The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham

This was originally posted on my own site.

It’s day two of An Event Apart San Francisco. The brilliant Mina Markham is here to talk to us about design systems (so hot right now!). I’m going to attempt to liveblog it:

Design systems have dominated web design conversations for a few years. Just as there’s no one way to make a website, there is no one way to make a design system. Unfortunately this has led to a lot of misconceptions around the creation and impact of this increasingly important tool.

Drawing on her experiences building design systems at two highly visible and vastly different organizations, Mina will debunk some common myths surrounding design systems.

Mina is a designer who codes. Or an engineer who designs. She makes websites. She works at Slack, but she doesn’t work on the product; she works on slack.com and the Slack blog. Mina also makes design systems. She loves design systems!

There are some myths she’s heard about design systems that she wants to dispel. She will introduce us to some mythological creatures along the way.

Myth 1: Designers “own” the design system

Mina wondered if she had caused offense. Was she stepping on someone’s toes? The encounter left her feeling sad.

Thinking about it later, she realised that the conversation about design systems is dominated by product designers. There was a recent Twitter thread where some engineers were talking about this: they felt sidelined.

The reality is that design systems should be multi-disciplinary. That means engineers but it also means other kinds of designers other than product designers too: brand designers, content designers, and so on.

What you need is a hybrid, or unicorn: someone with complimentary skills. As Jina has said, design systems themselves are hybrids. Design systems give hybrids (people) a home. Hybrids help bring unity to an organization.

Myth 2: design systems kill creativity

Components are like mermaids. Everyone knows what one is supposed to look like, and they can take many shapes.

But if you focus purely on components, then yes, you’re going to get frustrated by a feeling of lacking creativity. Mina quotes @brijanp saying “Great job scrapbookers”.

Design systems encompass more than components:

  • High level principles.
  • Brand guidelines.
  • Coding standards.
  • Accessibility compliance.
  • Governance.

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

— Mina

Rules and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Rules can be broken.

For a long time, Mina battled against one-off components. But then she realised that if they kept coming up, there must be a reason for them. There is a time and place for diverging from the system.

It’s like Alice Lee says about illustrations at Slack:

There’s a time and place for both — illustrations as stock components, and illustrations as intentional complex extensions of your specific brand.

Yesenia says:

Your design system is your pantry, not your cookbook.

If you keep combining your ingredients in the same way, then yes, you’ll keep getting the same cake. But if you combine them in different ways, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Find the key moments of brand expression.

There are strict and loose systems.

Strict design systems are what we usually think of. AirBnB’s design system is a good example. It’s detailed and tightly controlled.

A loose design system will leave more space for experimentation. TED’s design system consists of brand colours and wireframes. Everything else is left to you:

Consistency is good only insofar as it doesn’t prevent you from trying new things or breaking out of your box when the context justifies it.

Yesenia again:

A good design sytem helps you improvise.

Thinking about strict vs. loose reminds Mina of product vs. marketing. A design system for a product might need to be pixel perfect, whereas editorial design might need more breathing room.

Mina has learned to stop fighting the one-off snowflake components in a system. You want to enable the snowflakes without abandoning the system entirely.

A loose system is key for maintaining consistency while allowing for exploration and creativity.

Myth 3: a design system is a side project

Okay, maybe no one has said this out loud, but you definitely see a company’s priorities focused on customer-facing features. A design system is seen as something for internal use only. “We’ll get to this later” is a common refrain.

“Later” is a mythical creature — a phoenix that will supposedly rise from the ashes of completed projects. Mina has never seen a phoenix. You never see “later” on a roadmap.

Don’t treat your design system as a second-class system. If you do, it will not mature. It won’t get enough time and resources. Design systems require real investment.

Mina has heard from people trying to start design systems getting the advice, “Just do it!” It seems like good advice, but it could be dangerous. It sets you up for failure (and burnout). “Just doing it” without support is setting people up for a bad experience.

The alternative is to put it on the roadmap. But…

Myth 4: a design system should be on the product roadmap

But Mina realised that it’s not that simple. There are important metrics she might not have been aware of.

A roadmap is multi-faceted thing, like Cerebus, the three-headed dog of the underworld.

Okay, so you can’t put the design sytem on the roadmap, but you can tie it to something with a high priority. You could refactor your way to a design system. Or you could allocate room in your timeline to slip in design systems work (pad your estimates a little). This is like a compromise between “Just do it!” and “Put it on the roadmap.”

A system’s value is realized when products ship features that use a system’s parts.

— Nathan Curtis

The other problem with putting a design system on the roadmap is that it implies there’s an end date. But a design system is never finished (unless you abandon it).

Myth 5: our system should do what XYZ’s system did

But those inspiring public systems can be like a succubus. They’re powerful and seductive and might seem fun at first but ultimately leave you feeling intimidated and exhausted.

Your design system should be build for your company’s specific needs, not Google’s or Github’s or anyone’s.

Slack has multiple systems. There’s one for the product called Slack Kit. It’s got great documentation. But if you go on Slack’s marketing website, it doesn’t look like the product. It doesn’t use the same typography or even colour scheme. So it can’t use the existing the design system. Mina created the Spacesuit design system specifically for the marketing site. The two systems are quite different but they have some common goals:

  • Establish common language.
  • Reduce technical debt.
  • Allow for modularity.

But there are many different needs between the Slack client and the marketing site. Also the marketing site doesn’t have the same resources as the Slack client.

Be inspired by other design systems, but don’t expect the same resutls.

Myth 6: everything is awesome!

The perfect design system is an angel. It’s a benevolent creature acting as an intermediary between worlds. Perhaps you think you’ve seen one once, but you can’t be sure.

The truth is that design system work is like laying down the railway tracks while the train is moving.

For a developer, it is a rare gift to be able to implement a project with a clean slate and no obligations to refactor an existing codebase.

Mina got to do a complete redesign in 2017, accompanied by a design system. The design system would power the redesign. Everything was looking good. Then slowly as the rest of the team started building more components for the website, unconnected things seemed to be breaking. This is what design systems are supposed to solve. But people were creating multiple components that did the same thing. Work was happening on a deadline.

Even on the Hillary For America design system (Pantsuit), which seemed lovely and awesome on the outside, there were multiple components that did the same thing. The CSS got out of hand with some very convoluted selectors trying to make things flexible.

Mina wants to share those stories because it sometimes seems that we only share the success stories.

Share work in progress. Learn out in the open. Be more vulnerable, authentic, and real.

This was originally posted on my own site.

Written by

A web developer and author living and working in Brighton, England.

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