Making a design system work at scale

Suzanne Wensveen

Design systems are a powerful tool for streamlining the design process, improving consistency, and creating a cohesive brand identity. Implementing a design system can increase your design productivity by as much as 40%. However, managing one is no small task, and it requires a strong governance structure to ensure that it remains effective and relevant over time.

What’s design system governance?

Governance refers to the process of managing and controlling a system or process. In the context of design systems, governance is more broadly used as a term for the processes surrounding the actual UI library. A good governance process regulates how to proceed when a component is missing or not working optimally, who’s responsible for updating the design system and how the system is managed.

Making the case for a Minimum Viable Design System

MVP Design System - holistic approach vs. focus on UI library

Determining the extent of a design system's implementation requires considering it holistically, recognising that it encompasses more than just a UI library. To ensure effective use, it is essential to design how people will engage with the system. Drawing inspiration from the lean philosophy and the insights of Luca Orio, a Design Manager at Netflix, a gradual approach is recommended, focusing on successful growth. By starting with a design system Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that comprises a modest number of components but emphasises governance, you facilitate integration into the team's workflow, setting the stage for long-term success.

Considering governance early on simplifies the integration process.

The specific allocation of resources for each tier and the level of governance should align with the maturity of the product and the size and structure of the team. For small teams embarking on a new product journey, a concise library and informal agreements for handling updates may suffice.

In larger teams, having a designated designer responsible for the design system along with a compact wiki for guidelines and updates could be appropriate.

Corporate teams working on multiple products can benefit from a dedicated design system team, a dedicated tool, a ticket board for handling requests, and periodic reports on the system's status and progress. In all cases, it is important to emphasise that considering governance early on simplifies the integration process.

How to set up your design system for success

Numerous resources exist on establishing the library component of a design system. However, it is essential to consider these governance aspects as you develop your design system:

Choose a model for your team

Regardless of whether your organisation has a dedicated design system team, it is important to consider how the individuals involved in the design system will collaborate. The choice of collaboration model depends on factors such as your organisation's structure, the level of maturity of your design system, and your budgetary constraints.

Startups and small teams may find success with a solitary model, while a federated model enables contributing designers to remain active within their respective product teams. Nathan Curtis provides comprehensive coverage of the solitary, centralised, and federated models, outlining their fundamentals in this blogpost.

Allow everyone to contribute

Building and maintaining a design system requires substantial effort, and it's crucial not to underestimate the resources involved. Instead of solely relying on scaling up your design system team, an alternative approach is to foster a culture of contribution, enabling individuals from various disciplines to participate. This inclusive approach not only enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of your design system but also garners increased support for the system within your organisation. Valuable insights on facilitating both small and large contributions and opening up your design system for collaboration can be found in the following resource.

Define your process for contribution

Establishing guidelines for contribution is essential when enabling everyone to participate in the design system. Clearly defining criteria for design inclusion, considering patterns, adaptations, versions, and managing unique designs is crucial to prevent excessive proliferation.

Implementing a well-defined process for handling designer feedback ensures that designers feel heard, facilitating faster development of the UI library. Assigning a product owner (PO) for the design system can streamline decision-making and minimise lengthy discussions, establishing a structure of ownership and responsibility. Brad Frost's blog post provides great outlines on implementing a governance process for maintainable design systems.

At Liberty Global, one of our clients, we hosted several sessions to make sure the processes for the design system team and the product teams where aligned. Discussing this plenary with the entire team meant that everybody was on the same page, unclarities could be called out immediately, and promoted collaboration between the teams.

Visualising and aligning the processes for the design system and product design teams at Liberty Global

Make it transparent and accessible

Making your design system information open and accessible promotes trust within your organisation. By ensuring that relevant details are readily available for everyone to see, you create a transparent environment that fosters confidence in the system and the team behind it. This openness also encourages collaboration, as team members and stakeholders can easily access the necessary information without repeatedly asking for explanations. Instead, you can simply direct them to a centralised website or repository where all the pertinent details are conveniently located. This approach not only saves time but also empowers individuals to explore and engage with the design system autonomously, leading to more efficient and effective collaboration across the organisation.

Minimise the effort required to update the system

To streamline system updates, it is crucial to minimise the effort required. Treating the design system as a living entity necessitates frequent changes. Removing barriers to change involves offering a well-defined process, templates for design and documentation files, and selecting a technical solution that facilitates easy modification and updating. Our previous post on design system tools provides further details on design system tools, including version control options.

The key to achieving usability and scalability lies in implementing effective governance.

Document and communicate changes

Documentation and communication are vital for promoting the visibility and adoption of the design system. Communicating updates and changes keeps users and stakeholders informed, instilling confidence in the system's active development. This is particularly true for remote teams spanning multiple locations and time zones. Depending on the design system's maturity and organisational context, options such as change logs, roadmaps, Slack updates, or newsletters can be considered.

As an example, at Signify (Interact), another client of ours, the design team was remote and spread out over the world, so (formal) communication on the design system became increasingly important. Our design system team sent out regular release messages, including before and after images of updated components and a summary of the impact of the changes. This greatly improved the awareness of the system amongst designers.

Reserve budget for maintenance

Maintaining the relevance and usefulness of a design system is an ongoing process rather than a one-time endeavour. Allocating a budget for maintenance is essential for its long-term success. By reserving resources for maintenance, businesses can allocate the necessary time, effort, and expertise to review, update, and refine the design system. This investment ensures the continued delivery of a cohesive and consistent user experience, and ensures that the design system remains a valuable asset that continues to deliver its intended benefits over time.

Start small and think ahead

Considering all of these factors might appear overwhelming when your primary goal is to establish a well-structured pattern library for designers. However, it's crucial to recognise that this pattern library can only serve as a foundation if it remains in active use and can grow alongside your product and company. The key to achieving usability and scalability lies in implementing effective governance. By ensuring that the design system is governed well, you can maximise its value and ensure its continued success throughout your organisation.

For examples of how we work with our clients to develop their design systems, read our case about implementing a multi-branded design system leveraging design tokens at Signify or our blog on the design system for the City of Amsterdam.

Photo in header by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Suzanne Wensveen
Interaction Designer

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