Good design systems can help you create digital products with efficiency and consistency. But great design systems will support and strengthen your team’s creativity at the same time.
Being a relatively new concept, there’s no one true way to implement design systems yet, but several major companies have started creating systems for their teams and are already reaping the benefits.
Learn everything you need to get up and running with design systems in our free course!
What Is a Design System?
A design system is a tool. We can think of it as a collection of reusable components that are guided by a set of standards. You can then use this collection to build any number of applications.
Now, because this collection is guided by standards, designers and developers will have a much easier time building your products.
Designers don't have to guess every time they need to design a new component or a new page, they can simply reference that system. Developers don't have to build components from scratch every single time. Everyone involved in the project can reference a centralized map of components, ideas, and guidelines.
A design system ensures any new products you're developing are in line with your brand identity.
Style Guide vs. Design System
Is a design system equal to a pattern library, or a sketch file, or a style guide? The answer is no.
A design system is all of those and more. As Emmet Connolly, the Director of Product Design at Intercom explains:
... most design systems are really just pattern libraries, a big box of UI Lego pieces that can be assembled in near-infinite ways. All the pieces may be consistent but that doesn't mean the assembled results will be. Your product is more than just a pile of reusable UI elements. It has structure and meaning. It's not a generic web page, it's the embodiment of a system of concepts.
A design system is a collection of assets and a set of standards and documentation that accompanies that collection.
A pattern library is a collection of components and guidelines for using them. A style guide is a set of guidelines for the graphic styles, typefaces, colours, images and so on.
In a design system, you'll find examples of how to use each component or graphic style along with accessibility information, best practices and guidelines. That's the difference between a style guide, or pattern library, and a complete design system.
Free Course: Introduction to Design Systems
In this free short course, you’ll get an introduction to what design systems are, learn about the benefits, see some examples, and also learn the first steps of creating one. In the end, you’ll have all the information you need to create a design system for yourself or your team.
Expressive Design Systems
In Expressive Design Systems, Yesenia Perez-Cruz shows you how to build useful, dependable systems that not only maintain harmony across your products, but also flex to accommodate inspiration and experimentation. Learn to communicate your brand, collaborate across teams—and do so much more than standardize components.
Designing for WordPress
In this course, you’ll learn the basics of WordPress theme design, but with a twist. We’ll approach the process from a “design system” perspective.
Instead of designing the theme page by page and button by button, we’ll start by defining a few key parameters: colors, typography, spacing, and sizing. Based on these, we’ll design basic and advanced patterns and document them along the way.
As a demonstration of how to use the design system, we’ll then design a full page: the index. By following this process, you’ll then be able to design your own pages in a consistent and efficient way!
Atomic Design is a book by Brad Frost that details all that goes into creating and maintaining robust design systems, allowing you to roll out higher quality, more consistent UIs faster than ever before.
This book introduces a methodology for thinking of our UIs as thoughtful hierarchies, discusses the qualities of effective pattern libraries, and showcases techniques to transform your team's design and development workflow.
Design System Examples
Many large companies are creating design systems to allow their teams to collaborate and create apps and experiences efficiently. Let's check out some design system examples!
Polaris by Shopify
The Polaris design system was created by Shopify to help them work together to build a great experience for all of Shopify’s merchants.
As you can see, the Shopify design system is not just pattern libraries and style guides, they also include information about content, like voice and tone, naming, and vocabulary. And for each component you'll find examples of how to use it, accessibility information, best practices, and guidelines.
Material by Google
Material is a design system created by Google that helps teams build high-quality digital experiences. It's backed by open-source code, and was created as a way to unify their product line across platforms.
They've created a visual language that ties everything together. They've included a style guide, components, icons, accessibility guidelines, and even tutorials designed to help developers implement Material. They go into extensive detail on every component. How do you use it? What are the best practices?
The GOV.UK website is one of the best examples of consistent and efficient design. The GOV.UK Design System is the foundation and primary reason for its success.
This design system example shows anyone working on a GOV.UK service how to make it consistent with GOV.UK. It's been created to help designers and developers avoid duplication of work and build on the research done by other teams.
It's also an excellent example of how to use patterns and go beyond creating a style guide or component library. The GOV.UK Patterns library covers everything from asking users for addresses, through to when and how to ask users about gender or sex—including details on how to avoid using pronouns and why you should never use titles to guess gender.
Other Notable Design System Examples
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