Creating a Design System Language…

It seems like the current buzz word in the design industry and everyone wants one. But how exactly can a product benefit from having a living, breathing design language? I’m going to try break down the very basics so you can understand why it’s needed.

“ Creating an underlaying language will unite our design philosophies and methodologies across our platform.”

So why do we need a Design Language?…

It creates a holistic perspective to ensure we’re all adhering to the same methodologies and patterns as a team. Every team member should be inline with the concept that we’re promoting and should be able to reference the design principles against any project they are currently working on. The main goal of a design language is to create focus and clarity for designers. A design language is like any language. If there is any confusion it will cause a breakdown in communication.

Having a cohesive Design Language creates harmony within a platform. For onlookers, standardised colours, interactions and patterns creates a sense of familiarity and security. A well planned and well executed Design Language is the key to a gratifying experience. For instance, if you walk into a Starbucks in Iceland, you will recognise a lot of similar touches to your local Starbucks down the road. Familiarity brings a sense of comfort and security to the user. Introducing design constraints on individual elements within a platform creates consistency at a higher level.

A successful Design Language will:

  • Focus: allow the designer to focus clearly on the project at hand rather then to be diverted by other distractions.
  • Clarity: allow the designer to think clearly about our design beliefs as well as the design constraints in place across the platform.
  • Confidence: allow the designer to have complete confidence in what they are designing and that it is inline with others in the team.
  • Consistency: create consistency across the product which in turn will create a secure, familiar experience across the platform.
  • Efficiency: create understanding across the teams, meaning less time consumed concentrating on the less important details.

Basically, if your designers are focused and understand the design language, it will give them confidence, which in turn will help the business at a higher level as it will create consistency and efficiency.

Building the foundations…

Tone of Voice
Its important to create a consistent voice for our product. Each designer (or whoever is involved) should be aware of the approach needed when writing content. Having consistent content is a very large part of creating a consistent user experience and all designers should try to align all content accordingly.

Team Values
How do we work together as a team? It’s important that everyone pulls in the same direction and everyone agrees that the chosen values are important to creating a happy working environment.

There are obviously a whole lot more elements you can establish to create a core foundation for your design identity. The above is just the tip of the iceberg. Every company is different so feel free to expand on it as much as you feel is right to explain the methodologies of your approach.

Visual Identity…

  • Colours
    What is the colour palette used on the platform? Explain how, where and why we use certain colours.
  • Typography
    What typeface is used on the platform? Summarises rules around weighting, sizing, vertical alignment etc?
  • Iconography
    What is the generic style for icons? It will explain the rational as to why we have specific styles for different icon families.
  • Grid/Layouts
    What grid system is used across the platform? Explain the use of the grid and the high level idealism of our layouts.
  • Interactions
    What do people expect to see when they interact with our site? Give an overview of our standard interactions.
  • Animations
    How do we approach animations? Explain the reason for animations on the platform and our constraints around using them.
  • Design Resources
    A central point for assets to be easily downloaded for external partners. Colour swatches, logo’s, icon sets etc.

The Next Steps…

So here is a process that I’ve put together that should help you focus on exactly what is needed to get the ball rolling:

  • Do a UI inventory audit
    Before you start anything, its best to identify how inconsistent the current build is. This works in two ways. It helps identify the reason as to why you’re doing it, to identify how inconsistent everything is but it should help you get the backing of the business as to why exactly you’re creating the design system; to create consistency across the platform. Brad Frost has put together a great article around how you go about doing a UI audit.
An example of a UI Audit
  • Prioritise your UI elements
    Im sure every design team has different priorities with regards what they feel is crucial to creating consistency but there are generally some elements that are critical to creating the basics. The likes of colours, typography and iconography is a great place to start. Work closely with the design and development team to create a list of priorities based on your UI audit, this should guide your roadmap for the foreseeable future. I’ve found using a Trello board as a way to keep a priority list up to date is a great way of working. It allows you to 1) create your list and set them in a line of priority i.e what are you going to tackle first and 2) allows you to track exactly how far along you are with each component.
An example of a Trello board documenting the transition of a component in the cycle
  • Start discussions with the design team
    So now that you’ve identified exactly what you’re going to be tackling first in the priority list, its time to sit down with the design team to get all ideas and opinions out around the first components needed. There are various approaches as to who owns the design system project, but for this instance I’m going to take the instance that there is one sole designer who is in charge of control of the project. This means it’s up to you to discuss every aspect of the component with the designers who will, in time, be using the design language. This is extremely important to ensure that the designers all feel as if they have had an input into what is being created.
  • Document all instances
    Its time to start making some decisions. Document what you are creating, ensuring that you’re catering for all instances needed. Its vital that what you are creating is not a subjective decision. You have to have rationale as to why you are making these decisions as it will allow you to explain your decisions to the design team down the line.
An example of colour usage
  • See if it works
    The next step is to try out your decisions. Its very easy to make decisions on paper but when you are putting them into practice it might turn out that some decisions just don’t work. Try out some examples of the new style using current designs.
  • Lock it down
    One you are happy with the outcome, and you have buyin from all parties, its time to lock it down and educate the rest of the team as to how and why these elements are to be used. It’s important to remember that although you are locking down the styling, that if you feel certain elements aren’t working, that you can change it if needs be.
  • Move onto the next element
    Once you have educated the team and are comfortable in the knowledge that the designers are respecting your decisions, its time to move onto the next set of elements. Its up to you as to how many elements you take at a time, but you should never bite off too much. It will just distract you from really focusing on the smaller details. My starting preference would be — Colours, typography // Icons, input fields // Tables, Lists // etc.

Once everyone is educated as to what the new style is, its important that all designer and developers are implementing the styles properly.

Weekly checkins are vital to monitor the style choices to ensure that everyone is working off the same design decisions. Using products such as Craft by Invision really help bring consistency when moving forward.

How to gauge success…

The Design Language is not a success until the company starts using it and finding value in it.

Examples of Design Languages…

Also, here is a case study that I created for a recent design overhaul that I was involved in:

“The biggest existential threat to any system is neglect” — Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb

Feel free to pick my brain (or whats left of it) over at:

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Visual Designer // Illustrator // Dublin, Ireland //

Visual Designer // Illustrator // Dublin, Ireland //