Starting a Design System

From Pitching a Strategy to Launching 1.0 and Beyond

Nathan Curtis
Aug 7, 2017 · 8 min read

Commit to a System Strategy

A design system doesn’t start with choosing a first color. Instead, ground a system in a strategy that discerns customer needs, sets objectives, explores and converges on a design direction, pitches a strategy, and obtain an organization’s commitment.

Discover Customer Needs

Like any product we design and develop, a design system must address the needs of adopting product teams within the current landscape of culture, tools, existing systems, and practices.

  • Surveying a broader organization of stakeholders attitudes and posture towards a system, priorities/needs, aspirations, and threats.
  • Requirements gathering via task analysis, tech planning, and convention setting (using tools like Brad Frost’s Front End Questionnaire).
  • Product tours to immerse in as-is products and in-flight designs to which the system will apply, taking screenshots and notes.
  • System(s) reviews assessing as-is design assets, code libraries, standards documentation depth and quality, and governance models.

Engage Stakeholders in Inclusive Workshops

Discovery can lead to in-person presentations and working sessions to summarize progress and gather more input. We’ll convene large groups of designers, engineers, executives and others for sessions to:

Converge on a Conceptual Direction

More often than not, establishing a design system coincides with developing a new visual language from the ground up and applying that language to UI components that product teams agree to use. Your success depends on getting your organization on board with the direction you’re headed.

Early-stage reference designs for the 2012–2014 responsive redesign period.

Pitch a Strategy with a Clear Proposal

Ultimately, a strategy is nothing if the people that matter – both executives with funds and communities of products that adopt – don’t buy into it. So you must pitch a strategy. And that means creating a presentation deck.

A sample system pitch deck, from later 2016
  • Stories expressing value, such as pairing the universal And You Thought Buttons Were Easy with other challenges relevant to an organization.
  • Proposed scope, timing, products and processes included in 1.0 release, subsequent product adoption and support, and system development and maintenance that follows (the how and when).
  • Recommended multi-disciplinary system team composition and how they’ll engage contributors and decision-makers (the who).

Get a Commitment to Purpose and Team

Don’t be shy. You are asking to launch a new product at your organization, so you have to ask. What are you asking for?

  1. Products – often, many many products – to anticipate responsibility for making significant changes sometime in the future.
  2. A community and organization to evolve how it operates, shares work, makes decisions, and more. Organizational change is hard.

Launch a 1.0 Release

You’ve secured an organizational mandate and a squad of designers, engineers, leaders and others. Scope is clear. It’s time to design, build and document a system sprint by sprint to get to a first release.

Delivering Scope Incrementally

A first release cycles delivers something where there was nothing. As a system progresses, its customers, sponsors, and even the team itself must have an idea of what will done by when as well as comfort in the inexact timing of finishing each piece.

  • Delivering more parts per sprint later as productivity increases.

Operate Beyond the 1.0 Release

From the outset of pursuing a design system, even as early as your interviews and workshops during Discovery, it is essential to communicate that a design system isn’t a project, it’s a product. It’ll be practiced, delivered, and maintained over time that doesn’t end with 1.0.

Shift from Formation to Operations

This ongoing program requires a pivot from a formative to operational mindset. No longer limited to delivering core features, activities diversify to:

  • Delivering new features important to the business.
  • Coordinating and supporting product adoption with training, paired integration, help, monitoring, and reporting.
  • Cultivating community of influence and contribution across designers and engineers.
Emphasizing an adoption plan brings focus to the relationship between a system and products it serves

Invest the Program in Regular Time Increments

These periods maintain a growing library but must also must continue delivering demonstrable business value. Like a system’s own patterns, planning and delivering the program over increments builds a pattern of newsworthy progress, syncing with products, and roadmapping.

  • In Q4, diverse alert components with editorial guidance, plus motion!
  • In Q1 next year, data visualization, charts, and robust illustrations.
  • In Q2 next year, a broad sub-catalog of hero and content components.


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