What the heck is a design system?

If you’re working as a Product Designer or if you are familiar with Product Design, you have probably heard about design systems.

Inès Serizer
Just Eat Takeaway-tech


As a newbie on the job I was never too sure about what a design system exactly consisted of, or at least the importance Designers would give to this tool. Actually, I was always confused between style guides and design systems and I thought the latter was just a more complex and time-wasting version of the first one, hence I wouldn’t see the added value in its use.

I thought it was just a trend that companies like Shopify, IBM, Salesforce or Lonely Planet launched by publishing their own guidelines and design system online.

However, I now realise that beyond the trend, design systems highlight new complexities in the way companies create interfaces.

Indeed, design systems actually help the whole company to have a well-maintained library, and save a lot of precious time for upcoming projects.

Because the hidden truth in a design team is the following: many people are working or have been working on the same projects and issues, and each person finds their own solution and will adjust the problem their way.
It can thus result in an incoherent experience for the user when it comes to using the product, while the motto in Product Design is: consistency and predictability.

Design has always been largely about systems, and how to create products in a scalable and repeatable way… These systems enable us to manage the chaos and create better products… A unified design system is essential to building better and faster; better because a cohesive experience is more easily understood by our users, and faster because it gives us a common language to work with.

– Airbnb

But what the heck is a design system?

It is not only a classification of components, but a whole process that is built and maintained by a company to help them develop superior user experiences and strengthen their brand.

Core components of a design system

These will help to:

Reduce design debt

The more a company and its products grow, the more features get added to the original design, and old features become outdated. Design teams also get to grow, and some projects are sometimes even delivered by outside agencies.
Without a design system, a product can lose its identity and start looking like a patchwork, creating a disjointed user experience.

Eliminate Inconsistencies

The first task before building a design system is classifying all the visual components within the product.

This will highlight where the biggest inconsistencies within the product are and will help the team to pick the most important and most used elements and components of the product.

It also serves your customer and makes their lives easier. When you create a consistent experience you reduce the cognitive load that exists when the user switches from a mobile product to its desktop version.

Save time

When a team designs something it is to serve the user. As a young designer, I thought the user was only the customer buying the product. But in this case, it’s also the people within the organization.

Indeed, you might also work on internal products, that are used by different teams within the company, in order to serve the customer. When you build a design system, you will speed up the design process while also building links amongst teams.

The more people are on the same page, the faster the process is.

Good design is a language, and when everyone is speaking the same language, that’s when things get done.

I hope this introduction to design systems has been useful. What are your best practices when working with design systems?