If I gave you lettuce, tomato, cheese, a bun, and ground meat, how many types of hamburgers could you make?
Well, you could make a cheeseburger, a plain burger, a burger with tomatoes and no lettuce, a burger with no cheese and just lettuce, and so on. The point is, you’re able to create different variations of a burger with five basic ingredients.
Design systems are not much different than burgers.
As defined by InVision, a design system is “a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications.”
Different companies all over the world rely on design systems that are specific to their brand, but each system is comprised of the same elements. Design systems include everything from standard UI patterns, frameworks, assets, documentation, brand identity, and more.
So whether you are creating a desktop site, a mobile site, or an app, the basic ingredients included in your design system will help you produce products that are unified and cohesive.
Now that we know what a design system is, let’s look at what it isn’t, why it’s so important, and its advantages.
It’s not a style guide
Or a pattern library.
Instead, both of these are subsets under the umbrella of a design system.
A style guide focuses on a brand’s visual identity and includes colors, fonts, typography, and more. It helps designers and developers refine the styles that are used on a site, creating cohesion among products.
On the other hand, a pattern library is a collection of functional design modules that appear frequently throughout the site. These modules can appear as slideshows, navigation menus, carousels, and more.
Design and development teams can refer to a pattern library to understand how a module will work, what it will look like, and how it is coded.
Both style guides and pattern libraries are important parts of the overall design system.
Why is a design system so important?
When several teams are working together on a project, it’s not unlikely that they’ll experience a case of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” When too many people try to input design changes at once, it gets harder to track consistency across pages, resulting in a poorly designed final product.
Previously, web projects were guided by templates. Designers would create several templates to dictate how the site should look and function. However, no matter how many templates they created, there was no way to account for every possible design element. This led to varying interpretations and inconsistencies across teams.
A design system allows designers to approach large projects by leveraging a unified design language that consists of scalable elements derived from a single source. This method uses standards and rules that prevent inconsistencies when shipping products at scale.
Advantages of a design system
If it wasn’t obvious already, there are many advantages of a design system.
The first advantage of design systems is that they standardize visual elements. Teams can move much faster and improve communication when they are operating with a common design language.
There is also the added bonus of maintaining brand continuity and functional consistency across all platforms including iOS, Android, and web.
Finally, as products are built more quickly, designers can invest their time in other areas, like understanding users and their needs.
Design systems allow design and development teams to spend more time exploring, and less time reinventing the wheel.