Your design system is a product

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Elevating the status of your design system might be the key to realising your product ambitions. 

As Nathan Curtis describes in ‘Team Models for Scaling a Design System’, businesses generally subscribe to a solitary, centralised or federated model to manage their design systems. Solitary, as the name suggests, is a design system governed by a single person who may have in depth knowledge but may not be able to scale solutions at pace to meet a larger organisation’s needs. A centralised team has responsibility for design decisions across the business, even if they’re not always responsible for designing products themselves. This allows them to serve many teams, but they don’t always have the clout required to engage product owners at the top level. 

Connecting disparate entities

Organisations, particularly larger organisations, aspire to the federated model — where multiple teams and practitioners contribute to a system governed by shared values and guidelines, with decisions propagated by the core to the wider business. But, very often, organisations are not ready for this model. First, they need to do the work of connecting the disparate entities that are their different product, brand, innovation and internal design teams. 

In our view, a design system needs to be treated as a product — especially when it gets bigger and more complicated, when maintaining and updating it becomes a full-time job. Most of the time, success comes from the centralised model. It’s not the federated utopia, but it’s the one that works. The main problem we encounter with it is not all organisations have the funds for a dedicated product team assigned to their design system.  

A senior champion

To set up a design system to succeed, it’s vital someone at senior level promotes its importance and protects its integrity. Whatever design system model an organisation employs, its success depends entirely on having the right structures in place to support it. Otherwise, it’s at risk of being relegated to becoming an asset only used by people who have no meaningful impact on business decisions. If the structural support for a design system is not there, the system itself comes under pressure from different parties. 

For example, a marketing team may have a list of requirements to support a campaign with a short lead time, and their requirements are not made possible by what’s immediately available within the design system. The choice for the designer then becomes between delivering the campaign assets by breaking the design system or not delivering the assets. But, it would much better serve the business in the short, medium, and long term if the culture around the design system, supported at the top level, is such that designer and team are not put in that position.  

We are not advocating making new products and content subservient to the design system. But we’ve seen time and again how one request for “flexibility” leads to another and another. And it doesn’t take long for the design system to become inconsistent to the point of being obsolete — forcing everyone back to square one. 

A well-governed, watertight process

So there needs to be a process built in: one that allows for requests to move through the proper channels to make sure they can be accommodated and fed back into the system. This process only succeeds if there is governance and support at a senior business level. This isn’t about making life easier for designers. It’s about putting plans in place to make sure they can do the best work for other teams – such as the marketing team – by having an earlier view of requirements and potential gaps in the system. 

There will be compromises. But with time, the right conversations can take place about effectiveness and investment, over what wins the style war. The discussions that happen between teams about how best to advance the design system can have really positive outcomes for the business. 

It’s not easy to get right. Historically, and for good reason, most organisations have prioritised product teams and getting their new products to market. But, in fact, not having a team in place that deals with a design system as a product has made this process slower than it might have been. And, even with the best of intentions, this shorter-term view eventually catches up with the business. 

Maintaining balance and diplomacy

In a federated model, when a number of teams have input into the system, it becomes particularly important to have a way of making sure they don’t just create or change components in a way that serves their needs at the expense of others’. Much as we’d like to think we can all work altruistically, when the pressure’s on, experience tells us the immediate need to get the job in front of us done in that moment trumps the bigger picture requirement. 

For a start-up, when a CEO is perhaps working with a single designer and developer, the need for a design system may not yet exist. In fact, if you adopt one too early, it may hinder progress. But a problem arises when the designer walks out the door and the product thinking, system and evolution goes out the door with them. In this case, it’s as simple as maintaining some level of knowledge within the business to safeguard the product. There are transition moments for every business — knowing when to adopt a system is just another part of design maturity that successful CEOs will recognise and nurture. 

From design system to recognised business value

Today, design and design thinking is maturing in the most effective established businesses, as senior executives become more and more aware of its importance. Once the importance of design to a business is recognised, the need to support the design system becomes undeniable. 

A great benefit, whether it’s a team or a sole designer, is that when someone is tasked with business-wide design system governance, you introduce impartiality and objectivity to what can become a very subjective process. It can be an effective way to level the politics within an organisation, remove agendas and focus on business priorities. 

Ultimately, design system governance serves the goal of getting products to market as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because inconsistencies slow businesses down. Even though it’s called a design system, it also incorporates UX and development — every aspect of product creation. So, perhaps we should rename it a Product System. And every person invested in delivering those products to market has an interest in properly setting up and maintaining the Product System.