The Most Misunderstood Part of a Design System

An increasing number of cloud companies are developing their own design systems and making them publicly available. Some make them available online to promote their company’s design thinking and others offer them open-source to the design community. Take a look at them closely and you’ll notice one integral part of the system is missing.

One of the core parts of a design system is its voice and tone. In order to create solutions for a product, your team need to know how you’re going to communicate those solutions. Designers often generalize voice as an outcome of diving into patterns, styles and components.

Voice and tone is not just for articles, instructions or messages. It’s to provide clarity and sympathy throughout an entire experience.

Yes, patterns and styles are absolutely important parts of a design system. But designing elements before having a voice identified is foolish. How can your team decide what a button might look like if they have not considered the content of that button? What happens too often are situations where designers start creating patterns then allow those patterns to dictate what is included in the voice and tone. Voice and tone then becomes an afterthought.

When comments like “My tabs only have room for one word so we need to constrain the copy.” and “Each menu item has to have an icon next to it.” are made prior to considering voice and tone, then your team constrains themselves allowing patterns to drive the voice as opposed to your users’ needs.

When beginning a design system, a mature design team should have a set of principles for their team to follow while working on product solutions. Design principles and product personas can be combined to create a voice for a product that makes for a delightful experience.

Design principles and product personas can be combined to create a voice for a product that makes for a delightful experience.

Consider having a 30–45 minute design jam where your team takes a look at your team principles and personas and come up with a voice and tone framework. Apply that framework against each stage’s emotions in your journey map. Doing this up front before your design system kickoff will allow your team to be able to focus on the right choice of voice for your users without constraint. By understanding the place of voice and tone in your design system, your team and users will be set up for success.