Design Systems are for People

Design systems have been around for ages; you can see a little bit into the history of them as brand systems and graphic standards manuals of the past are resurfacing as collectibles today.

However, in today’s modern web and software design industry, there is no denying that design systems are so hot right now. People are making them, sharing them, writing about them, and talking about them… even forming entire teams dedicated to working on them. It has been exciting to see the traction they are gaining, and how far they have come through process, automation, and tooling.

It truly can be a dream product: a design system that scales across many enterprise products, many devices and platforms, and is open source to a larger developer community. What a fun challenge for systems-minded designers and developers. And starting out, you have a pretty good idea of what the end result will be.

But at this scale, there is no end result. There are interesting challenges you will face along the way: internal politics, design changes, business decisions, configuration, deprecation strategies, naming, adoption, onboarding, support, training, governance, resistance… There are implementations and then undoing of those implementations. Enterprise design systems aren’t easy.

But don’t let this intimidate you. There are always lessons to be learned and shared. And we as an industry are constantly iterating and improving on our processes. We’re all in this together.

In this session, Jina, a design systems designer, fan, and advocate — and who was Lead Designer on the Salesforce Lightning Design System — will share some stories and insights into the lessons she has learned designing one of the largest design systems in the industry.

Recently Jina watched The Founder, a biographical drama… and she noticed parallels with the story and her work in design systems. In the movie, the Michael Keaton character Ray uses the chicken and egg argument to sell a new machine to restaurants. The parallel is people who can’t see the value in a design system, because they’re so busy slogging along doing things the slow way.

In the movie, Ray meets the founders of McDonalds; who had a revolutionary streamlined way to run a restaurant down to its minimum requirements, and the ‘speedy’ system of delivering food very fast. They rehearse the flow of a kitchen by chalking it out and testing it.


You can’t innovate on products without innovating on the way you build them.

Design manuals have had a resurgence recently, even as collector’s items (eg. NYC Transit Authority design manual!). The NYCTC design manual includes usability concerns like only giving information to people right at the point of decision, avoiding repetition or information overload.

A lot of people are creating design systems at the moment. These are the modern software evolution of the old design manuals.

We want design systems to help us grow our products; and that’s often the measure of success. Quality of the product, speed to market, efficiency of maintenance. But the ultimate purpose is to make things for people.

We talk about design langauges, which is a way to share language, share terminology, and help people work together to build things for customers.

With the Lightning design system there were guiding principles, but to help make decisions they were ranked. So when tough decisions come up there is an extra layer to help move forward. The idea is to avoid delaying decisions, because delaying decisions makes them more expensive.

When creating a design system, you need to consider the various users. Do internal users feel able to contribute and use it? Does this cross role boundaries?

True collaboration isn’t throwing designs over the wall. – Diana Mounter

The new buzzwords are Design System Ops and DesignOps. Not entirely agreed terms, some treat them interchangeably… the terminology doesn’t really matter.

Link: Introducing design systems ops

DesignOps has a broad view including hiring, onboarding, workflows, as well as the more obvious things like design tools and UI kits. The definition doesn’t matter, in the end it’s whatever works for your team.

We can’t lose empathy. No one tool or approach has to ‘win’. We need people to feel they belong, to feel welcome, not to stomp on their shiny new ideas and tools.

A common objection is that design systems limit creativity. They really don’t. A great demo at a conference recently was four jazz musicians playing together without any rehearsal – they were able to draw on the underlying patterns that work in jazz. It enabled them to create something great, it was a help and not a hindrance.

How can we make the community better, help the world become a better place? Be open, honest, inclusive. Get involved!