Signs You Need a Design System

June 29, 2023

There comes a point where the things that are “nice to have” become “need to have” and a standardized design system is one of those initiatives that falls down the priority list until it’s a problem. 

Signs You Need a Design System

A “design system” is really just an evolution of your brand guidelines that includes guidance on problems you’ve already solved for. Where brand guidelines may cover the proper use of font and color, a brand system will expand that to include functional elements that go into your digital products.
If you’re managing a digital product, you should have some kind of design system, whether that is a simple set of processes or guidance, or a robust mountain of processes, managed by a large team. If you don’t have a design system, there are some clear signs that it’s time to start or the one you have needs tweaking.

Disjointed Experiences

Over time, and with multiple production teams, interfaces, look and feel have drifted out of sync across products. This makes experiences seem unpolished — or worse, untrustworthy.

Knowledge Gets Lost

Institutional knowledge is poorly documented. For designers and developers eager to share solutions, it’s unclear how. This means product teams are burning time on problems already solved by other teams.

Single-use Architecture

Code and design are not portable across teams. Each product has a design library with deep dependencies that are often incompatible with, or too complex, to share for use by other product teams.

Projects Move Slowly

Reliable project estimates are difficult when code reuse is low or sporadic. Maintenance is expensive when changing an interface element requires fixing or refactoring multiple instances of the same component.

When a new digital product is being designed, it’s critical to ensure that the product successfully conveys the company’s brand identity and that happens through colors, types of imagery, font typeface, interactions, and animations. There are also user interface pieces like buttons, drop-downs and checkboxes. Best practices need to be followed to make sure products are accessible and usable by almost anyone before it’s coded by engineering.

Once that process is done for a design system, it’s more or less done, and now elements can be reused over and over again. Many organizations build a product without a design system and that is entirely understandable! However, it’s not a great place to stay forever. To ensure a product can be maintained and expanded, it needs a proper system to support it. For example, a system can include guidelines, which are a set of documents that tell you how to use it and how to use its element system. 

How to Use a Design System

Let’s break down an example of how a design system can work when applied to a new digital product being built, in this case, a new app for Android and iPhone to support a new service offering.

Once the product team defines the need and functionality, designers create screens and interfaces that show how users will interact with the service. In our example, the new app needs to allow users to administer their accounts and add additional services. The design team uses the design system component library to quickly assemble the product experience for handoff to development. From there, it’s development, QA and launch, but the handoff between the design production screens and the development is where the design system is mission critical.

In the example of our mobile app, if a designer is asked to build a home button, they access a component library inside the design system which provides brand-approved options to choose from. Components are actual pieces or building blocks that designers take and fit together to build a product — frameworks which represent the code that developers use.

They know the button has been previously tested for usability and that it’s — for example — readable by a person with color blindness or otherwise impaired vision. When the button component makes its way to the developer, they pass along guidance on how to implement it and the code they can use to generate the button. This component is also usable across platforms, so no matter the size of the viewport, the button looks consistent. All that definition is included within the single button.

Why Organizations Use Them

Committing to a design system all but guarantees that the experience is cohesive across brand products. Design systems make product development easier, faster, and consistent but most importantly — it leaves space for real innovation. The annoying stuff is out of the way.  You don’t need to waste time aligning over and over on the same things because there is a shared vocabulary and the work speaks for itself. 

More than anything, an inconsistent design can erode credibility in the eyes of the customer. If you’ve ever visited a website and asked yourself if you’ve time-traveled to 1995 then you understand that experience.

Signs Your Design System Needs to be Tweaked

Using a design system is a best practice among leading companies but through mergers and acquisitions, sometimes you end up with multiple design systems, or perhaps systems that need to be brought up to date. The best way to describe this problem is, imagine having multiple mature products that are functionally acceptable, but they look different from each other and while you know you have some guidance around the look and feel of the product, the development phase is painfully slow. 

Organizations that undergo M&As might bring design systems with them, or you might find legacy systems with disparate documentation. All of these are clear indicators that the best place to start is with an audit of your current situation. The goal of the audit is to understand what exists, what can be reused, what’s out of date, and then make a plan for how to make the system functional — either again, or for the first time.

If you have nothing or want to start fresh, we recommend a Design System Accelerator which means starting with a set of materials that are already integrated from design to development. The accelerator should have a vast range of available resources to engage, that can be customized for your business and products. No component library will be an out-of-the-box solution which is why we take a soup-to-nuts design system and customize it to your brand.

Monstarlab understands the impact a robust design system can have on your business and your future success.  Reach out for a Discovery Meeting to learn how a new design system can make a difference for your organization.



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