Design Systems in practice: different strategies for different organizational scales
Design Systems are nowadays a growing request inside organizations. At the same time, they reached the status of a buzzword in the User Experience field. According to the archetypal definition by Therese Fessenden (Nielsen Norman Group):
A design system is a set of standards to manage design at scale by reducing redundancy while creating a shared language and visual consistency across different pages and channels.
This is a precise statement, but in practice, it holds quite a few difficulties for designers to overcome. During our 30th UX Talk, we discussed actual case studies brought by two different and relevant design players: Belka and Accenture Song.
- Giulio Michelon, Founder @ Belka
- Mattia Marinangeli, UI Designer @ Belka
- Amedeo Perrone, Associate Director @ Accenture Song
- Marcello Pirovano, Design Manager @ Accenture Song
Watch the full video of the event (Italian language)
Several online directories allow exploring existing design systems, such as Adele, a collection of design systems from leading tech companies.
Although the design system may seem like an almost “magical” solution, its adoption is dogged by several obstacles, also evident in this enlightening report (2021) on its adoption in the British market.
… Design System❓
The need to have people in charge of maintaining such a design system alive therefore emerges, to avoid problems of obsolescence and inefficiency due to missed updates and misalignments of the internal team members who are supposed to use the system, as stated by Brad Frost (author of “Atomic Design”).
Design System: what, how and why — Belka
The design system is a shared vocabulary, it is about being able to lay a foundation between the designers, developers, and the many other operational parts of the brand in a way that respects the coherence of the brand as a whole, making the product as sound and long-lasting as possible.
Making people understand the design systems’ utility is difficult in business. So, when investing in design system construction is helpful?
When is it useful?
When the product is in the scale-up phase, in a validated business model with a solid cohort of users. i.e. Credimi brand is the 31st in Europe for 2,859.83% absolute growth rate in 2022. When the need to add new services arrived, implementing a Design System was just a natural answer to avoid rehashing all the elements for building new services.
Another important phase is when the business is established, like with Subito’s case study.
When is it NOT useful?
In the start-up phase, when the product grows unevenly and the business has yet to be validated. At this inevitable stage of the business life cycle, many things are done as they are conceived, and the main goal is to make the business work. On the other hand, when (hopefully) the wheel begins to spin, someone within the company will enthusiastically state, “We need a Design System for… tomorrow!” and that will be the right time.
What to expect?
A Design system will significantly improve the rationalization of the product to arrive at the completion phase soundly and coherently with the brand.
- Speed of production
Employees can work with an existing library to realize the new product.
- Cost efficiency
New products will be composed of elements in common with other product parts. The operational team will be able to focus mainly on product design ideation where creativity is needed.
What NOT to expect?
- It is not a catalogue of design solutions.
The designer’s job remains to devise solutions to particular problems. The design system can only facilitate the actual production of the feature once it has been defined.
- It is not a shortcut to fasten the work.
It’s a tool for communicating with other operational teams, shared, for example, with developers.
A recipe for building a Design System
It gives a logical thread and hierarchy thanks to a thorough analysis of all the UI components already produced i.e. typography, palette and variation of the same component between desktop and mobile.
To restructure the product identity and rearrange its basic elements. i.e. typography palette, iconography spacing and grids and so on.
To build articulated but “employee-friendly” components for the whole team, specifying states, properties, anatomy and spacing of each component etc..
To visualize the skeleton of the design system neatly. It can become the means for keeping the design system up-to-date.
To deliver a well-organized and easy-to-use file so that the client is completely independent. In the last step Belka trains the client’s employees on how to use it.
Watch the video of this keynote (Italian language)
The rise of design systems in big companies — Accenture Song
The implementation of the Design System is long and intricate, and the complexities grow as the size of the company and the number of people involved increase.
An example to visualize this complexity is Generali, a multinational company that has offices in 60 different nations. Hence, their design system has to work in 60 different countries with partners, designers and contributors as part of the group. Usually, the most sensitive points for such large companies to adopt a Design system are:
Being able to reduce the design-development-implementation timeline of the digital product.
- Cost reduction
The primary need is to “industrialize” the add-on features and the redesign process by building reusable elements and components in a shared framework.
- Greater control over the customer experience
The Design System is a meeting point between all departments of the multinational corporation, fostering collaboration among them.
What points in such big organizations counterintuitively need special attention when building a design system?
The composition of the specific organization in which the Design System will be implemented to make it available to everyone.
The whole governance needs to approve the design system, making the process even slower and more tedious.
The mission is to find the right set of tools usable and understandable to the company and let it begin its journey to design system maturity.
Enterprises aren’t made only of designers; not everyone is used to complex design tools. Indeed, a clear PDF is needed to ensure an inclusive read.
- Team rotation
Design System implementation is a long project based on people’s work: since the operational team will change, it’s better to arrive prepared.
An elucidative case study is Skoda’s Design System, where the biggest problem was the inconsistency between digital image and physical image. Skoda is part of a group of automakers that includes different brands, but the investments come from one group.
Watch the video of this keynote (Italian language)
Do you want to know more?
Apply to the first edition of our new Higher Education Course in UI Design, starting on March 2023 and fully held in Italian.
These lectures were held during the 30th UX Talk organized for the students of the Master in User Experience Psychology by Politecnico di Milano & Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and of the Higher Education Course in User Experience Design by POLI.design. Follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram to be updated about the upcoming UX Talks, always open to the public.
Curated by Alice Paracolli