Development and design are two essential aspects of any digital platform creation. Although they are different elements performed by different teams, they work towards the same goal: to provide a satisfactory user experience. Therefore, concepts that improve the collaboration between designers and developers, enabling them to work together efficiently, offer several benefits. Design systems are one such concept that is trending nowadays.
Contrary to what the name suggests, design systems aren’t just for designers. They are for everyone working on a product—be it developers, project managers, or copywriters.
In this article, I will explore how working with design systems will speed up the development process and simplify the lives of developers. We will take a look at what a design system is, its purpose, and its benefits for developers.
What Is a Design System?
A design system is a collection of design elements organized on a single platform to facilitate a consistent and scalable design process. It can be thought of as a structured and documented library, specific for a product team, that contains all the resources they would need to build the product.
Developers can compare it to a component library, but design systems are more than that. A design system is a collection of both tangible and intangible elements like documentation, design principles, style guides, and patterns.
Similar to how a component library records all the building blocks of a UI, design systems record design elements like fonts, colors, images icons, and so on. But a design system goes one step further and documents their details, usage context, and other related information.
The Purpose of a Design System
In today’s digital world, users have multiple touch points for interacting with digital products. In this scenario, maintaining visual consistency across all channels is key to building user trust. Especially in domains like healthcare or banking, where users share sensitive information with digital platforms, an inconsistent user experience will create bad impressions.
Since multiple designers and developers would be involved in a product development team, inconsistency often creeps in due to personal choices and differing values. These inconsistencies can add up to adversely affect the user experience of a product.
The purpose of a design system is to solve this issue by acting as a single source of truth of the design resources. By providing a standard framework, it aims to make the design process fast, easy, and convenient.
Understanding design systems helps developers code better. Knowing their way around design systems will empower them to translate the design and prototypes into code accurately. Moreover, it is easy to access resources from a central location whenever required, which makes the development process faster.
Benefits of Design Systems
Design systems offer developers many benefits. Let’s take a look at the seven most important ones.
Single Source for Design Tokens
The smallest part of a design system is the design tokens—such as spacings, borders, shadows, and so on. Designers and developers use design tokens to create components.
Design systems provide a single source of truth for the tokens, enabling designers and developers to collaborate better. Moreover, when any changes are made to the tokens, it is easy to update and reflect the changes in design. Therefore, building consistent components and maintaining them are easy with design systems.
Central Component Library
In most companies, multiple development teams may work on the same application, building its different parts simultaneously. Although design is not the forte of developers, they often have to make on the fly design decisions.
Different development teams may make different design decisions, and since design is not their strength, these decisions may not always be the best ones. These seemingly small changes could make an application’s user experience inconsistent.
A central component library relieves developers of this burden, allowing all development teams to access components from the same source. A unified user experience can thus be created through a shared language. This helps to bring visual consistency, streamline the design and development process, and make development faster.
Reduced Code Maintenance
For even simple design changes, like a color change, upgrading the assets in production takes a lot of time. Much of the valuable time and effort of developers are lost here.
With a design system in place, product development and maintenance becomes easy. It offers a collaborative space where components can be developed, upgraded, and tested in isolation for various conditions. Code maintenance is thus time-efficient and simple with design systems.
Manage Designer Handoff
Design kits inside the design system provide assets such as brand guidelines and brand resources. Design systems on the developer side and designer side could be mapped through design kits. This facilitates the designer-developer handoff and helps to handle any handoff issues.
As a result, developers can always have the latest design versions via the design system, as it contains the updated record of all design components.
What sets design systems apart from style guides or pattern libraries is that a design system provides comprehensive documentation. From design details to guidelines and how-to’s, documentation covers all aspects.
Such documentation is highly beneficial for developers, as it helps them understand how to use design tokens and component libraries. Furthermore, when onboarding new developers to a team, the design system provides a comprehensive introduction.
Better Design Consistency
When a design system is implemented, developers load and update components directly from this central repository. This ensures that the production components are consistent and there are no design mismatches. All design tokens, components, and patterns are recorded in the system, leading to better design consistency. Thus, overall design quality is enhanced.
Brand Language Guide
Design systems provide a brand language guide, that is, a guide on how the product communicates with the users. These can be really handy for developers, because they sometimes find themselves in a position where they have to write microcopy, such as the alt text or button labels.
Though these are small bits of copy, they have a huge impact. A brand language guide can help them choose the right words easily and convey the message in proper brand tone.
Equipping Developers to Work Better
Design systems equip developers to work better by reducing their direct dependency on designers and enhancing collaboration. Developers can refer and download whatever design elements they need straight from the central reference system. There is no need to ask designers or wait for their response. This enables them to build with speed.
The standard system transforms the way designs are created, managed and built. It empowers everyone in a team to build responsibly and efficiently while maintaining quality throughout.
The words of Alex Schleifer, VP of Design, Airbnb acutely sum up the essence of design systems: “Here’s the simple truth: you can’t innovate on products without first innovating the way you build them.”