Selling Pattern Libraries to Clients—Part 1

by Laura Elizabeth

“Oh yeah, we haven’t really looked at the pattern library thing since the launch. To be honest, we kind of forgot we had it…”

My heart sank.


For the last few years we’ve been hearing a lot about designing patterns, not pages in web design.

The concept refers to designing a collection of reusable web components that can be mixed and matched to build up web pages.

In essence, we’re trying to move away from this being the deliverable:

Pages mocked up on (usually) Apple products as a deliverable

To something a bit more fluid like this:

Defining reusable components first, delivered as a pattern library

Now, I see this as a really positive step. Not because I think pages are evil, but because it promotes a shift in thinking to understand how websites are built and how they can adapt.

As the industry evolves, the nature of designing and developing websites are becoming more advanced and complex. It’s becoming harder to master both of these disciplines to the same standard.

This means that we’re moving into an age of collaboration, where people can bring their individual expertise and work together towards a common problem.

So with more hands on deck, it becomes even more important to design to a system where multiple people can jump in and contribute, without leaving the project in disarray.

Yipikaye! Our problems are solved.

After researching (and gushing about) designing for modularity, I was pretty stoked. I felt like it was the best thing since sliced bread. It was simple, it made sense. This is going to solve all of our industry’s problems!

Except it didn’t.

Not for me anyway. It didn’t promote the in-depth discussions about responsivity and fluidity. It didn’t rid me of having to explain that the fold doesn’t really exist.

And half the the pattern libraries we developed haven’t been used and probably never will be.

Something went wrong.

The web from the client’s perspective

I don’t know about you, but one of my favourite things about being a web designer is getting to work with such a diverse range of people. One month I may be working on an e-commerce platform for a card company and the next I could be working on a web app for museum lovers.

We get to speak to experts in the most random of industries day in, day out and we often acquire knowledge about things we didn’t even know existed.

However, being an expert in something takes time. Sometimes a life-long commitment. And if you’ve got a family and a life outside of your job, that doesn’t really leave much time left to learn much else.

Especially say, the ever evolving state of the web.

Most of us struggle to keep up with our own industry. How can we possibly expect all of our clients to do the same?

What’s the problem from a client perspective?

Now the reason I keep banging on about clients is because modular design is often spoken about from a designers and developers perspective and the benefits that it brings to us.

“As web designers we craft experiences for users, but we often overlook the need to design the experience that clients have during the web design process.” —Samantha Warren

And this is especially true when talking about things like pattern libraries. We know why they’re good for designers and developers, but what about clients?

We need to be asking questions like:

  • Why would a client want a pattern library?
  • How will we sell it to them?
  • What deliverables will they get?
  • How will they maintain them?

Because the unfortunate truth is that this way of working takes time to implement correctly and more time means a bigger budget and a longer, more flexible deadline.

But not only that, it also assumes that the client has a working knowledge and understanding about how the web works.

Bear in mind that clients come from all sorts of different industries. It could be healthcare, surfing, education or knitting. They’ve got their own stuff to keep up with, they need to remain experts in their own field just like we need to remain experts in ours.

Now unfortunately for us this means that to most clients the web is a still a series of pages bound together to form a website. They get a home page, an about page, a blog page and whatever else.

They’re the final deliverables that they see, and they’re really easy to quantify so if we want to start designing patterns over pages we need to help educate them and get them to buy into modular design.

Only then will they see it as a system that works for them, not us. And then when we come back in a few months time, they’ll be be using their pattern library to have those meaningful conversations we all dream of.

Wouldn’t that be lovely?


In the next article, I’ll go into some of those benefits for clients and ways we can get them on board with this new process. But I don’t have all the answers, so if you have anything to add, please leave a comment or even email me directly. I’d really love to hear from anyone who’s had experience in this.

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