Let’s use the Design Systems!

This is a guest article by Cemal Caglar Bektas, Service Design Intern at T-Labs

Yes, we know, that sounds crazy, but let’s think together for a moment. Wouldn’t be great instead of being a static source of truth; a design system ‘is’ the tool itself to get jobs done. But first, we would like to talk about the current state of design systems and why they do not work, as intended. That’s the hype, right? Build a design system, execute it, and voila! All your problems will fade away.

Lately, wherever we visited, everyone around us is talking about design systems. We started to hear more about them and how they will solve all our scaling problems. However, we are a little skeptical about it.

We asked our colleagues and friends and understood that we are not the only group of people thinking about this emerging issue. They share the same concerns with us. The software design market is significant, and currently, there are a great number of software development models out there. If you are a designer, developer, project manager or a scrum master, you are already aware that there are various frameworks and tools to develop a software or mobile app. Lean Startup model, Design sprints, Scrum, Agile… Just to name a few. When we look at those from above what we see is a typical pattern. Today, delivering faster, better, user experiences are the primary goal. And on the other side, technological development costs drop and capital that invested in such technologies increases, so we produce more digital products. That’s great (maybe not, we can elaborate more on this later), but it results in hyper-competition in the market.

Current Problems in Design Market

Industry leaders have never been this enthusiastic about their customers’ experiences. They finally seem to acknowledge that without providing a painless experience they are doomed to fail. (Yes, we are talking about the business value of design here. If you still haven’t heard how valuable design is yet, here is the McKinsey’s report on it). To be successful in such a competitive market, we need better and faster tools so we can go live sooner.

While it was ok to know a couple of tools back then, designers use at least five different tools on a daily basis. Naturally, it becomes a mess after some time in the design departments in large companies, mainly you have scattered design groups all over the world. Then we try to seek ways to ensure consistency and quality across the organizations.

Solution Proposals

Finally, we (as designers) came up with the design systems as the solution to these problems. They are the natural evolution of design patterns and guidelines, and in time, we started to add more values to them like interaction models, scalability and internal collaboration, mindsets and finally, design culture (wow!), but the real problems are still there. There are still debates on how we can achieve the true and consistent Designer & Developer collaboration. Simply, the question is how we can work together effectively, scale our work through the organization and catch a certain level of quality? When we look at the landscape, we see two emerging approaches addressing this issue: Designer led tools for people who are naturally favoring creative process and do not want to deal with the code. They are turning their face toward becoming a full-stack product/software development tools that can deliver working prototypes without learning to code. Another approach to this is to have developer lead tools that ensure the code works in every context, hence, put designers a position of simple selectors of design patterns. In this case, there are tools and frameworks for design systems in the developer ecosystem and designers are supposed to define the concept, interaction models and select the suitable components and models accordingly.

In T-Labs, we see both approaches have drawbacks and will not be enough to lead us to the marriage of two universes. We believe, without having intermediary tools and methods, collaborations cannot be achieved solely through active communication. When we say intermediary tools and methods, we mean it. Methodologies, mindsets that both designers and developers can familiarize themselves and then internalize them. In other words, means that serve for both parties well enough and truly connect them at the same time

The ones who do not know the people above, they are the Bauhaus. They have established one of the most influential design schools and created a sophisticated education system to achieve collaboration across artists, artisans, engineers, and architects. The more we dig into the Bauhaus and the movement’s values and vision, the more we realized the school it was the very first seed of the design systems. Then we thought, such collaboration existed before in design history, so why not explore what they have done right and bring it to our context. As we studied it more we realized that it is not just about bringing all those professions together and expect them to collaborate. In fact, it is the education methodologies, processes, and intermediary objects that have made this movement such influential milestone in design history.

In T-Labs, we are curious about the future of design practices. We believe having a common tool that kick-starts a true collaboration between designers and developers will be available soon. This practice of generating innovative ideas together nothing new to us. Yet, we have to establish a culture which facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration and embraces new methodologies. We think, with the right mindset and tools the contrast between the two worlds will become more blurred. And maybe in the future this collaborative process will even evolve into a new hybrid profession. So do we a already have an answer to all those questions we raised? Do we already know how we translate the approach of Bauhaus into the current situation? No, but we have an ongoing internal discussion based on these insights, which hopefully will lead us there in the near future. We’ll keep you posted.

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