Takeaways from the DSConf (part 1/2)

Helsinki, March 14th, 2018

The DSConf was a 2-day conference dedicated to Design Systems. Talks and workshops alike aimed to bring people together to exchange ideas, solutions and inspirations and show how Design Systems (a.k.a. DS) can help build better products more efficiently.

The first day was a full immersive day with inspiring talks from 10 great speakers. This post is the first of two parts with some key takeaways from the first 5 talks on the conference day.

Jina Anne — Design Systems Anthropology

Jina Anne about Design Systems Anthropology.

Jina Anne, Senior Design Systems Lead at Amazon, gave a fantastic talk using metaphors from anthropology. According to Jina, a Design System empowers changes in an organisation’s culture because it changes the way design is being communicated throughout. The potential benefits of a DS are:

  • Fosters a sense of belonging
  • Shows the impact
  • Enables people to be heard
  • Allows for emotional connection with others — empathy and shared understanding
  • Breaks down silos — everyone needs to feel empowered and part of the DS
  • Promotes working in pairs — for increased collaboration, mutual learning and efficiency

Jina shared a fantastic example from the movie “The Founder” and commented on the parallels of this story to the work teams do in DS. The movie shows a scene were the founders decide to shut down the business to come up with the best automated synchronisation system and layout. They drew a floor plan and directed their staff on walking paths and their tasks. They iterated, re-drew and practiced multiple times until they perfected the choreography and store layout. Their ultimate goal? To serve their customers efficiently. Efficiency with operations would mean that they’d serve their customers faster. Faster would also mean serving more customers. Within an organisation, efficiency, speed and better serving a larger number of teams are outcomes of a successfully implemented DS because it enables a systemic, organised and structured approach to design. Ultimately, Design Systems exist to support and facilitate product growth.

She also touched upon a widely used argument against DS, that of inhibiting creativity. Jina Anne’s counter argument is drawn from music, in particular jazz music with its patterns and improvisation. Jazz musicians memorise certain intervals, chords and scale patterns and apply them freely to create new melodies. This is how a DS works. Notes are the basic building blocks or ‘atoms’ of a system which can then be combined in multiple ways to form patterns that can be used in creative ways to form UI elements (existing or new).

Nathan Curtis — Systems of systems

Nathan Curtis about the Step-by-Step Adoption Model in Design Systems.

Nathan Curtis, co-founder of EightShapes, mapped out the many connections and relationships we encounter when applying design systems at scale. He offered some great advice regarding what to do while in the process of building a DS in an organisation where multiple stakeholders have a voice. Few of the less-technical takeaways from Nathan’s talk are:

  • Acknowledge the two reasons you believe your DS will fail.

Knowing a system’s deficiencies helps teams stay realistic and also gears them towards action to overcome any inherent weaknesses.

  • Find where you are on the Step-by-Step-Adoption Model.

The Step-by-Step-Adoption model provides a great way for design teams to understand what must be done and measure themselves against something that functions as a roadmap. It communicates where the teams are heading but also breaks down items in a prioritised manner to keep all parties and teams involved on the same page. Nathan’s Step-by-Step-Adoption Model provides a clear way to showcase how adoption works, from initial commitment to full adoption via incremental achievements.

  • Understand how versioning works.

Nathan’s point stresses the ever growing need for designers to have a good understanding of how versioning and releases work, how to stay up-to-date with developments and work hand in hand with engineering teams.

Mikko Häkkinen and Rami Ertimo — A case study of Elisa’s design system

Mikko & Rami about pitching your Design System right.

Mikko’s and Rami’s lessons learnt:

  • Kill your darlings — if something is not being used then kill it because it is probably creating more problems than it is solving.
  • Have a sales pitch — when you are pitching to various stakeholders, prepare a pitch where you present current problems. Then show how a DS can solve those problems and how it can benefit the organisation (photo). Most importantly, for the pitch to be effective, it needs to be relevant to the respective audience.
  • Be with people — talk to them and build relationships; don’t try to put a DS in place alone.
  • Consider regression — pay attention to automation, updates and quality.
  • Choose evolution to revolution — building a DS takes time; don’t just expect things will change overnight.

Kauri Salonen — Design Operations

Kauri Salonen about the importance of Design Operations.

Kauri Salonen is a Lead Strategist at Eficode. He shared his thoughts about how design can have a positive impact on the coherence & performance of an organisation. He talked about the importance of design operations and shared few tips to help leaders in organisations facilitate change and develop efficient ways for teams to work together.

Kauri suggests to:

  • Get a dedicated person, a coach with a holistic view and a diplomatic character rather than a senior designer
  • Always keep in mind that Design Operations are always an MVP
  • Start a Journal; an unstructured documentation of the inventory, the work around it and its findings. Then use it to evangelise the new way of working but also to prove to various stakeholders that the problems you are tackling are undeniable.

Hayley Hughes, Mike Abbink, Petri Heiskanen — Evolving the Design Language at Big Blue

Hayley Hughes about the importance of measuring success.

Hayley, Mike and Petri took us through the journey of IBM’s digital transformation and shared some key insights and design practices that contributed to IBM’s robust transformation.

Hayley Hughes, Design Lead for IBM’s Design Language, described how they treated IBM’s DS as a product on its own and how important it was to have a strong DS team working exclusively on it.

“You can’t improve what you don’t measure”

A strong advocate of measuring the design language adoption, Hayley spoke about the importance of research and collecting data. Their research involved regular interviews and surveys with designers and developers — all users of the newly formed DS to collect feedback about its adoption. Using qualitative and quantitative ways to measure adoption they were able to use the insights to iterate and improve the DS as a product by reflecting upon actual needs.

Mike Abbink IBM Brand Experience and Design Creative Director, used a well know metaphor in the DS word; the LEGO metaphor. His advice was to “‘hell-engineering’ the basic building blocks of your designs; once this is in place then it is easy to use them in flexible and scalable ways while having space to be creative.” Mike also talked about typography. Digital experiences are all about typography since reading is still the most commonly used method of interacting with interfaces. Yet we have very few typography experts — a paradox that Mike anticipates will need to be addressed soon by the design community.


Next week, in Part 2 we’ll dive in the second part of the conference day with speakers from some exciting companies of the likes of Airbnb and Abstract. Stay tuned!