What IS A Design System—And Does Your Startup Need One?

Feb 10, 2022Mikenzi Ross

You may have a tone guide, brand guide, and even an awesome breakroom… but do you have a design system?

If you’re not sure what a design system is, don’t worry, because you’re not alone. Many folks haven’t heard of one—but pretty much anyone running a business should have one!

This article will answer the questions: what is a design system, why they’re integral to your product, and we’ll even throw in some of our favorite tips and strategies for putting one into action.

Trust us, if you only have time to read one article today while you scarf that cup noodle from your desk—read this one.

What IS A Design System?

Design systems incorporate a set of rules, standards, and restrictions around elements and assets of a design. Each brand will have a unique design system defining color rules, font rules, design rules, and even pre-coded assets. Every component of a website or app (like a button, for example) should have its own design system.

Additionally, each component can be used with (or within) other components/assets that also maintain a design system of their own.

For example, the button we mentioned earlier could be used within a subscription form—and that subscription form (created following the guidelines of its own design system)  incorporates into the layout of a webpage.

Are Design Systems Like A Style Guide?

Design systems encompass style guides—but go one step further by also incorporating reusable coding, and UX/UI assets that “follow rules” set by the brand’s unique design system.

Dianne Eberhardt, TDP’s lead designer, is here to elaborate further:

“A design system is essentially a list that we can reuse and re-purpose for [a client’s] platform or app. This list of standardized code means that everything will look seamless and consistent throughout a product—or the brand as a whole.”

-Dianne Eberhardt

The thing is, a design system is only as good as its documentation. Therefore, an effective design system must be developed and treated as an instruction manual for your product or brand.

It should be something everyone (new and tenured to your company) should have easy access to whenever they have a question. It should give them all the rules, restrictions, and asset information they could need.

Design Systems can even give your team psychic powers!

Okay… we’re only half-joking.

In reality, design systems provide a standard set of rules that help your devs better understand how all of the elements work together without tons of back and forth, or confusion.

Does Your Startup Need A Design System And Why?

While the answer to this question is already pretty obvious… we’ll answer it anyway cuz we’re thorough like that.

Yes. Your startup definitely and indisputably needs a proper design system in place—and the sooner, the better. The earlier a company develops a comprehensive design system, the fewer fires they’ll be putting out as the brand grows.

Design systems allow brands to maintain a fluid and consistent standard across their products. Failing to put a design system in place can lead to inconsistent quality, brand confusion, and unnecessary delays in development.

It also helps simplify the coding process by allowing your team to review current assets and elements, notice redundant sets, or recognize if there are too many variations of an object/asset (like having too many versions of a button or subscription form, for example.)

Since design systems are thoroughly documented resources, onboarding new designers also becomes more efficient. This is because it keeps everything a designer needs to know within reach—and helps them understand how to apply their skills to your brand.

As you can see, there’s no reason not to incorporate a design system.

(Seriously, get on it—like now... you’ll thank us later.)

But how do you design a design system? Especially if you’ve only just learned what one was, or your product is already past the initial development stage?

No sweat, we’d be pretty big jerks if we didn’t give you our favorite way to create a design system, right?

And we’re not jerks—no matter what our little brother says.

How To Implement A Design System

While we wouldn’t quite call this is a tutorial, we would call it a “this is sorta how we’d do it if we were you… but idunno” type thing.

Step 1: Put someone in charge of the design system project who can oversee everything and maintain consistency

Step 2: Review your current assets, objects, components, and design elements to look for consistencies and inconsistencies

Step 2: Determine what you want to keep and what needs to go

Step 3: Document everything, and put reusable assets/code in easy and well-organized locations

Step 4: Explain why your design system is the way it is. While explaining the “how” is essential, answering the “why” is just as important. Aside from people learning and retaining information in many different ways, explaining why you’ve made these decisions will help ensure everyone is on the same page.

Here are four tips to remember once you’ve got a Design System in place:

How TDP Helps Clients Create Design Systems

Creating a design system can be overwhelming (even after reading a cool and comprehensive blog post like this one.)

But that’s okay because we can create a design system for youand make sure your product provides an addictive (in a healthy kind of way) user experience that keeps folks coming back for more!

Best of all, you can take us for a test drive with a FREE 7-day trial!

Thanks for checking out this week’s post, and we hope it’s inspired you to create a design system of your own. It's one of the best things you do for your startup.

Oh, and don’t forget to…

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Mikenzi Ross
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