Design Systems & Creativity

A common misconception about Design Systems is that they prohibit designers from being creative. This is far from the truth. Jina Anne, a design systems practitioner and advocate, will share her thoughts and ideas on using design systems to empower and strengthen your creativity while still keeping its goals of scale, maintainability, and efficiency at heart.

Today Jina is talking about design systems and creativity – a show of hands indicates most people here are using a design system! There has been a lot of pushback against design systems in the design community.

An old Apple interview question: imagining an Apple stove… there are a lot of guidelines – particular materials, accessibility requirements and so on. Would you consider that a creative task? (Well surely yes!)

Remembering the CSS Zen Garden – it was an example of how to be creative within constraints.

It’s a perennial question…

Is (x) killing web design?

Generally, no. Things don’t kill design. Design systems aren’t new, they’ve been around for decades.

Many companies surface their Design System through a UI library or something like a Sketch UI kit – those aren’t the design system, they are part of it. The term Design System really refers to the entire design ecosystem including things like brand, voice and tone and so on.

Design systems do not inhibit creativity!

A beautiful design system is about finding the same balance of consistency and variety. Too systematic and the design becomes predictable and repetitive. Too much variation and the system is confusing and overwhelming. Yesenia Perez-Cruz

Andy Clarke famously lamented that many style guides look ugly enough to have been designed by someone who enjoys configuring a router. He argues that we need art direction; that style guides and pattern libraries needn’t be dull; an that there’s no better place to experiment with new things like CSS Grid than your own design system.

Josh Clark wrote an article saying the most exciting design systems are boring. They are not there to invent the design or brand, they are there to curate it. “The design system carries the burden of the boring” so that designers and developers don’t have to.

Freed from some of the daily tedium that can come with being a designer, I can shift the bulk of my time and energy to looking at the bigger picture. – Katey Basye

Raymond Sutedjo-the talked about turning constraints into creativity. Constraints do not need to be suffocating, they can lead you to new paths and surprise you.

What does it meant to be creative? Many people will think about aesthetics, others will talk about problem-solving.


What if there were a school teaching design decentered from the hegemonic design gaze + centered unheard voices/ideas/cultures? – Amelie Lamont

I love traveling to Asian countries because it’s such a good reminder that “minimalism,” symmetry, black/white in design is not all that’s matters; there is so much aesthetic beauty in loud colors and patterns, and visual balance doesn’t only come from evenness. – Isha Kasliwal

The point is that design is heavily influenced by white, euro designers and education reinforces it; and that needs to change.

“I looked at it not from an aesthetic perspective, but what is the company trying to do? How is it moving into the future?” – Jennifer Hom

Salesforce used principles to bring the design system together:

  • Clarity
  • Efficiency
  • Consistency
  • Beauty

Many people will be familiar with the beautiful posters of these principles, illustrated with San Francisco landmarks.

The more decisions you put off, and the longer you delay them, the more expensive they become. – Craig Villamor

Failed design systems are due to a lack of unified vision, shared langauge and purpose.

Collaboration can bring out your creativity.

Mina Markham – “Collaboration breeds creativity.”

Jerlyn Jarnpoon-Phillips (Clearleft) – talks about using sketching as well as a design system.

Not everything has to be in or from the system. It’s ok to have special snowflakes, if they are being used to provide a specific interaction that only serves that context.

It’s ok to evolve a system. Patterns are not dogma.

There are new solutions and products coming out trying to bring design and code closer together:

  • Modulz
  • Interplay
  • Webflow – includes a great CSS Grid editor!

Sometimes it’s fun to do things outside design systems work.

  • US Web Design Standards did a set of design system themed valentine’s day cards
  • Microsoft fluent design did a twitter competition about which bit of swag they wanted
  • Salesforce fcreated a lot of swag to give out

…these things can all generate some excitement.

A last comment is a band metaphor. Jina was attending Design Ops Summit and they had a band get up on stage and start jamming, and they were doing really great freeform jazz – even though they had not played together before. Jazz can be thought of as a pattern library, if you know the patterns people can quickly and easily play together.

Design systems are for people. They’re not about tools and pixels and automation, although those are fun and useful. At the end of the day they are created for people, whether internal consumers or your users.