Figma Schema 2022 London — Takeaways

Rob Cleaton
Sainsbury’s Customer Experience Design

--

Photo of an auditorium from the rear towards the stage, showing two people speaking to an audience of abut 100.

Last week I was able to attend the Figma Schema event in London. Typically, the idea of networking is something I feel out my depth in and it sends a bit of a shiver down my spine, especially going there solo. However, the range of speakers and it being purely focused on design systems — I was like a moth to the light!

Firstly, huge credit to Figma for getting an impressive range of speakers from a great range of companies of different sizes and all at different stages of their design systems journey.

It’s great to see design systems specific events beginning to take place. This reflects and emphasises the rising interest in the industry, with companies now having the will to adopt change and to recognise the value that design systems offer.

These are my highlights from the key speakers.

First up was the opening keynote:

Jacob Miller — Product Manager, Figma

Jacob took to the stage rocking a colourful bow tie and a marvellously well-groomed face. Jacob lead with the fundamentals of design systems at Figma and presented their ambition of striking a continuous balance of “free form design” vs “structured design”, a great resonating point for us who work on design systems day-in-day-out. We often hear, ‘its too restrictive’, or ‘needs more guidance’ and how to balance this way of working without over indexing on one or the other.

Jacob mentions the big challenges of adoption and contribution that potentially lead to splintered design systems. Designers aren’t sure how to contribute, so create their own siloed systems that immediately loose the connection with a centralised system. This is no fault of anyone using the system but it clearly indicates that there’s opportunity to smooth the process, and recommends the idea of a contribution doc in context to the Figma files designers are consuming.

Jacob demoed many of these ways of working with huge overlaps to developers. The first was regression testing on each component. This offers a place to visually display the old vs new, looking for any breaking changes before its published.

Next was an intro to a Headless Design System, an unbranded/un-themed system that can be customised with styles and overrides, exactly how CSS works. Then the Figma feature of branching, one of the product’s best updates, and again nothing new and standard practise to developers. Each of these are nudges to a closer way of working, aligning co-workers earlier, speaking the same language and bringing it all much closer together.

All in all, a great first speech!

James Nash & Louis Chenais — An introduction to Tokens file format

Ahh, the T word on everyone’s lips, Tokens. A feature everyone’s calling for from Figma, while we’re teased with it being close and bumble around with different third-party plugins.

Tokens represent another huge stride in bringing designers and developers closer in workflows from day 1. It’s no surprise to see this become such a highly praised practise, reducing friction between teams and disciplines, reducing time costs of handovers and the camaraderie of all working on the same thing has a truly unspoken value.

Music to my ears was hearing more about the Design Token Community Group, DTCG. Tokens are relatively new, and like anything new, it’s going through its adolescent years of working out who it is. As design tokens mature and like any common practise on the web, it welcomes industry standards. This goes as far as naming conventions, token taxonomy, and making the foundations of what good looks like. A centralised space all of us can keep an eye on and be excited to feel included in its evolution.

Photo from the audience showing the presenter on the stage. Other audience members can be seen taking photos of the presenter on their phones.
QR T-Shirt FTW!

Jack Roles, Brice Fontaine — Research-driven design systems, Farfetch

Jack and Brice where great to display an open and honest insight into their daunting problem they had faced — namely, “where the hell to start?!”. Like all great products, they started with research with their users, designers, and mapped a clear path to success.

They talked about how their peers were laser-focused on their products but sometimes missed the zoomed out view, which led to fragmentation and working in silos. This has amounted to various inconsistent patterns being introduced, from naming conventions, multiple reference points, Storybook, Confluence and not a single source of truth.

What was great to see with this talk was the inclusion of their users from the start. This offers them the ability to feel included and to have confidence in the actions being taken.

Photo taken from the audience of two presenters speaking on stage.
Multiple reference points creating a mess of complexity

Gonzalo Vasquez & Leonie Proske — Navigating complex system updates, Zalando

I really enjoyed this talk. Leonie and Gonzalo had some great messages on a design system from human-centred design. They described their design system proposal as “Create a system of support” and the belief of design systems being social as, “Designs Systems are made by people for other people”.

Gonzalo talked us through the full workings of something that will resonate with us all, and the beast of a task in our backlogs: aligning on a product card. They did a huge audit on the current cards and this looked like a great collaborative space for all designers to get a view of what each is doing. This allowed them to see see common patterns, define a solution and demoed the card maximising the Figma component properties feature.

There’s always a bit of a fine line between design systems and design ops, and it was great to see such effort and consideration in their internal Figma plugin Zill-it-in. This simple plugin allows their designers to populate their designs with live content, reduce their time costs and another example of design and development joining closer together to optimise for their design user’s needs.

Photo taken from the audience of two presenters speaking on stage. Slide reads “Design systems are made by people & for other people”

Patrycja Rozmus – Multidimensional Design Systems, Brainly

Brainly was one of the larger companies presenting, and Design Systems Lead, Patrycja Rozmus introduced the Brainly product: a social learning platform aimed at Gen-Z. One thing Brainly recognises that resonates with their audience, is motion, so they’ve been keen to weave this fun, vibrant and energetic theme into their design language.

Brainly showcased how they have worked with a ‘structured collaboration’ model, described by Patrycja as a ‘Design by community with a leader’. It was particularly interesting This amongst all the speakers of the day, was interesting to see what contribution/governance model they follow: their model allows many designers to be adding to the system and Patrycja, self-described as ‘The mother of dragons’ was amongst the governance.

Another team to work up their own Figma plugin, was Dreams. This allows a user to import html components into Figma. So interesting to see the line blur between design and development.

Conclusion

Design Systems still feels like a relatively new industry so it was great to see such a comprehensive range of speakers demo their why’s and how’s.

There was a common thread, though, which I was delighted to see, and this was design and development is beginning to come together much earlier in the journey. Standardised development practise are now influencing design and ways of working, such as regression testing, branching and headless design. We’re seeing huge value from this in the social impact of contribution, communities, and building custom tools for teams. It’s very easy to start to see significant value that can be delivered to the business and to the benefit of the employees.

Working in design systems, there’s always a voice in the back of your head, asking “is this the right way to solve this problem?”, is this even the right problem. That’s precisely because it’s a relative new industry, and like anything new, it’s still figuring out who and what it is. It was great to see communities like the DTCG making progress, and Design Tokens building momentum with setting standards.

And the networking was great. I met some really interesting new people, and I loved being able to chat about design systems and not see eyeballs start to drift to the other side of the room. It was great to have so many like-minded people, design system teams; all of us on this journey together, with many shared challenges.

Depending on company size, adoption and contribution are big pieces of work and tough nuts to crack but have the rewards make it worth persevering. The key is to recognise them and don’t just see a design system team as a farm to breed components.

Design Systems are finally getting industry recognition and it’s great to see brands investing in them and building teams. I took a lot of positive validation of the methods and directions we’re going in the Design Systems team at Sainsburys.

--

--

Rob Cleaton
Sainsbury’s Customer Experience Design

Design Director @warface. Over 15 years experience leading design systems. Previous @Sainsburys, @trainline, @JustEat, @GOVUK, @Elsevier @LloydsBank