Over the last 8 years my understanding of and approach to design systems has been in a state of constant change. There’s new tools, processes, and approaches that keep you on your toes with staying up to date to create that end-to-end experience between design and development. One thing that I’ve come to realize is that it hasn’t gotten easier. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, but let’s look at some trends.

Evolution of Design Systems

How we approach design systems has been constantly changing and I expect this to continue on for as long as we are building products. Remember when a design system was just showing what font you were going to use, what some buttons would look like, and what colors you were going to use? We’ve come a long way and like any area of technology this is one where we have to be constantly learning to keep up with those changes. To be fair I interviewed a lot of design candidates throughout 2018 that showed me their design system work which did consist of only a very lightweight style guide (static fonts, colors, and buttons). We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to educating everyone about design systems.

Chances are if you’re taking on the challenge of doing back-to-back design systems (through jumping companies or contracting) within a year apart you will still encounter change and find a better way of doing things either on the design or the development side.

You’re Not Dealing with Just technology

Many designers and developers are great at dealing with technology. They learn new tools and processes all of the time. One thing a lot of people are not good at is dealing with other people. There can be a lot of politics that revolve around a design system such as funding, resources, priority, ownership, alignment within teams, alignment across the company, and several other challenges that most people don’t want to deal with.

After riding the high of releasing one of the largest design systems in the automotive industry I headed off to my next adventure. In my new role I immediately established a DesignOps team and put a core focus on our design system. After a few weeks I started to have an epiphany about design systems. They don’t get easier.

The last design system I worked on supported a global team of designers and developers in a business that had over 100 applications from mobile through desktop across over 140 countries. My new company has one core product that is supported on iOS and the web. So, how could that not be a lot easier than my previous role? Easy answer: it’s the people.

When building a design system, you are actually building a culture. If you’re doing the effort right, you are literally unifying the company and setting that north star that everyone is working towards. You need to build relationships, confidence, and trust. I know that I know what I’m doing, but that’s the not the problem, it’s that other people don’t know that. You can’t just make statements like “well at my last company we did xxxxx.” One thing you need to face is that no matter how well your last design system worked your next one is going to be different.

Focus on People

The main thing to take away from all this is that you need to focus on people. Solving design system problems are fun. Dealing with people who want to destroy your effort is not fun. So, make sure you are spending time thinking through how you will connect with people, enroll them in your effort, and even leverage some of their skills.

One good way to accomplish this is to make sure that whoever is the face of your design system effort knows how to sell it. That person should ideally be tech-savvy, business oriented (can prove/show the value of a design system), have good communication skills, have the ability to naturally bond with others, and be good a conflict resolution.

I spend a lot of my time talking to people. I talk with engineers, product designers, marketing designers, product managers, our legal team, and much more. It comes with the territory and ultimately it will make your design system stronger while unifying teams.

Key Takeaways

Building a design system is extremely rewarding. The amount of people you will form bonds with is amazing. You will also most likely make a few enemies, but hopefully across the board you are connecting with your company. Remember that one of the biggest things you are solving for in a design system effort is how to deal with people. That part may never be easy, but the better you get at it the less friction you will have.

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Steven Meyer is a design leader at Keap where he oversees a team of product designers working to help small businesses succeed. Steven has history of leading large-scale efforts such as overseeing the creation of one of the largest design systems in the automotive industry. Steven’s experience has spanned through leading Marines, creating his own startup, working for a venture-backed startup, designing and developing at a Fortune 500 company, and more. Steven has worked for large brands such as O’Reilly Auto Parts, Pearson Education, and CDK Global. Steven holds an M.S. in Technology from ASU and a graduate certificate in Strategic Decision and Risk Management from Stanford University.