Design Systems Unleashed: Transforming Challenges Into Innovation
In the fast-paced world of product and software design, maintaining consistency, efficiency, and innovation can be an inefficient task. Enter the design system—what we see as an organization’s ecosystem of production-ready design and code assets, documented guidelines, governance models, and operational workflows.
When approached correctly, design systems allow teams to shift their focus from repetitive tasks to the exciting realm of creative exploration and product advancement.
The Anatomy of a Design System
Through the completion of multiple design system projects, One North has discovered that these systems work best when they successfully and harmoniously incorporate four main elements. These elements allow the system to remain flexible, scale with ease, and both promote and integrate shared knowledge along the way.
- Unified visual brand language: Marketing and branding styles—unified rules around typography, color, iconography, and brand philosophy.
- Comprehensive component library: Reusable components made of atomic elements. Design tool and code-based.
- Concise documentation: A single source of truth for UI, UX, code, and technical guidance, serving as a base of information.
- Shared ways of working: Multidisciplinary by design—the guidelines, processes, and agreements that facilitate multidisciplinary teams and their contributors.
The Value of a Design System
Unlocking a multitude of benefits, a well-implemented design system is a strategic backbone for organizations, offering:
- Productivity: Increases time spent on product functionality vs. creating individual assets.
- Cohesion: Creates brand, UX/UI & code consistency across user journeys.
- Scalability: Supports team growth through foundational infrastructure, process, and governance models.
- Quality: Provides design and code QA at the asset level for best practices (i.e., brand, code, accessibility).
- Efficiency: Reduces redundancies in design and development solutioning efforts across product teams.
- Innovation: Design Systems allow for product teams to focus more on innovation versus asset creation.
Now that we have defined what it takes to create a design system and the value it provides, let’s dive into the external factors that will determine the success of your new universal sense of truth.
Design System Happiness
Design system happiness is a crucial, but often overlooked, metric in the landscape of product and software design. Recent statistics shared by Zeroheight indicate a significant disparity between the satisfaction levels of agency contributors, who reported around 43 percent happiness with their design systems, and in-house contributors, who expressed a mere 20 percent happiness.
There is a noteworthy opportunity for improvement in the realm of design systems, and we recognize this as a key area of focus for organizations. Our own experiences on various projects echo these sentiments, suggesting that organizations using in-house design systems are grappling with frustration and challenges in breaking down siloed disciplines and achieving consistency.
Designers, yearning for the freedom to create the next big thing, find themselves constrained by the rigid structures of design systems. Developers, always eager to explore the latest frameworks, are confronted with the necessity of adhering to a designated system. It’s a delicate balance that, if mishandled, can lead to dissatisfaction and hindered innovation. At our core, One North aims to bridge this gap and guide our clients toward heightened design system happiness scores and substantially build upon the satisfaction we experience from an agency perspective.
Our role extends beyond mere implementation; we strive to be the cheerleaders, the catalysts that convey the tangible benefits of design systems. Through thoughtful communication and strategic interventions, we help transform design systems from potential sources of frustration to invaluable tools that enhance organizational efficiency and creativity.
The Good and The Bad
We have found that most of the frustration in working with design systems stems from internal issues of communication and competing priorities. If there is poor communication between teams when building a design system, the project can seem never-ending, with teams constantly regrouping on the vision and priority of execution of the varying elements. Having a multidisciplinary group of skill sets when building a design system is integral, but clashing internal ways of working can make or break the whole project. Once clear communication and harmonious shared ways of working are established, the benefits are completely transformative.
Over time, we have also discovered a dichotomy that exists when it comes to building and maintaining a design system. On one side—a laser focus on product improvement, and, on the other—a landscape filled with challenges in communication and opposing team dynamics. Perhaps unexpectedly, this discourse prompts contemplation on the notion of a design system maturity model. Maturity models can help assess the performance and development of a project and identify how capable they are of continuous improvement. When contemplating a design system maturity model, we have deduced that the success of a product may be a direct reflection of a well-functioning design system and effective communication, thus supporting the previously stated dichotomy.
Demystifying Design Systems
A key idea that we like to focus on at One North is that design systems should be empowering and fun. We recognize that in the world of marketing and technology, many solutions tend to not actually solve the problem itself, but rather solve the way of work to get to the problem. Shared context and language make the working environment across disciplines more enjoyable, where the “fun” is found by reducing the frustration, friction, and fatigue.
By leveraging a tool that serves as a universal source of truth, users can reduce cognitive load, focus more on their “actual work,” bridge cross-functional disciplines with a shared language, and find gratification in solving complex problems with fewer hurdles to navigate. Your design system should not merely be a tool; it should be a companion, an ally in the pursuit of organizational excellence.
It’s important to note that just because you build it does not mean they will come. How design systems are embraced and integrated into daily workstreams is just as important as the build itself. As you navigate the landscape of design systems, consider these questions: Does your design system empower or hinder? Does it contribute to the pain and friction sometimes associated with its implementation, or does it act as the much-needed assistive force, making the journey not only bearable but enjoyable?
Let’s shift the narrative. Let’s redefine how design systems are perceived and implemented. Because, in the end, a well-crafted design system should be the force that turns the potential chaos of creation into a symphony of innovation and success.
As a Figma Signature Service Partner, One North can empower your team’s design system by helping you migrate to—and make the most of—Figma. If you’re looking to realize more accurate, consistent, and efficient workflows, click the button below to learn more about One North’s Figma capabilities.
Photo Credit: Galina Nelyubova | Unsplash
Benjamin Ellis, a UX/UI Studio Manager at One North, guides and empowers his highly skilled UX team to create interactive digital experiences. As one of the first technical solutioners clients encounter, he builds out strategic proposals by balancing capabilities and navigating complexities. Benjamin applies his deep customer focus to help clients navigate grey areas and develop strategic paths forward through the unknown.
What emoji do you use most frequently? This one is easy 😝
Nick Villapiano is the Associate Director of Front-end Development. He is responsible for leading the front-end development practice and managing its practitioners. His background in branding, UX, and project management allows him to maneuver complex spaces beyond just coding and use his wide breadth of skills and concentration in one area.
Most unusual job? I spent my 20s playing in a rock and roll band that was signed to a major record label.
What’s a superpower you wish you had? I’d like to have the Point of View gun from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie. Feels like you could do a lot of good with something like that.