How To Define A Design System “Inclusively”

Learn what a design system is after looking at a variety of definitions from various perspectives.
Tanisha Biswas
Dec 14, 2022

I was first introduced to the term "design system” not long ago. Perhaps it was a book or an article I came across by chance. I'm unsure how or when I was introduced to the term, but it stuck with me for a long time.

Like any other curious designer, I began researching design systems online, and believe me, the quantity of papers, books, and open-source libraries vis-à-vis design systems available on the internet is enormous.

Grasping the actual meaning of the design system amongst so many varying opinions was pretty daunting for me .

Take a look at what I found out after perusing through a glut of information online.

This is what the industry gurus had to say about design systems.

What Industry gurus say about design systems

To gain a better understanding of what people thought about design systems based on their roles, I tweeted the following.

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Here are some perspectives I've collected based on my Twitter reach.

Twitter opinions on design systems

Since it felt like the definitions I collected did not give me a full picture of what a design system is, I outlined 5 major points and segments to create a more inclusive definition.

Understanding The Core Existence Of A Design System

A design system is a reminder of your earlier decisions. It guides you with its set of principles and documentation as your product or service evolves, ensuring that you stay on track with your previous commitments. Let’s take the example of our judicial constitution. A constitution sets out the fundamental principles by which the state is governed. It describes the prominent institutions of the state and defines the relationship between these institutions. As and when a society grows, the constitution is challenged and updated so as to maintain inclusivity and relevance. A design system works in a very similar manner.

Understanding Why We Need It

Have you ever played Chinese whispers as a kid? In this game, players form a line or circle, and the first player comes up with a message and whispers it into the ear of the second person in the queue. The second player repeats the message to the third player, and so on. When the message reaches the last player, it's announced aloud to the entire group, which is very different from the initial message in most cases.

This situation most likely arises in companies where decision-makers and implementation teams work in silos. Without proper documentation, relying on just word of mouth can be dangerous to the consistency of the entire ecosystem.

Word of mouth

This is exactly why we need a design system in the first place. The more a company grows, the more likely it is for new individuals to join the team. A design system platform provides core features to foster and streamline collaboration across multiple teams, especially when onboarding new members. It ensures everyone is on the same page and minimizes communication gaps to save time and resources.

Understanding What It Includes

We must first understand the elements to understand a design system's impact. Imagine a design system as a creature unique to your company. It has different organs that perform various functions to support its existence. These organs can be further broken down into groups of cells. Below is a diagram that may help you understand the complexity of a design system.

Components in a design system

If these broader aspects are included, you'll probably end up with a design system that will be outdated or abandoned after a few months. It would help if you had a plan to let you deal with the evolving creature that is the design system.

Understanding What It Provides

The final step is to understand the impact of a design system on overall product development. A design system brings teams organization-wide together around a single table and gives them clarity on their roadmap. It enables teams to focus on unique problems to enhance the experience rather than get stuck with tedious, repetitive issues.

Conclusion

Now that we have addressed all the different segments of defining a design system, let's combine all the definitions and merge them into a mega-definition that will include all the perspectives related to the design system.

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Here’s a combination of all the perspectives around the design systems. One that will give you a clearer idea of the entire design system ecosystem.

Combination of all the perspectives around the design systems and what it is exactly

I hope this helped you develop a deeper understanding of the subject.

Till the next time!