What’s a Design System, Design Language, and Design Language System? And what’s the Difference?

Maximilian Speicher
The Startup
5 min readMay 5, 2020

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TL;DR: Depending on who you ask, a design system and a design language might be the same thing or not. Regardless, the important point here is that both a system and a language go beyond a simple pattern library. They have to include a set of rules and guidelines to give the included components structure and meaning.

Originally published on 2008 ‒ Tales of Design & User Experience.

Most people concerned with digital design in one way or the other should already have an intuitive understanding of what a design system or a design language is. It’s what Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines are, or Microsoft’s Metro Design Language. I, personally, have heard the term “design language” more often in my career in UX so far, and sometimes “design system”. But a new term I came across for the first time recently was “design language system”. So, I asked myself: Is there actually a difference between these three? What followed was a little literature review of three very useful articles:

I also included the surprisingly short Wikipedia article about design languages in my research. Here’s what I found.

A comprehensive guide to design systems

Will Fanguy describes a design system as a

collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications.

That is, a simple set of components is not enough if there aren’t structure and meaning behind it. He continues:

Most simply put, the difference is in the standards and documentation […] with a guide on how and why to use them.

Therefore, in summary, a design system comprises (1) a library of design patterns, (2) rules, and (3) streamlined UX guidelines. The latter two are what give the otherwise “lifeless” pattern library logic and structure. Also, Fanguy mentions the relationship to design…

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Maximilian Speicher
The Startup

A designer who writes about leadership, strategy, & anything UX • Doctor of Computer Science • formerly University of Michigan • maxspeicher.com/newsletter