Design Systems

The Tale of Two Gardens

Once upon a time there lived two gardeners. Each was hired by the City Director to plant a garden for the city. The first gardener wanted to plant the garden as quickly as possible. He immediately purchased the most beautiful plants he could find and planted them in the ground. When completed, the garden looked very beautiful. The City Director was very happy with the garden and paid the gardener generously. It was a different story for the second gardener.

The second gardener moved slowly. Instead of buying plants, he asked the City Director questions, “what kind of garden should we grow? Will the garden be to produce food? Will it be an herb garden? Is the purpose of the garden to be a place to relax?”

After some discussion it was determined that a nearby bee colony in the city really needed some help. A garden that would help support that bee colony would help beautify all the flowers in the city and make the city a nice place for everyone to live.

The City Director was excited to get things moving and asked the second gardener to plant the garden. The gardener informed the City Director that the time was not right, he would need to do some research first. He needed answers to some questions:

  • What is the soil like?
  • What is the climate like?
  • How big will the garden need to be to support the bee colony?
  • What kind of flowers does this species of bees like?
  • How will the garden be maintained?

The gardener informed the City Director that this would take a week to complete. The City Director was frustrated with the second gardener. He wondered why he was wasting his money on an unproductive gardener, especially when the other gardener already finished planting?

Things continued to get worse for the City Director. While the second gardener was off doing research, the first garden transformed into a weed garden and died. Now the City Director didn’t have any gardens, one was essentially dead and the other hadn’t been planted.

The next week the second gardener approached the City Director with his research. They discussed the soil type, climate, and all the beautiful flowers that would be planted.

The second gardener laid out a plan for how the garden would be maintained. He determined that now was the right time to plant the garden, but would need some help. The second gardener would need resources to help dig and lay the drip system. This would ensure the flowers would get the right amount of water. He would also need to have a team create clear labels for each plant. This would allow city workers to adequately care for each plant as the garden grew over time.

In total, the garden would take about a month to plant. Additionally, he informed the City Director that the garden would require regular maintenance in order to remain healthy and beautiful.

The City director was a little surprised by the amount of time and work this would take. But with the first garden dead he didn’t want to take any chances. Reluctantly he moved forward with the second gardeners plan.

As predicted, the garden took a month to complete. When the garden was completed it looked just as beautiful as the other garden. However, there were a few major differences between the gardens. The most obvious was that the second garden was flourishing, while the first garden was dead. Furthermore, the second garden continued to grow, becoming more and more beautiful as it matured. The garden successfully supported the bee colony and beautified the entire city.

In the end both gardeners were paid and the city director received the two gardens he paid for, only one of which was what he wanted.

What I have learned about design systems

Why did the second garden succeed and the first fail? Well, he started with some important questions:

  • What kind of garden should we grow? Will the garden be to produce food? Will it be an herb garden? Is the purpose of the garden to be a place to relax? (What kind of design system should be built? Does it serve a single product? What types of products will the system support?)
  • What is the soil like? (What is the technical landscape like? What frameworks will it run on?)
  • What is the climate like? (What is the corporate culture like? What are the politics like?)
  • How big will the garden need to be to support the bee colony? (How expansive will the system need to be to support the product/products?)
  • What kind of flowers does this species of bees like? (What elements does the system need to support the product?)
  • How will the garden be maintained? (How will the design system be maintained?)

There are more factors than just the design team that affect a design system. I have learned that the most influential factor on a design system is not the design team, not a product manager, and certainly not the user — instead it is the organization itself that the design system serves. It’s how business is done in the organization. It’s how politics work. It’s how different departments work together. It’s the different frameworks your products are built on. It’s HR policy. Ultimately, it’s the soil you plant in.

When you understand what kind of soil you are planting in you can determine what kind of plants will thrive in that soil. Doing this ensures that your design system grows and matures.

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