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Design systems and the uniformization of digital interfaces

How fixed standards can sometimes hold back innovation


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George Serediuc

a year ago | 4 min read

Design systems in demand

More and more teams are embedding design systems in their product development practice, as a way to share a common vocabulary while working on the interface of a digital product.

In essence, that’s what a design system really is: a set of interconnected, shareable design patterns that form the language of your product’s interface. These patterns can sometimes vary from the concrete and functional (like buttons) to the more descriptive ones (like iconography styles, colors and typography).

Why are design systems useful?

A well-thought design system can be really empowering, working as a catalyst for the whole product development life cycle. Just think about how a single source of truth can create a shared language between different teams and its potential to accelerate their speed of delivery. That’s powerful!

Efficient product teams need consistency when it comes to the visual design language. They also need to reduce redundancy while increasing internal sharing, in order to create a unified brand experience for the outside world. Design systems seem to be the ultimate strategy for all of that.

Does one size really fit all?

This holistic, systematic, well-documented approach to product design has the potential to produce really solid work. So how come we aren’t all using design systems across the board? The truth is most of these initiatives end up being abandoned despite having a great start.

The effort required to set up, maintain, and constantly update them over time usually discourage design teams, so consequently a lot of design systems end up obsolete, deprioritized, or simply discarded.

Photo by Harpal Singh on Unsplash
Photo by Harpal Singh on Unsplash

On a quest to find accessible solutions that would bring the above-mentioned benefits, but without the sustained effort of creating their own process, product teams end up relying on other already established design systems.

Using publicly available resources built by more experienced product teams over several years seems like a life-saving alternative. That’s in fact the more common approach, especially when you need a fast, reliable, standardized system of visual design components and guidelines to serve as a foundation for your next product.

Out of the box shortcomings

The most popular design systems serve indeed as references, as they are masterpieces that ingrain great vision, creativity, team effort and professionalism. Atlassian’s Design System, Material Design (from Google), Carbon (from IBM), Polaris (from Shopify), Lightning (from Salesforce), all of them are the result of aligned teams making an effort to share accessible resources.

However, adopting an existing design system and embedding it into your own platform exposes the product to a set of volatile dependencies that sometimes may be detrimental. They would most likely need to be adapted, not adopted.

Photo by Balázs Kétyi on Unsplash
Photo by Balázs Kétyi on Unsplash

The pitfall of using a design system just for its standardized set of visual design components and guidelines is ending up depersonalizing your own product. In many instances, engineering teams would replicate carbon copy interfaces based on Material Design themes (if it’s a native Android app) or standard iOS components (if it’s an iOS mobile app).

While sometimes this approach is the right way to kickstart a project, most of the time it becomes a convenient solution to an effort that would usually need specialised expertise.

Develop your own language

Design choices should be guided by underlying design principles. That’s why the true purpose of these design systems is to help other teams make meaningful design decisions, not just implementation choices.

They are built to standardize and then unify the overall digital experience. Instead, we end up with uniformized interfaces that did not commit to any of these design principles in the first place.

The solution would be to build your own Minimum Viable Design System instead. Even if it starts as an adaptation of existing public resources! A resilient design system should look more like a process, than an artifact. You cannot build it overnight, it will organically evolve together with your product.

That’s why starting small, then building gradually, is always a good strategy when it comes to continuous optimization of the product design process.

The true power of a design system lies in the way it is implemented and used across the board, no matter how big or small the platform is. So the productivity increase becomes the result of a shared understanding, where DONE is better than PERFECT.

Therefore, start by defining a set of guiding principles. Then determine what is most essential to your brand. Use an interface inventory to determine the future structure of your own visual design language, then start building gradually.

In time, you can document all the building blocks, UI patterns, then define all the visual design elements, components, modules, techniques and practices. Only by fully committing to this flexible process will you consolidate a true design system that will grow to support future projects and new functionality.

Not all design systems are equally adequate or efficient. Instead of refining your product’s user experience, you can easily produce more confusion instead of cohesion, by ignoring typography and color choices, tone of voice, iconography styles, spacing and layout, specific shapes, interactions, animations, and sounds.

The patterns that define your design language will shape how your product is perceived. For this reason, you wouldn’t feel any difference between products that have similar functionality if they would use out-of-the-box solutions when it comes to personality.

Therefore, the fundamental principle that will lead your team to success is to own your design language and nurture it to reflect your product’s vision, values, and identity.

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George Serediuc

George is a UX designer and a digital strategist who loves to build purposeful and human-centered products.


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