3 tips for creating a design system

Design systems are hard.

If I’ve learned anything about design systems over the last few years, it’s that none are created equal.

Dan Mall, author of Design System in 90 Days, and I chatted about navigating a design system rollout.

He dropped a ton of knowledge in this week's episode.

Here are 3 tips that stood out:

Credit: Ben Callahan
  1. Mind the design system efficiency curve. No matter how lean the approach, there is going to be an early period where the cost outweighs the benefit. This early cost can be variable, but cannot be completely reduced. Deciding on how much cost is acceptable depends on your stakeholder's tolerance. Communicate this cost effectively and you'll avoid contributing to the ever-growing "design system graveyard".
  2. Stop looking outward. It's a mistake to compare your ambitions to the popular design systems of big tech companies. Dan explains that no companies are working with design systems that mimic big tech. A better guiding question to ask yourself is: "does our design system today solve more problems than it did yesterday?" When we compare against robust systems like Gusto's Workbench, we start to accept this idea of "done". In reality, a design system is an ever-growing product with iterations. Treat is as such.
  3. Focus on incremental progress. If you're trying to tackle tokenization, documentation, and Figma creation, you're going to overwhelm yourself. The same can be said for trying to prioritize too many components at a time. Pick a lane, and relentlessly focus on one priority at a time. Too often we focus on trivial things like buttons, because they're easy and lead to "output". But teams aren't having problems with buttons, they're having problems implementing complex data tables or autocomplete dropdowns. Focus on what will actually solve problems.

As Dan calls out, teams with successful design systems spend disproportionate amounts of time "hot-potato-ing" small efforts between designers and developers. This allows contributors to better understand the nuances of the other side of the house.

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