Design Systems Architecture Diagrams

A Visual Vocabulary to Relate Systems, Products & Brands

Nathan Curtis
Feb 13, 2019 · 7 min read

So many enterprises present ecosystems far more complex than “one design system, all our products.” More and more, I’ve found discussions across groups and systems leaders challenging. So far, I’ve lacked the vocabulary to quickly show and teach the breadth of these many systems and how they serve different internal customers with different features.

This article proposes a visual vocabulary of brands, systems, and products. The vocabulary denotes a design system’s varying outputs, documentation, adoption, and organizational boundaries. To conclude, the vocabulary is illustrated via complete, scenario-based example.


System, as Diamond

Title & description labels are displayed optionally upper right at 45 degree rotation. While one can adjust label location as a diagram emerges, this default proved least likely to conflict with objects and connectors.

System Tools—Design Assets & Code — as Semi-Diamonds

Design Guidelines & Code Reference as a Diamond Backdrop

For example, IBM Carbon, Shopify Polaris, Morningstar, REI Cedar (disclosure: I contributed to the latter two) provide detailed design guidelines and code reference material. Therefore, each would include a full yellow diamond behind the D & C outputs.

On the other hand, Financial Times’s Origami offers code reference without design guidelines. Google’s Material had long provided copious design guidelines without code, although that‘s changed recently with their more loosely coupled guidelines and code in different architectures of a much broader site.

Salesforce Lightning Design System offers fairly limited design guidance, blended into otherwise code-centric component documentation. Therefore, I’d indicate — reluctantly — that it’s site lacks detailed design guidelines.

Products as Circles

For example, an e-commerce experience may have distinct squads for each step of the process: home page, search results, landing & category page(s), product page, shopping cart, checkout, order status & returns, and account profile. Each would be represented distinctly in a diagram.

Product Quantity as Badges

Product Adoption Status as Color

These may also be consolidated using badges for quantity.

Connectors, Lines Top-to-Bottom

Lines turn via rounded, 90 degree angles. Straight or arced connectors overlapped and conflated with other connectors and objects, making the presentation messy and routes harder to follow.

These diagrams closely relate to dependency diagrams that conclude connectors with an arrow. However, feedback strongly suggested that the diagram’s vertical orientation implied directionality. “Arrows clutter the diagram,” my colleagues asserted. Therefore, rely upon a line’s simple, lower contrast color to connect objects.

Brand Identities as Squares

Multiple Brands as Parents of One System

Organizational Boundaries as Columns

I’ve chosen to use purple boundaries that are dashed and thicker than lines connecting nodes. Additionally, one- or two-level purple labels oriented on the diagram’s baseline clearly label each area.


Example: A Central System with Intermediaries

The design system team recognized the architectural redundancy and complexity, leading their next generation of work to offer web components to alleviate the need for such translations.

Example: Small Banks and Insurance Companies

Example: Software-as-a-Service (Education)

After the flagships rolled out, teams applied the system to cross-product tools (authentication, homepage, dashboard(s), search, and account management) and administrative consoles where educators managed student data and access. With success growing, they began to look towards a sibling unit that produced custom, white-labeled sites for customers.

Example: Business Units by Customer Type

System teams shared practices and tools yet remained autonomous to optimally serve distinct customers. This helped avoid challenges, like prematurely converging a design language that wasn’t yet a priority.

Example: Software-as-a-Service (Enterprise)


A collection of stories, studies, and deep thinking from…

Nathan Curtis

Written by

Founded UX firm @eightshapes, contributing to the design systems field through consulting and workshops. VT & @uchicago grad.


A collection of stories, studies, and deep thinking from EightShapes

Nathan Curtis

Written by

Founded UX firm @eightshapes, contributing to the design systems field through consulting and workshops. VT & @uchicago grad.


A collection of stories, studies, and deep thinking from EightShapes

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