One Brand, One Voice, One System

On the role of design systems

Seeing designers from Vimeo, PBS Kids, and Marvel at Thursday night’s One Brand, One Vision event was a treat. It’s gratifying for designers of all stripes to hear about the trials and tribulations of being embedded in such an organization. The weight of the intellectual property or the service combined with the prominence of the brand makes for great perspectives from the trenches.

We learned about each organization’s brand essence, and the steps these designers take to represent the brand. We learned about the challenges of operating in a large organization, and their thoughts on responsive design. Questions from the crowd covered hiring and professional development.

But something was lacking, and ultimately I was dissatisfied with the conversation. What was lacking was a discussion of design systems, standards or guidelines, especially on the heels of Google’s unveiling Material. No longer the stuff of static PDF documents, design standards go well beyond red-lined logos, color palettes, and type styles.

Material is hardly the first attempt at publicizing a design standard. (You may recall pattern libraries from half a decade ago, which sought to do similar things.) Nor is it especially revolutionary in its approach or content. Responsive web design precipitated “atomic web design,” and many web designers were thinking modularly even before the screens became so small.

Material, however, represents a modern approach to “standards,” what our teams at EightShapes call design systems. Design systems establish guidelines for the user interface that mesh style, messaging, presentation, and functionality. They are as specific as they can be (what does a primary button look like) and as extensible as they need to be (we need a button style for a new condition). They reflect and enhance the brand, but serve as a tool for designing digital user experiences. They are equally a set of styles and a set of procedures to expand the design language as needed. Like any other underlying theory in web design, systematic thinking isn’t new or unique to the web. But the web forces us to find novel ways of interpreting and implementing these theories.

Since the panelists didn’t talk about design standards or design systems at their organizations, I don’t know whether they exist or not. On the other hand, designers so tied into their organizations’ brands certainly would have mentioned standards, no? Perhaps they don’t exist?

There are a handful of reasons why these organizations might not have design systems. In our work with organizations of similar scale, we’ve seen design systems thwarted by operational silos, antiquated production practices, lack of executive buy-in, and myriad other reasons.

But the single biggest challenge to implementing a design system is the position of designers in the organization. Seen as a service bureau, designers turn inputs into outputs without contributing to the strategy. The designers from both PBS Kids and Marvel implied that their teams operated as service bureaus. While they were effective — launching new apps, constantly prototyping concepts, and contributing to a new identity effort — they weren’t the ones helping form the strategy that lead to these decisions. (At least, based on what they said in the 45-minute panel.)

This isn’t to devalue their contributions or positions. The service bureau model for design teams is typical, and has worked for many organizations. But it is what gets designers like me to whine about “having a seat at the table.”

What was missing from the One Brand, One Vision panel was the bridge between these two phrases: How do you get from one brand to one vision? For design the answer is, invariably, a design team participating in strategic conversations, often manifested within the corporate culture as a well-curated design system. That this topic didn’t come up during the conversation could mean anything. Still, in an industry of increasing complexity—in terms of functionality, of availability across devices, of expectations by users—a systematic approach is essential.

To have a design system is to have a pervasive language of design, one that everyone in the organization speaks natively. When the design team is a service bureau, that language is jargon, an internal short-hand for that team.

A pervasive design system roots in the corporate culture, intertwining with the brand guide and project management practices and the employee manual, and every other operational aspect of the organization. These operational manifestos are self-referential and interdependent. They individually contribute to corporate culture and collectively reflect the corporate values. When a design system is pervasive, everyone in the organization has an understanding of how design—and in this case specifically user experience—plays a role in representing that aspect of the brand.