3 reasons your business needs a design system

By: Laura Carr, Senior Designer, Artefact + Paige Ormiston, Senior Designer, Artefact

You need a design system. Yes, you.

As a busy product owner working at a start-up or overseeing an established portfolio of solutions, we know the last thing on your mind might be putting precious time and resources toward another internal tool.

Yet a design system is not only the single most effective tool to improve the efficiency of how you create, maintain, and innovate experiences, but you don’t need significant in-house design expertise to get started, either. Design systems have proven value for every organization, from start-up to enterprise.

Having developed and evolved design systems for clients large and small across the tech, finance, and healthcare industries, we at Artefact have seen three consistent benefits that even a basic design system provides: saving time and money, delivering better product experiences and outcomes, and aligning stakeholders on a strategic long-term vision.

Let’s dig into these three reasons design systems are important to your business and examples of how we’ve help clients leverage them for success.

What’s a design system anyway?

First, let’s take a moment to define what the heck a design system is. A design system is a set of strategic standards and documentation that accompany a collection of reusable UI and visual design assets that can be assembled together to build any number of applications. It is a living system unique to your organization that evolves and adapts alongside your product and business.

To understand design systems, it’s often just as useful to define what they are not: Design systems are not style guides, they are not plug-and-play UI repositories, and they do not have to be crafted by seasoned in-house design teams. In fact, an external perspective can be a real asset to solving challenging, systemic design problems in unexpected ways by providing new knowledge, a more holistic strategic viewpoint, and an unbiased perspective to your organization.

1. Design systems save serious time and money

In the fast-paced world of digital products and experiences, collaborating on projects or onboarding team members is often chaotic — especially in a remote context. Whether you’re relying on a cloud content management system, a team Sketch symbol library, or a shared Figma file, lacking transparency or a common design language can lead to one-off solutions, inconsistency, and rework that drags out a project timeline — and budget.

A design system helps your team design better at scale by unifying your brand across all products and platforms, alleviating communication and collaboration challenges, ensuring a smoother design-to-development handoff, and speeding up production to save you time and money.

Case Study: Canadian bank Tangerine partnered with us to create their Forward Banking digital brand, mobile app, and suite of digital banking features. While Tangerine had an established corporate brand, they were just building up their design capacity. We knew that Tangerine planned to create many new digital products in the years to come, and a design system would be essential to scaling efficiently. As an external agency, we brought the necessary skills and insight to help them organize around a cohesive design system and create guidelines and documentation for new feature and product implementation that would support the easy reuse of design components and logic as they continued to build their design practice. This set up the Tangerine team to more efficiently collaborate and scale in the future.

2. Design systems deliver better product experiences and outcomes

As human-centered designers, our central focus is the experience of the people we design for. A design system helps establish UX deliverables that are rooted in real-world scenarios and tell a story about the people who will use the products we design. By balancing ideas with specific UI, a design system helps your organization create better products and experiences and informs stronger strategy for future projects. We consistently see the power of integrating design systems into UX projects that may not have explicitly outlined it as a deliverable.

Case Study: We partnered with a software start-up to help identify product focus and improve the experience of their photo, video, and document storage and management tool. With an evolving new product and small but loyal user base, they needed to establish a product architecture that would allow them to add features and build on their product more seamlessly. We worked together to help them develop holistic design system primitives (typography, hierarchy, colors for wayfinding, etc.) and a UI component library that surfaced important questions across their product offerings and business, such as: How can UX improve product learnability as it evolves and expands? How will this selection pattern support globalization efforts? Should we create alternative data color palettes for accessibility? As an external voice, we brought a more holistic lens to developing a design system that helped the client gain focus and plan for the future of their product more strategically.

A design system helps balance the human (scenario-based views) with the technical (a library of components), in order to solve UX problems more proactively and systemically. It maximizes consistency from project to project and across new teams, helps you incorporate best practices around key design factors like accessibility, and can surface opportunities to create more extensible, accessible, and future-proof products and experiences.

3. Design systems align stakeholders on a strategic long-term vision

Design systems empower clients with little design background — or stakeholders outside of the design discipline — with the tools to talk about their product or brand. We’ve seen how design systems can be a powerful socialization piece for stakeholder alignment at both a product team and executive level, helping ensure consistency, reduce friction, increase speed to market, and reduce product risk.

Case Study: We collaborated with a large, cutting-edge healthcare organization to develop several patient- and provider-facing digital platforms. Despite having a sophisticated portfolio of digital products and a large design team, they often faced pushback from stakeholders in marketing, brand, and industrial design departments, who each had their own product vision. A leader in their field, our client also had ambitious, long-term innovation plans for emerging technologies and multi-modal experiences that would require close stakeholder alignment for success.

We helped the client develop a vision for a universal design system that serves as a common design language for the organization to align on and use to gain buy-in across their future initiatives. The vision was informed by both external trends and factors that would influence their product development in the coming years (such as multi-modal systems that account for multiple senses in order to better meet the needs of people with a range of cognitive and physical abilities), as well as perspectives from key internal stakeholders on their product priorities and how a design system would serve the needs of their discipline (for example, whether products should have distinct or unified brand experiences). We then developed a foundational design system for immediate implementation that laid the groundwork for bringing this long-term, universal design system to life.

As an unbiased external agency, we were able to transcend internal politics to create a design system that demonstrates how design decisions will impact products and strategy, and encourages thoughtful discussion on their business implications. In this way, a design system helped the client build a design culture with clear, transparent guidelines that not only simplified communication, but helped stakeholders align on a strategic vision and make better long-term decisions.

Value today, impact tomorrow

Design systems are for every organization and product. You don’t need a large team dedicated to governing and managing it — just establishing a foundational design system that is manageable for your organization can help you create products faster and at lower cost, with better experiences and outcomes, and that are better aligned toward a strategic organizational vision. That’s the promise of a design system: it provides immediate value, while setting a foundation for strategic impact in the future.

Originally published at https://www.artefactgroup.com on April 1, 2021.

Artefact is a responsible strategy + design firm. We help you harness the power of design to make change + do good.

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