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How to Build a Design System: 5-Step Guide

May 19, 2022

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Amichai Oron

How to Build a Design System: 5-Step Guide

Design systems require having a tight cross-functional collaboration between all teams involved in creating the product.To make this happen, product teams change the way they design digital products — they introduce design systems to make the design process more transparent and predictable.

Design systems help streamline the product design process and make it more transparent and predictable.

It helps build structures for moving faster while adapting to a rapidly changing environment filled with uncertainties. 

A design system must balance structure and flexibility.

It takes time to build reusable and flexible products, and often there is a need to make tradeoffs that prioritize velocity rather than the design system. 

Design systems require having a tight cross-functional collaboration between all teams involved in creating the product.

To make this happen, product teams change the way they design digital products — they introduce design systems to make the design process more transparent and predictable.

This article will explore the concept of design systems and critical steps to building new design systems.

What Is a Design System?

A design system is an adaptable system of guidelines, components, and tools that support the best practices of user interface design. Backed by code, it streamlines collaboration between designers and developers and helps teams quickly build beautiful products.

Design systems will often provide Style guides - Colors, Typography, Iconography, Components & patterns, brand guidelines, and examples of best practices.

Style guides

Style guides focus on graphic styles (Color, Typography, Icons & illustrations) and their usage. Style guides reflect the brand strategy and values. (i.e., using brand colors for functional elements such as call-to-action buttons). 

Components and patterns

Components are functional elements of design. They are the building blocks of your design system. Designers will form libraries that can be customized and reused throughout the product.

Patterns are the protocols that provide a form of construction manual for designers to refer to when using components.

Design principles

Design principles are the guiding rules that help the teams to make meaningful design decisions. Design principles reflect the shared beliefs of the design team. 

How to Build a Design System in 5 Steps:

  • Identify the brand Alphabet.
  • Conduct UI Audit
  • Define UI Principles
  • Create A Unified Component/Pattern Library
  • Establish a Governance Strategy

1. Build the Brand's Alphabet

A brand reflects a company's marketing or business concepts, such as Brand definition, values, promise, positioning, and brand identity (colors, fonts, shapes, animations, voice, and tone ). 

Designers will refer to this information when working on design principles and style guides.

Startup companies usually see branding as a luxury and focus on identity while making tactical decisions on the more profound value and personality concepts. 

By extracting tactical decisions as the company assets evolve into the design system, a brand identity can become the infrastructure for branding.

2. Conduct UI Audit

One of the most dangerous problems in product design is design redundancy, which leads to fragmentation and inconsistency. 

Identifying redundant design elements helps a team avoid the scenario in which team members build new features only to find that a similar version exists.

That's why classifying all the visual components within the product should be the first task that the design team does before building a design system. 

In the design audit : 

  1. Create a map of the existing Styles - Group fonts, colors, icons, etc.
  2. Record the existing components into a library divided into buttons, cards, chips, dialogs, menus, navigation, text fields, etc.; a good example is Material Design UI Kit.
  3. Group and Highlight the areas with the most significant inconsistencies within the product.
  4. Identify the most important and most used elements and components of the product.

Design Audit

3. Define UI Principles

Create a guideline for design elements such as typography, grids, space, scale, color, and imagery – to create hierarchy, meaning, and focus that immerse the user in the experience. It incorporates baseline grids and structural templates, encouraging consistency across environments by repeating visual elements, structural grids, and spacing across platforms and screen sizes. These layouts scale to fit any screen size, which simplifies creating scalable apps.

Material Design Style Guide

4. Create A Unified Component/Pattern Library: 

In the Audit, we divide the UI elements into buttons, cards, chips, dialogs, menus, navigation, text fields, etc.; the next step is to unify the component library by removing redundant elements and consolidating designs while applying the design principles.

It's good practice to develop flexible components that support multiple contexts. The qualities of good components are:

  • Modular. Modular components are self-contained — they don't have any dependencies. They can apply to a variety of compositions.
  • Composable. It's possible to create new components by combining existing components.
  • Customizable. It's possible to adjust and extend components to make them work in various contexts.
Material Design UI Components

5. Establish a Governance Strategy

Design systems are dynamic, and they are constantly evolving. That's why it's crucial to define the process of approving changes in your design system. Creating a clear governance strategy is essential to ensuring that your design system can adapt to changes. 

Whether it's the job of a single person, a team, or several people from several groups, the main goal is to allow the system to evolve and have a single source of truth, such as a shared design system file.

Design systems should be integrated into the teams' workflow, become a crucial part of a designer's and developer's daily productivity, and deliver value to the team members.

Once incorporating a design system, allow Stakeholders such as developers and designers to report issues they encounter and offer solutions to evolve the design system.

Design systems need to be updated periodically, and it's essential to set release dates for their Audit and updates. Communicate release dates with the organization and provide an update on the changes made.

Lightning Design System - by Salesforce - has a built-in page "What's New" that contains information about the changes made to the design system.

Examples of Design Systems

Here are a couple of popular design systems.  

Material Design by Google

Material Design is a design language developed by Google in 2014. it's perfect for designing apps and simple products but is challenging to use in the context of complex apps. it's often possible to find additional 

elements in the design communities, such as the Figma / XD communities.

Lightning Design System by Salesforce

Lightning Design System enables product teams to build rich enterprise 

About the author

Amichai Oron

Amichai Oron is the Founder of  Spark is a boutique strategic digital design agency, working with over
in 45 high-tech companies over the last 5 years to craft brands, websites, and products to infuse them with amazing experience design.

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