Design Systems: A Necessary Evil or the Foundation of Great Design?

When it comes to design systems, every designer’s got an opinion. The topic tends to ignite spirited debate among designers — even the ones who align on pretty much everything else. Typically, they’ll fall somewhere on a spectrum between “impassioned advocate” and “you’re crushing my creative spirit.”

I wanted to understand how equally talented and experienced designers can assume directly opposing positions on a topic that’s central to product design. So I’m taking a closer look at design systems: the good, the bad — and the viewpoint from Very.

But first, a definition

Design systems have been around for years, and they’re not unique to software design. But in our world, a design system is a blueprint for the baseline user interface and interaction patterns of software products and platforms. It defines the “rules” of a system — the way that technological and visual components work together to create a consistent experience for a user.

A design system is typically delivered in the form of component libraries. It can include style palettes (color, typeface, etc.), animations, interactions, potential scenarios and a host of other visual and technological elements.

Intuit’s Harmony Design System

In defense of design systems

Proponents believe design systems allow the designer to focus on the why, instead of the how. Essentially, a design system standardizes the parts of the process that lend themselves to standardization. This keeps the designer from having to reinvent the wheel, which not only increases efficiency; it frees up a designer’s time and headspace, so they can focus their energy on areas that cannot, and should not, be standardized.

In other words: a design system isn’t meant to be prescriptive; it’s a set of parameters, a framework that provides structure in places that actually call for structure. As such, it allows us to design something new on the development side without requiring a lot of design or development time.

What’s more: a design system often leads to common patterns across products and platforms. This can enhance usability across every kind of audience, regardless of their technological savvy.

Ultimately, design systems allow us to quickly build elegant, functional solutions that are consistently good in the eyes of the designer and the user.

The limitations of design systems

The most common argument against standardization is a fear of restricted creativity. Rigid constraints can feel — well, constraining. Most software developers understand the value of rules: they typically follow certain frameworks or methodologies that, at a high level, dictate the way they work. But sometimes solutions require outside-the-box thinking. And a design system is, by definition, a box.

Design systems can also sacrifice variety for consistency. Of course, when it comes to user experience, consistency is an incredibly important consideration. If users are met with a new experience over and over again, it can lead to confusion and frustration. But at what point does consistency become boring or stale? How much is too much?

Beyond creativity and UX, there’s the question of business needs and goals — which are complex and always evolving. These should never conform to a design system, and a design system should never get in their way. But if we’re constantly finding ourselves in a position of updating and revising the system to account for changing business objectives, the system starts to feel less and less useful.

Essentially, the argument against a design system is about freedom — or lack thereof — to create the best solutions. When we submit to a set of guidelines, when we’re limited to a specific set of tools, we’re sacrificing some of our decision-making capabilities. For many designers, that’s simply asking too much.

The middle ground

Our team understands the benefits and limitations of design systems. Simply put, a design system isn’t ever a substitute for skill and experience.

A design system is basically a set of rules, but rules and creativity aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, rules can foster the creative spirit: consider the alphabet, or music, or even math.

We believe it’s all about “seeing the forest for the trees.” Design systems are a great way to grow trees — to build a piece of something larger. But it’s never going to help you see the forest. Design system or not, high-level design is always going to require discernment and analysis, critical thinking and creativity. So long as we recognize them for what they are and what they are not, design systems can help us design more efficiently and deliver solutions that are as unique as they are useful.