On Classification in Design Systems

Recent Trends in Naming Things in Design Libraries

Nathan Curtis
Feb 26, 2016 · 3 min read

Trent Walton’s article Atomic Classification raises some excellent points and considerations when naming and organizing things in a design system. Some highlights include:

Absolutely. Brad Frost’s atomic design metaphor and storytelling resonates strongly across disciplines and experience-levels. It’s elevated the conversation and equipped everyone with a foundation to build on.

But naming and organizing things is hard. And abstract concepts (like atoms and molecules) applied to our own everyday objects (like HTML elements and CSS properties) creates a layer of transformation that sometimes gets in the way.

Organizing a Library, Back Then

In my book Modular Web Design (2009), I devoted an entire Chapter 9: Organize to concerns around naming and organizing components in a library, and even devote a step of the Component Cut Up workshop to naming each part.

The chapter addresses two prominent concepts in naming things:

Such classification can be powerful, specific, and – once you get the hang of it – incredibly efficient. But cryptic codification can lead to poor learnability and memorability, a perception of exclusivity (“What the heck is an S12?”), and more challenging (and annoying) conversations around naming things.

How Classification Has Evolved, For Now

Seven years and ~20 libraries later, my beliefs have evolved. I still appreciate the geeked out notions of taxonomy and coded classification as described above. However, approaches have trended towards a simpler future.

When working with a new system, we’ll usually:

About to embark on a design system, or need to dive deeper to discuss products and players? EightShapes conducts systems planning workshops and coaches clients on design systems. Let’s talk!


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

Nathan Curtis

Written by

Founder of UX firm @eightshapes. Speaker. Writer. Fan of Arsenal, Hokies. Cyclist & runner. Father & husband. VT & @uchicago grad.


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