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Design systems are here to stay.


Design systems are here to stay. Design systems are here to stay.

Key Takeaways

  • Design systems for digital products are becoming increasingly important as digital teams grow in size and sophistication.
  • Design systems show how teams collectively work with a set of design patterns, which are individual components in a website or app.
  • Organizations can create a healthy and usable system by adapting it to the needs of their contributors and having a roadmap and a backlog.
  • Adopting a design system can clarify an organization's values and focus, resulting in better business and happier customers.

The field of web design has always had noticeable and distinct trends. Some of these are related to sudden availability of new technologies (for example the outbreak of parallax websites in the 2010s) and some of them are strictly stylistic, such as flat design, (itself a reaction against the trend of realistic 3D or skeuomorphic design from the prior decade.)

If you've been following the industry for the last decade or so, you might be tempted to discount design systems as yet another trend: i.e, a hot topic that seems unavoidable at your favorite web conference or blog but perhaps one that will fade away to be replaced by something new. You'd be wrong.

Design systems for digital products are here to stay. They have already changed the workflow habits and collaboration techniques of teams working at Airbnb to Zendesk and everywhere in between. I would go as far to say that if you aren't using a design system, your organization's digital products aren't living up to their potential.

Taking a step back, let's allow Ethan Marcotte to define the term:

A design system shows how we collectively work with a set of design patterns.

Ethan Marcotte

A design pattern, in turn, is an individual component in a website or app. Examples include familiar elements such as brand colors, buttons, navigation menus, and form fields, but also less obvious elements such as the headline section or the links in a news article.

While design systems are not necessarily new, they are more important than ever as digital teams grow in size and sophistication. This precedence has also caused a shift in the software industry, with design tools such as Figma, Sketch, and Adobe XD catering to the needs of people working with design systems.

Whether you're new to the industry or a seasoned vet, planning, building, and maintaining a design system can feel intimidating. That's why we're excited to announce that our team at Aquent Gymnasium has just released four new free courses on design systems taught by Ethan Marcotte, the fellow who introduced responsive web design to the world in 2010 and who has been a design systems consultant for a number of years. 

We designed this video series for modern web professionals, you know the type: too busy with production and deadlines to stop and learn something new. For that reason, we decided to develop each course based on the roles most likely to interact with a design system. Additionally, each course is approximately 45 minutes long, so feel free to block off an hour in your calendar to watch and we'll give you 15 minutes back.

If you wear many hats, or just need a high-level overview, then the aptly named Design Systems for Everyone is the place to start. If you identify as a designer, developer, or as a product manager/owner, then each of those courses has content specifically aimed at your needs.

As the producer of the series, and as a long-time designer myself, I'll conclude with one of the many excellent insights that I took away from Ethan's expert instruction. Specifically, it was the realization that the websites and apps have truly reached that tipping point where they are vital necessities to our modern life and design systems naturally evolved to help manage this complexity and scale. Ironically, however, this means those same systems are becoming large and complex themselves, and if built improperly they will meet the worst fate of any design system which is that people simply won't use them.

Ethan talks about a number of ways that organizations can create a healthy and usable system, but one of the most insightful for me was this:

Your design system will have stakeholders, as well as a roadmap and a backlog — just like your other products

Ethan Marcotte

So there you have it, a design system is itself a digital product. It must adapt to the needs of its contributors for it to be effective. Done wisely and with commitment, adopting a design system has the power to clarify an organization's values and focus. The ultimate value is that it will result in better business and happier customers. Sounds pretty good, right? We think so, and would like to help you level up your design system game.  Happy learning!

Jeremy Osborn

Jeremy produces the free, online courses at Aquent Gymnasium, an educational platform that helps web professionals learn new skills. In the past, he has written books and articles related to the web, hosted webinars, consulted with Fortune 500 organizations, and was the Program Director of a web and graphic design program at Boston University.


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