In 2018 I was in the process of looking for a new role to tackle some new challenges. I love leading design system teams, so something I started exploring was taking the path of being a Director of Design Systems. Through this process I began talking to a well-known public tech company out of Silicon Valley. The name isn’t important, plus overall it was a great experience, so I don’t want to burn any bridges.
I researched their existing design system and found several references to it online. From the outside it appeared that their design system team was extremely well funded. They were staffed with several engineers, several designers, program manager, and more. I found several references to talks that they gave at conferences and they even had videos professionally recorded Jony Ive style. Taking this team to the next level from where they were already at would be a challenge, but one I was up for.
As I went through the process of talking with one of their design leaders, I came across something I would have never expected. We talked through several issues, but there was one issue that had the design leader extremely frustrated and something that will stick with me forever.
No one was using it.
That’s right. No teams in the company were using the design system. All the money poured into dedicated engineers, designers, program management, conferences, and professional videos to have no one in the company using it.
I’ll be honest and admit that this upset me. It upset me so much because I know how many teams out there fight to just get a single designer and a single engineer allocated to a design system effort and often fail. To have a company spend millions over the course of creating their first version of the design system to have no one use it is a waste. If their executive sponsors pull the plug on that effort it will be difficult to get it back for many years.
The other thing that upset me is that this company from the outside looked like they had it together. They even spoke at conferences in front of many eager designers and engineers waiting for advice on how to take their design system to the next level.
When running a design system, you need a leader that can handle the business cases to ensure the effort is funded properly. If you can’t show that the design system is being used by designers and engineers across the company, then it means your product has no value. A design system is a product and a product that doesn’t save you money or make you money is something you need to drop.
Hearing all of this made me up for the challenge even more. Running a global design system across multiple product lines and geographically distributed teams is where my skills really shine. However, I hit a major roadblock. The program manager and I couldn’t agree on how to enforce a design system. The program manager wanted to continue down the path of letting designers and engineers decide whether or not they wanted to use it. It became clear why they were in the spot they were.
There is a moral to this story. Look to other companies for inspiration, but don’t assume they’re having success just because they have a fancy website, some cool professional videos, and are speaking at conferences. Focus on driving value across your company and finding ways to put your design system to work. You need to prove that a design system has value through usage. If designers are using your library packs and templates, then it means they are saving time and bringing consistency. This also applies to engineers using your components.
Since speaking with that company, I started to realize that there were other design systems that were actually in the same spot. Some of these are big ones that get hosted on sites such as InVision’s design blog. It doesn’t mean that their effort has failed. What it does mean is that if they don’t show the value that we promise with design systems, then there will surely be some leadership changes, or even worse, someone could pull the plug on the whole effort.
Focus on creating a design system that gets adopted, brings consistency, and drives value in the business. If your team is unable to achieve this, then take action right away. Find someone internally that may be able to help or look for a design system mentor outside of your company that can help give advice to move things forward.