Design Systems, wtf?

Marcos Peebles
Dec 8, 2016 · 6 min read

Design is changing the world, so we hear. Adobe talks about the Design Advantage, the Harvard Business Revue says that Design Thinking comes of age, the Design Management institute says that Design-Driven companies outperform S&P by 228% over ten years. Deloitte claims that the new organisation is Different by design in its Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report. The trend of acquisitions of Design companies has never been so hot.

All the major consultancies, both management and strategy, as well as the systems integrators are investing considerably in design services. You get the idea…

Indeed, today everyone recognises the profound implications of Design. The London Underground says in its Station Design Idiom declaration that it has

“One simple aim: to bring good design to the forefront of our thinking. Good design should be the driver of decision-making, should permeate every level of the organisation, and should, ultimately, be celebrated by everyone. It doesn’t have to cost more; it’s an approach and an attitude of mind that thinks both broadly and carefully about what we do.”
From the
Station Design Idiom

Aiming even higher, the future belongs to those who make dreams come true…

As designers, we’re good at dreaming big. Now it’s time to deliver as big as we can dream.
Mikal Hallstrup, CEO Designit

Nice and clear. No doubts. DESIGN FTW

User Experience & Code

As part of Design, the User -or Customer- is at the centre of the recently most successful companies (think Google, AirBnb, Uber, Salesforce…) or customer-centric organisations as they are known. As Mc Kinsey hints that the best customer-experience efforts begin with a “customer back” perspective driven by the customer’s wants, not the company’s traditional organisational structure.

Again, loud and clear. User Experience is a must. UX FTW

But Design and Users are not on their own out there. The whole world economy is shifting with the Internet coming of age and Digital on all fronts.

Without question, digital transformation is disrupting the known economy.

There is no Digital without code, hence Code FTW.

UX / Design / Code: It’s the people

How can one make these new realities “Design is a must” and “User Experience as a Cornerstone” happen within the Digital ecosystems, beyond talking and dreaming? How can one move without breaking everything established, how can one integrate good practices recognising the positives of decades of industry findings?

It’s the people.

My friends Matteo Pescarin and James Nash, gurus, people!

Mucho roles and Jack is back

Companies have a mission statement. Companies adhere to processes. People follow these and have roles. Today, more then ever, many fragmented roles are found within each discipline. Some names come and go, some stay but they all share the same growing trend of increasingly specialised roles, while in some odd way the Jack of All Trades are also hot as ever.

A Designer can be a Service Designer, a Graphic Designer, a UI Designer, a Motion Designer, a Product Designer, a Strategic Designer, a Research Designer, a Business Designer, an Architect Designer, a Human Shaped Designer…

Likewise the UX people are User Researchers, Usability Testers, (Big) Data Analysts, Information Architects, Content Specialists, Interaction Designers, Online Marketing Specialists, Psychologists, UX Designers

The roles assigned to front- and backend coders/devops/engineers are even more numerous and specific. Try javascript libraries specialists

The house is already packed and the likes of Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Quantum Computing and co. are entering the game.
Yet the industry asks each person to learn new skills from other disciplines. In a peculiar way, and despite the awareness and will to enter uncharted territories, the house is still somewhat divided. When many players come in, some adapt quicker then others, c’est la vie

Nevertheless, strengthening interdisciplinary collaboration would create far more effective teams than teaching designers a coding language or teaching developers the ins and outs of Illustrator (A/N …or Sketch).
Ivana McConnell

Then again, isn’t Design about solving problems? So is Code. And the UX purpose is to help users reach their objective. The commonality of these goals and specifically the means to achieve those, are yet to be fully exploited.

We still rely on a very Taylor/Ford or even LEAN approach, or waterfall++ if you prefer, to get jobs done. We think we’ve made it because we moved from Six Sigma, ITIL, from Excel to Agile tools. As much as we’d like to iterate, test and adopt the “learn fast”/“fail fast” mindset, it just doesn’t add up in the end.

From Plato through Aristotle and (very) fast forward to Turing and today we are constantly seeking for the Holy Grail.

Plato, let us agree to let some ignorant of geometry enter, thereby knowledge will increase both ways.

What then?

From a developers perspective, clean, maintainable and scalable code is a must and so is the client, as never before. And as customer expectations extend beyond categories, successful solutions must move beyond silos to seize opportunities and solve issues.

User-Centered Design and User-Driven Development united for a Unified User Experience, how about that?

Enter Design Systems.

A Design System is a living, funded product with a roadmap & backlog, serving a larger ecosystem in order to achieve a Unified User Experience.
Nathan Curtis, EightShapes

Key to its success are people, the systems, the practices and the way that people participate in the process. According to Google,

The Goal of a Design System is to have a single underlying system that allows for a unified experience across platforms and device sizes. Mobile precepts are fundamental, but touch, voice, mouse, and keyboard are all first-class input methods.
Google Material Design

A way of co-ordinating people, code, design patterns and principles in order to provide consistent, tested, reusable and informed components for answers to UX and UI challenges and eventually, in an ideal world of any organisation touchpoint.

With this grand idea in mind, how can organisations achieve this?

Brad Frost Atomic Design,

In The Atomic Workflow — People, Process, And Making Design Systems Happen, Brad Frost gives us a very detailed approach on ways to hit the mark(s). We couldn’t agree more. Go and read it, now.

When you come back from that article (very little chance, you‘ll be opening Pandora’s cool box) you’ll understand that your mind has to set on macro to micro and back.

Diverge >< Converge then Converge >< Diverge then again.

Understand that…
Design Systems > Living Style guides > Pattern Libraries > Design Tokens based on Atomic Design Principles. (*I recommend Patternlab btw)

Design Systems, Hell Yeah!

Paramount Pictures

I’d like to express my gratitude to James Nash, Brad Frost, Brian Muenzenmeyer, Nathan Curtis, Ethan Marcotte, the whole Smashing Magazine and A List Apart gangs and all the people on the Internet who have been advocating Design Systems and specifically for sharing their findings in an Open Way.

They re-opened my eyes and re-ignited the fire. Gracias!


we enable + accelerate engineering transformation


We are a global engineering & co-innovation consultancy specializing in solving highly complex business problems. We leverage engineering best practices, tools, methodologies and new ways of working to deliver true business outcomes.

Marcos Peebles

Written by

Web since 90's, Design Systems ❤, Design, Code & Rants


We are a global engineering & co-innovation consultancy specializing in solving highly complex business problems. We leverage engineering best practices, tools, methodologies and new ways of working to deliver true business outcomes.

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