Design Systems save neither time nor money

It’s been a while since I last wrote a post about a design topic. I probably started around five posts already but never managed to either articulate my thoughts properly or to see the value in expressing my thoughts through letters. But because I follow the design systems conversations on Twitter closely I cannot keep my mouth shut anymore.

First of all let’s start with the term. Design systems are nothing new and fancy. They’ve been around forever just before they were called corporate design guidelines or style guides or design catalogue or whatever. You’re probably thinking “wait, these things are not the same” and you’re probably right. But who decides what these things are being used for anyway? Be it a design system, a style guide or a corporate design guideline, they are all used to give guidance, to make the complex simple and relatable, to help a big team coordinate itself around a unified idea or mission. In addition a design system helps big companies to scale and stay consistent in all of their marketing efforts.

The myth

At least some agencies like to tell their clients that a design systems save a lot of money in the long run because with a strong system in place there are less opportunities for inconsistencies in the clients marketing messages and visuals and it’s easier to onboard new people, be it designers, marketing folks or developers. That sounds great and logical but is also not true. A design system requires serious effort and resources because it has to be maintained properly. It also has to be understood by everyone involved and although the system should be kinda self-explanatory it is rarely the case and rising inconsistencies are proof of that. Wait, what’s that button for? We felt like we needed another module to visualize data. I think the font works better in bold... Designers are and always will be full of opinions and they won’t hesitate to articulate them. So make sure you have enough willpower to convince fellow colleagues sticking to the previous defined rules. And let’s be honest, a design system needs both good system designers and a serious amount of money. Think of it as an investment that will reward you later.

Should you set up a design system

The one and only reason design systems do not work is because designers are using it wrong. Have you ever designed something for, let’s say, a big automotive company? They have a ton of rules when it comes to their visual appearance and it is very hard to follow all of them. Design systems tend to become overly complex and once it’s too rigid designers stop using it or are not producing very creative results. So should you use a design system? Well yeah, probably, but focus on fundamentals that rarely need adjustments like grids, typography and so on and let your designers be creative with those fundamentals and they will produce great results. Don’t put them in a box where they can barely move. In the end let me leave you with this: Design systems can support you in a lot of ways but you have to make sure you have the right people building and maintaining it and to get feedback from the outside now and then, so that the system changes organically and gets better every time.