project a trustworthy, prudent and modern image.
3. Conduct a component audit
To start creating a design system, you must first take stock of the existing components used in the project. You need to carefully assess them and look for design inconsistencies.
This step also helps in reviewing the inventory of all the components as well as categorizing them as per their use cases.
To conduct this audit, you can use tools like Trello to get a bird’s eye view of the existing components. You can create a separate list that represents each page of the website or the app.
Within each list, you can insert screenshots of different sections of a page and organize them into cards. You then tag each card with labels that represent each component present within the section of the page.
It is important that you colour code the labels based on the type of component, e.g. checkboxes, radio buttons etc.
This will help you to easily identify the existing components and also will serve as a reference when you cross-check them with the new wireframes.
You can skip this step if you don’t already have the existing design system in place, or you are working on an entirely new project for a different client.
4. Create a list of required components
Once you have audited the components, it is now time to create a list of the required components for the project in question. This will be done in accordance with the findings of the audit and the finalized wireframes.
You can use documentation tools such as Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets or Notion to categorically list the components. The main categories include foundation, form elements and other components.
By creating the list it is ensured that you don’t miss out on a single component and they are well organized for anyone on the design team to review and use.
5. Design the foundation
Foundations are the visual elements needed to create engaging end-to-end user experiences. This includes guidance on iconography, typography, layout and structure.
Let’s briefly see what constitutes the foundation in design systems.
- Colour: Colour distinguishes our brand and helps us create consistent experiences across products.
- Grid: The grid is the foundation for positioning elements on the screen. Designing to the grid helps create seamless, easy to follow experiences.
- Typography: Typography is a system of fonts. Each font conveys the appropriate sentiment to assist our users through each stage of their journey.
- Logo: A logo is a brand’s primary asset and it should be displayed without any kind of alteration.
- Iconography: Icons are visual representations of commands, devices, directories, or common actions
- Illustrations: Illustrations help convey complex ideas in a simple way. They should be meaningful and reflect a user’s context and emotional state.
- Accessibility: Accessible design lets people of all abilities interact with, understand, and navigate our products.
6. Design the components
Once your foundation is ready, you can now start designing the components that can be used in creating the design of the entire product.
The type of components include but are not limited to:
- Input Controls: checkboxes, radio buttons, dropdown lists, list boxes, buttons, toggles, text fields, date field
- Navigational Components: breadcrumb, slider, search field, pagination, tags, icons
- Informational Components: tooltips, icons, progress bar, notifications, message boxes, modal windows
- Containers: accordion
These are the most common and most widely used types of components. You are free to design custom components based on the project requirements.
One important thing to keep in mind is that while designing these components, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. You should keep them predictable, and intuitive.
Users have become familiar with elements acting in a certain way, so choosing to adopt those elements when appropriate will help with task completion, efficiency, and satisfaction.
For example, using a cross icon instead of a trash can for the delete option might confuse the user and make the wrong decision.
7. Conduct a quality check and implement
Now that you have completed creating the entire design system, you should ask the design team lead to conduct a quality check. This will ensure that there are no loopholes in the design systems and will save enough headache when you actually start using it in your design project.
Once the quality check is over, you can implement the design system and inform everyone on the team to utilize it while working on the designs.
Challenges in creating design systems and overcoming them
While as designers, you are well aware of the importance of the design systems, you may face certain challenges in creating one.
So let’s see what hurdles you may have to jump through to get to the finish line.
1. Design system is not treated as a project
The main challenge is to treat design systems as a project itself. And, just like a project, it needs an equal attention in maintaining and updating the same.
Some organizations consider it as a low priority work, a side project that can be done on weekends or in free time.
But the fact is, design systems are the very building blocks of the design project, and if they are not dealt with diligently, it may result in a major loss of time and effort.
A practical solution is to assign a team member the responsibility of creating the design system before beginning the UI design. This will ensure that all team members are well aware of its existence and hence, they can work more efficiently.
2. Non-designers don’t take the ownership
One common misconception is that design systems are meant for designers, and hence, they are the sole owners of it. But that’s not true.
All the team members should understand that design systems serve a different purpose to each of them.
Designers use it in creating UI design, product managers ensure that it is consistent with brand guidelines and product requirements and developers use it for design artefacts.
So, it is important to create a sense of alignment, understanding and shared ownership amongst them.
3. Design system is not a one-shot job
One very wrong assumption is that once a design system is created, you’re done. Design systems are not just meant to be created and kept aside forever.
They are made to evolve as per the technological developments and innovations, as well as design trends.
It is important to make the design systems modular and compatible enough to support different processes, methodologies and technologies.
Benefits of Design Systems
Now that you know how to create a design system and build the UI designs based on them, you will experience the benefits that design systems offer.
1. Efficient product management
By breaking design elements into homogenized components, design systems make the whole process more efficient. Planning, designing, testing and coding are all streamlined to reduce wasting time.
Enhanced UX and customer satisfaction
They make it easy to keep track of what your users like and dislike, retaining the former and disregarding the latter. They ensure all your products use only the UX elements your customers prefer.
2. Optimized internal communication
As a standardized document, design systems minimize the amount of miscommunication. They keep everyone on the same page to avoid confusion.
3. Consistency across all products
Your loyal customers expect a certain level of excellence on all the products, apps, and sites you launch. Deliver consistent quality and familiar usability on every single product by using identical components.
4. Less version control issues
Updating the same bug on different products can get annoying, not to mention time-consuming. With design systems, you update once and it populates all occurrences.
Design systems are a game-changer in the world of digital design. They not just ease and speed up the process of design but keep the overall product’s design consistent. If used diligently, they can greatly benefit the design team as well as the organization in creating better products in a much faster way.
If you are new to the concept of design systems, we would recommend reading our article – A complete beginners guide to design systems, in which we explain everything about design systems in much simpler words.
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