InVision presents

Design Systems Handbook


by Marco Suarez, Jina Anne, Katie Sylor-Miller, Diana Mounter, and Roy Stanfield

A design system unites product teams around a common visual language. It reduces design debt, accelerates the design process, and builds bridges between teams working in concert to bring products to life. Learn how you can create your design system and help your team improve product quality while reducing design debt.


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Introducing design systems
The power of scale

Repetition and reusability make scale possible. InVision’s Marco Suarez takes you back to the foundations of component-based design and the many ways design systems enable scaling. He also addresses a few common misconceptions about design systems.
 

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Designing your design system
Step by step

Starting can be the hardest step. Design systems expert Jina Anne walks through what to consider as you start out. Involve the right people, find the right model, add the right pieces—and you’ll be well on your way to establishing a successful design system.

 
 
 
 

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Building your design system
A strong foundation

Building a flexible, maintainable, stable, scalable design system creates a strong base for your product design team. Etsy’s Katie Sylor-Miller shares foundational knowledge learned building design systems across cross-functional teams.

 

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Putting your design system into practice
Better together

Encouraging adoption of your design system forges connections and creates champions across teams. GitHub’s Diana Mounter lays out practical strategies for sharing design systems and growing adoption, including examples from her experience.

 
 

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Expanding your design system
More than the sum of its parts

Components form the core of a design system, but teams can align around much more than components. Marco Suarez outlines how teams can round out their systems with vision statements, design principles, voice and tone guides, and more.

 

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The future of design systems
To infinity and beyond

Design systems play a huge role in shaping our present, but we may only be scratching the surface. Airbnb’s Roy Stanfield explores a bold future of intelligent, adaptive, context-aware systems that could further accelerate design’s possibilities.

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Appendix
More resources

Design systems continue to evolve, and every company’s system can offer something to our collective knowledge and understanding. We’ve curated a list of publicly available design systems and resources to help you continue your exploration. 

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01

Introducing design systems

The power of scale


by Marco Suarez

In the 1960s, computer technology began outpacing the speed of software programming. Computers became faster and cheaper, but software development remained slow, difficult to maintain, and prone to errors. This gap, and the dilemma of what to do about it, became known as the “software crisis.”

In 1968, at the NATO conference on software engineering, Douglas McIlroy presented component-based development as a possible solution to the dilemma. Component-based development provided a way to speed up programming’s potential by making code reusable, thus making it more efficient and easier to scale. This lowered the effort and increased the speed of software development, allowing software to better utilize the power of modern computers.

Now, 50 years later, we’re experiencing a similar challenge, but this time in design. Design is struggling to scale with the applications it supports because design is still bespoke—tailor-made solutions for individual problems.

Have you ever performed a UI audit and found you’re using a few dozen similar hues of blue, or permutations of the same button? Multiply this by every piece of UI in your app, and you begin to realize how inconsistent, incomplete, and difficult to maintain your design has become.

For design in this state to keep up with the speed of development, companies could do 1 of 3 things:

  1. Hire more people
  2. Design faster
  3. Create solutions that work for multiple problems

Even with more hands working faster, the reality is bespoke design simply doesn’t scale. Bespoke design is slow, inconsistent, and increasingly difficult to maintain over time.

Design systems enable teams to build better products faster by making design reusable—reusability makes scale possible. This is the heart and primary value of design systems. A design system is a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications.

For more than 50 years, engineers have operationalized their work. Now it’s time for design to realize its full potential and join them.

Scaling design with systems thinking

You’re probably well aware that design systems have become a bit of a hot topic in the software industry these days—and for good reason. Design is scaling. Many businesses are investing in design as they recognize that the customer experience of their products offers a competitive advantage, attracts and retains customers, and reduces support costs.

Here are what things usually look like inside a company that’s investing in design:

  • The design team is growing
  • Design is embedded in teams throughout the company, maybe in multiple locations
  • Design is playing a key role in all products on all platforms

If you’re a designer, this sort of investment in design may sound exciting, but with it comes many challenges. How will you design consistent UIs across platforms when many teams own various parts of your products? How will you empower all of these teams to iterate quickly? How will you maintain the inevitable design debt that will build up as many designers create new and tailor-made designs?

To understand how creating a design system can address these challenges, we must understand what design systems are. Design systems marry 2 concepts with individual merit, making something more powerful than its separate parts.

Standards

Understanding not only the what, but the why, behind the design of a system is critical to creating an exceptional user experience. Defining and adhering to standards is how we create that understanding. Doing so removes the subjectivity and ambiguity that often creates friction and confusion within product teams.

Standards encompass both design and development. Standardizing things like naming conventions, accessibility requirements, and file structure will help teams work consistently and prevent errors.

Visual language is a core part of your design standards. Defining the purpose and style of color, shape, type, icons, space, and motion is essential to creating a brand aligned and consistent user experience. Every component in your system incorporates these elements, and they play an integral role in expressing the personality of your brand.

Without standards, decisions become arbitrary and difficult to critique. Not only does this not scale, it creates an inconsistent and frustrating user experience.

Lori Kaplan, co-author of the pioneering Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines (HIG), tells the story of their creation and impact on designers and developers.

Components

Components are portions of reusable code within your system and they serve as the building blocks of your application’s interface. Components range in complexity. Reducing components to a single function, like a button or a drop down increases flexibility, making them more reusable. More complex components, like tables for specific types of data, can serve their use cases well, but this complexity limits the number of applicable scenarios. The more reusable your components are, the less you need to maintain, and the easier scale becomes.

Learn more about building components in Chapter 3: Building your design system.

Component-based development reduces technical overhead by making code reusable. Standards govern the purpose, style, and usage of these components. Together, you equip your product team with a system that is easy to use, and you give them an understanding that clearly links the what with the why.

The value of design systems

Let’s take a detailed look at the many ways a design system can be a much-needed painkiller for your growing pains.

Scale design

As teams grow, it’s common for designers to concentrate on discrete areas of an app like search and discovery, account management, and more. This can lead to a fragmented visual language—like a Tower of Babel of design—with each designer speaking her own language. This happens when designers solve problems individually and not systematically.

With no common design language to unite the product, the user experience starts to break down, as does the design process. Design critiques become unproductive when there’s a dearth of design conventions. To create alignment within teams, there must be a shared source of truth—a place to reference official patterns and styles.

Most often this is a static artifact, such as a design mock, but a static reference will almost immediately become outdated. That’s why teams build monuments like Shopify’s Polaris site—a design system site, built with the system, that documents all aspects of the system including the components, guidelines, and UX best practices. And because it is built with the system, it will always be up-to-date.

An internal design systems site is the best, most accessible source of truth for product teams. It provides the gravitational pull to keep team members aligned and in sync.

Manage your debt

As applications and their teams age, they build debt. Not financial debt, but technical and design debt. Debt is acquired by building for the short-term. Design debt is made up of an overabundance of non-reusable and inconsistent styles and conventions, and the interest is the impossible task of maintaining them. Over time, the accumulation of this debt becomes a great weight that slows growth.

The act of creation does not inherently create debt—just like spending money doesn’t inherently create financial debt. But using a design system will keep you on budget by keeping your design and code overhead low, while still allowing you to grow and evolve your application.

Design consistently

Standardized components used consistently and repetitively create a more predictable and easy to understand application. Standardized components also allow designers to spend less time focused on style and more time developing a better user experience.

Prototype faster

Working within an existing design system allows you to piece together flows and interactions as quickly as pulling LEGO blocks from a bin. This allows you to build an endless amount of prototypes and variants for experimentation, helping your team gain insights and data fast.

Iterate more quickly

Whether evolving the style of your UI or making UX changes to a flow, using a design system reduces effort from hundreds of lines of code to as little as a few characters. This makes iterations quick and painless, and experimentation much faster.

Improve usability

Inconsistent interface conventions hinder usability. When CSS for countless unique interface elements and their interactions increase, so does cognitive load and page weight. This makes for a terrible user experience. It can also create conflicting CSS and JavaScript, potentially breaking your app. By using a design system, you’re able to avoid these conflicts by building a holistic library of components, instead of per page, which means you’ll spend less time in quality assurance.

Build in accessibility

Accessibility can be implemented at the component level by optimizing for those with disabilities, on slow Internet speeds, or on old computers. This is an easy usability win. In Chapter 3, Building your design system, Katie Sylor-Miller explains how design systems can help improve your product’s accessibility and compliance with your country’s laws.

Myths of design systems

Even with all their benefits, buy-in for creating a design system can still be a hard sell internally. Designers can feel limited or restrained, but often these perceived weaknesses are the greatest strengths of a design system.

Let’s debunk common myths you’ll hear as you sell the idea of creating a design system.

Myth 1: too limiting

Myth: Designers embedded in discrete areas of an app see qualities that may be different from other areas. Because of this, a universal system is perceived as being too limiting and might not serve the needs of these specific areas.

Reality: Designers often end up creating custom solutions to improve discrete areas of the app, adding to design and technical debt. With a design system, new solutions can be created and fed back into the system making those improvements available to everyone.

Myth 2: loss of creativity

Myth: If designers are restricted to using a design system, then designers will no longer be free to explore style. Front-end backlogs are often full of design style updates. Evolving the visual style of an app is typically no small task. This can also be a great risk, as it removes resources from new feature work and may negatively impact usability.

Reality: The components of a design system are interdependent. This means when a change is made in one location, the change will be inherited throughout the whole system. This makes style updates within a system trivial in effort but much greater in impact. What once was weeks—if not months—of work, can now be accomplished in an afternoon.

Myth 3: one and done

Myth: Once the design system is designed and built, the work is complete.

Reality: A design system is living, meaning it will require ongoing maintenance and improvements as needs arise. Because your application is powered by the reusable components of your system, however, the application automatically inherits improvements to the system, lowering the effort to maintain the application. This is the power of scaling that a design system offers.

Conclusion

Design systems are not a fad or even an untested hypothesis. For design to find the scale necessary to match the rapid growth of technology, component-based design and development is a proven and dependable solution.

Now that you’ve seen the true value of creating a design system, let’s dive into the actual design process in the next chapter.

03

Building your design system

A strong foundation


by Katie Sylor-Miller

Modern design systems are the result of many years of evolution in the way we write front-end code. When I started my career, most sites were built with single-use, inefficient, fragile, and inconsistent front-end codebases. Through hard-won experience and many years of collaboration and iteration, front-end developers have established more sophisticated practices for writing and organizing our code. Now, there is an explosion of front-end frameworks and tooling to help you write better, more maintainable HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

This represents an exciting paradigm shift in front-end development, but the number of choices available can be overwhelming. A cursory glance at the table of contents for Cody Lindley’s Front End Developer Handbook 2017’s section on tools reveals a bewildering array of considerations. I couldn’t possibly cover all of the technology choices available—the factors that go into your decision-making will be largely situational, and this is only a chapter!

Instead, I’ll save you the headache of attending the school of hard knocks by walking you through what I’ve learned from building and contributing to 3 different design systems. First, I’ll cover the technology-agnostic foundational principles that should guide the development of your design system. Then, I’ll focus on some common pitfalls and how you can avoid falling prey to them. Throughout, I’ll introduce you to some of the tools that will help you along the way, but remember this: Your technical approach doesn’t matter as much as creating a living, breathing system that’s flexible, maintainable, stable, scalable, and successful in the long-term.  

Foundations

Regardless of the technologies and tools behind them, a successful design system follows these guiding principles:

  • It’s consistent. The way components are built and managed follows a predictable pattern.
  • It’s self-contained. Your design system is treated as a standalone dependency.
  • It’s reusable. You’ve built components so they can be reused in many contexts.
  • It’s accessible. Applications built with your design system are usable by as many people as possible, no matter how they access the web.
  • It’s robust. No matter the product or platform to which your design system is applied, it should perform with grace and minimal bugs.

Let’s take a look at each of these principles in more detail.

Consistency

Your first, most important task when starting out is to define the rules of your system, document them, and ensure that everyone follows them. When you have clearly documented code standards and best practices in place, designers and developers from across your organization can easily use and, more importantly, contribute to your design system.

Code style guides

Code style guides provide the grammar rules of syntax and semantics for your code. Code syntax is the set of rules for structuring and formatting your code (e.g. curly braces always go on a new line). Code semantics provide the rules for making your code understandable (e.g. alphabetize CSS property declarations). But don’t get bogged down fighting pointless wars over tabs versus spaces. The most important thing is to end up with consistently written code, not to achieve theoretical perfection!

Automating code style

To enforce your code standards and achieve consistency in your system, help your contributors write code that follows the rules through linting and tooling.

Linting is an automated process of analyzing code and raising errors when code either doesn’t adhere to your syntax rules or is broken, buggy, or malformed. Linting tools such as CSSLint or StyleLint for CSS, and JSHint or ESLint for JavaScript, can be run manually as part of your local development process, as an automated pre-commit hook before code is checked into source control (the best option), or run as part of your build process.

Code editor configuration

An often-overlooked but important corollary to linting is providing an Editor Config to enforce code style in your editor(s) of choice. EditorConfig.org (figure 1) provides a cross-platform format to define stylistic rules for most code editors and IDEs, so you can automatically convert your tabs into spaces—thus ending the tabs versus spaces war!

Self-contained

Your design system should live in a source control repository independent from your main codebase. Although it will require more work to get up and running, a separate repository brings many long-term benefits:

  • It enables versioned releases of your code (more on this later)
  • It allows you to share code across multiple teams, products, and codebases
  • It forces you to develop components in isolation so they’re not tied to a single use case
  • It provides infrastructure for a robust front-end testing architecture
  • It forms a foundation for a living style guide website

A standalone design system repository functions as a single source of truth. There is only one place where components are defined, which then gets shared into other codebases as a discrete dependency. Because all usages point back to a canonical implementation, changes in a single place propagate through the entire system.

Ideally, all of the code for each component within your system is co-located: CSS, JavaScript, HTML templates, and documentation all live in the same place, possibly the same directory. If you’re using React with CSS-in-JS, each component may even be encapsulated in a single file. The closer the pieces are to each other, the easier it is to trace and manage dependencies between bits of code, and the easier it will be to update and maintain.

Reusable

Successful design systems are highly reusable. Bootstrap, the most-used front-end library of all time, powers hundreds (if not thousands) of websites because it was architected with reusability in mind. Writing components to be reused in multiple contexts is vitally important, yet hard to do well—make components too focused for a single use case or too inflexible, and users will end up creating their own patterns.

To be reusable and scalable, patterns need to be modular, composable, generic, and flexible.

  • Modular components are self-contained with no dependencies
  • Composable components can be combined to create new patterns
  • Generic components can handle multiple use cases
  • Flexible components can be tweaked and extended to work in a variety of contexts

Modular CSS architecture

Reusability and scalability in design systems begin with taking a modular approach to your code architecture. CSS, however, is not inherently modular. So over time, systems like SMACSS, OOCSS, and BEM have added structure and modularity to CSS. More recently, CSS-in-JS approaches such as Styled Components have solved the problem by defining CSS properties in JavaScript code structures.

Whether you use one of these systems or roll with your own, the fundamentals of any good CSS architecture are the same:

  • It has clear naming conventions for components, variations, and utilities
  • It’s tightly-scoped and has low-specificity CSS that limits unintentional side effects
  • It has utility classes that allow you to modify styles in a managed way
  • It has rules for building modular, composable, generic, and flexible components

To learn more about architecting CSS so that it meets these criteria, I highly recommend Harry Roberts’ https://CSSguidelin.es/ (figure 2), then adding this type of documentation to your system.

Accessible

For too long, accessibility, or a11y, has been misunderstood as building sites for a small group of users of assistive technology—a blind person using a screen reader—and far too often dismissed as too complex, too time-consuming, or “not our customers.” Accessibility, however, is not just for a single, small group, but for an estimated 15% of people worldwide (56.7 million people in America alone) with a wide spectrum of permanent or temporary visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive impairments.

Thankfully these attitudes are changing and our industry is embracing a more inclusive definition of accessibility. Making your site accessible to users with disabilities improves the experience for everyone who visits your site. If that isn’t enough motivation, improving your site’s accessibility can help improve SEO, and it’s becoming increasingly more important from a legal standpoint to avoid costly lawsuits.

In a landmark case against the grocery chain Winn-Dixie, a federal judge ruled that websites are subject to the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you’re just learning about accessibility, there are a lot of resources to help you get started. I recommend reading the introductory articles from the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) WebAIM, and the A11y Project. You can inspect the current state of your site using Tota11y, an a11y visualizer bookmarklet by Khan Academy. Starting an accessibility practice where none has existed before can be challenging, but when you leverage your design system, it’s easier than you might think.

Enforce a11y with your design system

To ensure everyone at your organization builds accessible sites, features, and apps, enforce accessibility best practices in your design system code.

  • Test your color usage against established color contrast guidelines (figure 3).
  • Build components to be keyboard and screen reader accessible by default. The Ebay Accessibility MIND pattern library is an amazing, thorough resource to help guide development of accessible components and best practices. Encourage contributors to build according to these guidelines and test their code using keyboard-only navigation and assistive technology devices like screen readers.
  • Include in your documentation code standards and guidelines for common a11y best practices such as using larger, legible text sizes, always associating a form field with a label, and properly adding alt text attributes to images, to name a few. Salesforce’s Lightning design system and Shopify’s Polaris are great examples of accessibility guidelines in practice.

These accessible practices improve usability for everyone by making it easier to view, interact with, and navigate a site, improving form completion rates and reducing user mistakes.

Use the power of your single source of truth to create a foundation for accessibility, thus relieving some of the burdens from product teams. It’s much easier to build in accessibility from the start than to bolt it on after a feature has been designed and built.

Robust

A robust design system has a strong foundation of tests behind it. Testing provides confidence in your code, which facilitates adoption. Users will know that they can upgrade or change their UI without it breaking in unexpected ways. Additionally, your design system is uniquely positioned to form a foundation for robustly testing your front-end code.

Test your design system instead of your complicated UI

Keeping tests up to date for pages, applications, and features—especially on a rapidly changing site or one with heavy experimentation—requires a lot of work. Tests get out of date quickly! You can narrow the scope of your tests and gain higher levels of confidence in your site-wide front-end code by heavily testing your design system components. You already need to generate example code for the different states of each component for your documentation—use those as your test fixtures.

Types of tests

There are 4 types of tests used for ensuring stability in your design system:

  • Unit testing: These tests verify that small units of code (usually individual JavaScript functions) behave as expected. Unit tests execute functions with a set of predefined inputs, then verify that they return the expected output. Some popular frameworks to use are Mocha, Jasmine, and Jest.
  • Functional testing: In functional tests, examples of your code, or “fixtures” are run in a virtual “headless” browser, then tested by performing simulated user actions, and checking the new state of the browser for the expected result of those actions. Functional testing frameworks include Nightwatch, Protractor, and Casper.
  • Visual regression testing: These tests help catch unintended visual changes to component styles. The test framework takes screenshots of your fixtures both before and after the changes, then compares them using an algorithm to detect visual differences. There are open source frameworks like Wraith, Gemini, and BackstopJS, as well as paid services like Applitools and Percy.io. Go to Kevin Lamping’s excellent resource Visual Regression Testing for more information and options.
  • Automated accessibility testing: Leverage tooling to ensure that your components are accessible. Some options for running automated a11y audits are Paypal’s AATT and a11y by Addy Osmani, and aXe by Deque Systems.

Common challenges

No system is ever perfect. You will make decisions that you later regret, no matter how much time you put into designing your design system. You can, however, anticipate issues that arise as your system grows, and work to avoid or mitigate their effect on your project. There are 3 common challenges I’ve seen arise in multiple design systems:

  • Keeping documentation up-to-date with your system code
  • Handling breaking changes
  • Avoiding performance degradations

Let’s look at each of these concerns in detail.

Maintaining documentation

The first time I built a front-end component library, my team decided it would be easier to create a documentation website with a codebase separate from our application. In hindsight, this decision broke the cardinal rule of Don’t Repeat Yourself. Whenever a component changed in our main codebase, we had to remember to actually update the documentation, then do the tedious work of duplicating the changed code in 2 different codebases. Unsurprisingly, our documentation got out of date almost immediately!

Learn from our mistakes by reducing the distance between your documentation and code and using automation.

Minimize separation between library code and documentation code

Earlier in the chapter, we discussed storing your design system code in a separate repository that functions as your single source of truth. When documentation and code are co-located, it’s more likely that you’ll remember to update the documentation when a component changes. Consider adding a pre-commit hook to your design system repository to warn contributors when their code adjustments don’t also contain updated documentation files.

Automate documentation

Start by documenting your system using simple, human-readable files written in markdown, co-located with each component. Github is already configured to render and display any file named README.md when you’re viewing a folder’s contents—you might not need a flashy website at all!

If and when you do decide to create a full-featured documentation website, use automation to simplify the process. Instead of creating a new codebase for a separate website, use a tool that will auto-generate documentation for you—there are lots to choose from—reducing the amount of structural HTML you need to write and maintain.

Handling change

As adoption grows and your design system becomes more widely used, you will invariably realize that you didn’t get it all right the first time, and you will need a plan to handle breaking changes. A breaking change is a situation where necessary changes to a component’s code will break existing usages of that component or class. The Morningstar design system provides guidance to contributors on what is considered a breaking change. If mishandled, breaking changes can be a major pain point for your users.

The wrong way: duplication

Initially, all of the CSS and JavaScript for Etsy’s Web Toolkit lived in the same monorepo with the rest of the team’s site code. This meant that whenever someone made a breaking change to a component, their commit making the change had to also contain fixes and updates for every single usage of that component. At first, when just a small team built and used the system on a subset of pages, finding and making these changes was relatively easy. But as adoption spread throughout the company, this quickly became unmanageable.

It became such a headache to make major structural changes to existing components that our team at Etsy started to duplicate and deprecate—when we refactored our Tab component to make it fully accessible, we created a new component named “Tabs2,” and deprecated “Tabs” in the hopes that teams would take on the work to upgrade their code. But without clear guidance on how, why, and a timeline stating when to upgrade, most uses haven’t been updated to use the new component. This kind of duplication is a code maintenance nightmare.

The right way: versioning

Breaking changes are easier to manage if you store your design system code in its own source control repository. This gives you the ability to do versioned releases of your code, which can be shared with other projects. Git allows you to tag a commit with a release version number, and package managers like npm and Yarn allow you to package up and publish multiple versions of your design system code.

With versioned releases, the adopters that integrate your design system code can target a specific version as a dependency and control when and how upgrades to new versions are handled. Make sure to publish release notes detailing changes so other teams can learn how upgrades will impact their codebase and better plan for upgrade work in their project timelines.

Avoiding performance issues

As a design system grows over time, generally so does the file size of assets sent over the wire on each page. This can negatively affect your site’s page load performance, which in turn negatively affects your company’s bottom line. Help the products built on your design system avoid performance issues by taking a mobile-first approach and build your system with modularity in mind.

Mobile first

Poor page load performance will have the largest negative effect on mobile visits. According to statistics from Google and Akamai, more than half of mobile visitors will abandon pages that take longer than 3 seconds to load, yet the majority of mobile sites take longer than 10 seconds to load. As mobile traffic overtakes desktop, speeding up your page’s performance is more important than ever to give you a competitive edge.

Build your design system mobile-first—test early and often on real devices with real hardware and a real network connection so you can understand the experiences of real users.

Leverage modularity

Initially, it made sense to bundle all of the Etsy Web Toolkit components and utilities into single files for CSS and JavaScript. While this is useful for prototyping, it adds unnecessary weight to production pages that don’t use all the components. Now, we’re working to avoid performance problems by better using the modularity inherent in the system. To do this, we are:

  • Deciding on a set of core components and utilities that are most frequently used. This base file will be included on all pages that use the design system and can be cached by the browser across page requests to improve load times.
  • Ensuring that all components are fully modular with no cross-component dependencies (unless they are explicit and managed by the system).

Packaging and sharing the system’s code so that it can be consumed as individual CSS and JavaScript modules added as dependencies only when a component is actually used on the page. We use an in-house system to define dependencies in our front-end code. Build your design system modules so they work with the dependency manager that your team uses. Webpack is a popular option.

Forward-thinking

Design tokens

For most of this chapter, I’ve focused on building design systems for web applications and sites. However, that’s not the full picture. Modern organizations face unique challenges with their design systems at scale. Today, we build for multiple web and native platforms that need design consistency. Larger organizations may have multiple sub-brands that want the shared support, functionality, and organization that a design system brings, but each needs a different, brand-aligned look and feel. The Salesforce UX team introduced a solution to both of these problems: design tokens (figure 8).

Cross-platform sharing

Design tokens are a way to abstract design details like colors, fonts, rounded corner radius, etc., into a format that can be shared across platforms using Salesforce’s Theo tool. Instead of defining your main brand color as a SASS $variable in your web app, a UIColor in your iOS app, and a textColor in your Android app, you define a single design token in a shared JSON file that gets compiled into platform-specific code (figure 9). Decide to change all of your rounded corners from a 3px to 5px border-radius? Change the value once in your tokens file, and it propagates to all of your apps automagically.

Multi-product theming

You can also use tokens to “theme” the same structural styling for multiple brands. One brand wants orange buttons and the other wants blue? No problem! You can define different token values for each brand, then combine each to the same, base CSS to output themed versions of your design system. That way, all of the classes are the same, and all of the accessible JavaScript functionality you worked so hard to build can be used as-is with no modification for each brand.

Conclusion

Systematizing your front-end code benefits everyone in your organization: developers move faster, designers don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and ultimately, your users have a better experience. But starting out can feel overwhelming!

Thankfully, there is a wealth of resources and a growing community of folks sharing their own best practices to help you build your system. Anna Debenham’s Styleguide Resources lists nearly 500 public design systems/style guides/pattern libraries to use as inspiration. While they look and feel very different, each shares a common goal and is built upon foundational principles that our industry has developed through many years of trial-and-error.

A flexible, maintainable, stable, scalable, and successful design system begins with a strong foundation that goes beyond frameworks or tooling. If I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s that the only constant in front-end development is change. Chances are, within a few years, the technology driving your front-end will look very different than it does right now. If you build for the long-term and plan to handle change, then you can implement new, better practices as your system grows.

That’s not to say you should aim to create another Bootstrap right out of the gate. Even if your team can only implement a few of the best practices we’ve discussed in this chapter, it’s still worthwhile—some of the techniques I recommend haven’t yet been implemented in the design system that I work on every day! Design systems are not a one-and-done thing, but a continual process of iteration and change as we make mistakes, learn from each other, and create new and better approaches to front-end code.

04

Putting your design system into practice

Better together


by Diana Mounter

How you develop your design system will influence how you share and encourage adoption of the system. Broadly speaking, there are 2 general approaches to developing and rolling out a new design system: incremental and large-scale redesigns.

In this chapter, we’ll walk through the 2 approaches, highlight the pros and cons of each, and discuss adoption strategies.

Tina Koyama, Ashlie Ford, and Devon Beard discuss Twitter's approach to building and rolling out their Horizon Design System.

Large-scale redesign

When a team takes this approach, it often means they spend more time designing the system before rolling it out everywhere, including doing a visual refresh or consolidation of components. This allows the team to develop a fuller system—from the primitive layer of colors and typography to components, page layouts, and interaction flows.

Some teams approach their new system by creating imaginary products to help them step away from the constraints of working within a real application. Other teams design their new system alongside the redesign of a real product or feature.

Testing with pilot projects

At Etsy, I worked with a team of designers and engineers on the redesign of seller tools. This project provided a great opportunity to test a new approach to our CSS and refresh our visual styles. We built a new style guide alongside the seller tools redesign that documented implementation and design guidelines.

This became a pilot project for testing the new design system. Rebuilding a real part of the product gave us a great playground for testing new components, responsive layouts, and new typography styles.

In From Design Systems: Pilots & Scorecards, Dan Mall writes about the criteria he uses to find good candidates for design systems pilot projects. Though our approach at Etsy was more opportunistic, many of the attributes Mall lists happened to match the seller tools project:

  1. Potential for common components. Does this pilot have many components that can be reused in other products?
  2. Potential for common patterns. Does this pilot have many patterns that can be reused in other products?
  3. High-value elements. Even if uncommon, is there a component or pattern with high business value at the heart of this project? We’re talking about elements that are integral to a flow or audience with unusually high value for the organization.
  4. Technical feasibility. How simple is a technical implementation of the design system? Is a large refactor required?
  5. Available champion. Will someone working on this product see it through and celebrate/evangelize using the design system (and even contribute to it)?
  6. Scope. Is this work accomplishable in our pilot timeframe of [3–4 weeks] (insert your timing here)?
  7. Technical independence. Is the work decoupled enough from other legacy design and code that there are clear start and end points?
  8. Marketing potential. Will this work excite others to use the design system?

There was one downside to building the new design system alongside a product—it ended up being biased to the needs of that product. Afterward, it needed further development to work for the whole Etsy application. Working in a silo with minimal outside feedback allowed us to make progress quickly, but meant that we had to work harder to encourage other teams to adopt the design system.

Showing value through a sandbox environment

While working on the new Etsy style guide, we set up a simple sandbox environment that allowed us to quickly prototype HTML/CSS mockups. As we prepared to share the new style guide with other designers, we realized the sandbox could be helpful with adoption.

One of our goals was to reduce the time designers and developers had to spend writing CSS, so they could spend more time iterating on designs. The new approach we took with CSS, combined with the sandbox environment, made prototyping designs in the browser fast and easy.

The best way for people to see value is to experience it.

We set everyone up with sandboxes for training. This approach empowered people to prototype and experiment with the style guide using the sandbox, revealing value through hands-on use.

To set people up for success, we wrote tutorials teaching them how to apply different styles—such as atomic vs. component classes, build mobile-first responsive layouts, and create complex views such as a search results page—without writing CSS. To help people understand the why behind our decisions, we included a presentation on our design principles with example scenarios, code samples, and live coding demos.

The sandbox’s CSS environment mirrored production, so a designer’s prototypes easily translated to a developer’s production work, avoiding costly and unnecessary new CSS. Since code prototypes are written in the same language, they gave developers a better sense of the intent than a static mockup. Developers didn’t have to translate like they do with comps from design tools. This further helped with adoption. A design system that both designers and developers love has a greater chance of success.

Documentation is key

Another key to adoption is up-to-date documentation. As design systems peers say, “If it’s not documented, it doesn’t exist.”

When styles go undocumented you run the risk of people writing new but duplicate code. Documentation becomes more important when introducing a new design system because old patterns can outweigh new ones. Documentation helps promote those new patterns, reduce the need to write new code, and makes implementation easy with code examples and guidelines.

Outdated documentation can cause damage too since it can lead people down the wrong path and cause frustration. It’s worth investing time in developing practices that help you keep updated documentation.

Find opportunities to check documentation accuracy—such as before and after an onboarding session, or as you add new styles. Writing docs on the fly helps you test your code and avoid building documentation debt. If you can, add tests that check documentation when patterns are added and updated, and try to make it easy for people to report inaccuracies.

At Etsy, some engineering teams created onboarding projects for new engineers. This usually involved building a small feature from the backlog that would help them get familiar with the engineering stack. I was stoked to see them implementing UI layouts without help from designers, just by following style guide documentation.

Post-rollout follow-up

Design systems are never done. The launch of your new system should be thought of as version 1.0, with many iterations will follow.

Whether you form a full-time team to evolve and maintain your system or not, you likely have a few groups of people interacting with it—makers of the system, users of the system, and users who also contribute to the system. Whatever form your team takes, makers need to stay in touch with the needs of users and the organization.

A few months after rolling out the new design system at Etsy, we ran working sessions with staff from a cross-section of teams. Our goal was to learn how to improve the experience for people using and contributing to the system, how successful we’d been with promoting the system, and where it was lacking. We took a qualitative research approach so that we could be open to discovering things we didn’t realize were problems—this meant a lot of face-to-face discussions with light agenda’s to stimulate conversation.

Contributors

We ran a user-journey mapping workshop with first-time contributors to understand their experience. We suspected people had mixed experiences—some seemed to struggle or give up on their contribution entirely, and some had taken a really long time to add their new pattern.

Findings: We discovered how deflating the experience could be even when the contribution was successful. This led us to develop a more collaborative pairing approach and take an encouraging mindset toward code review for first-time contributors.

Engineering early adopters

We met with early adopters on product teams with a particular focus on understanding the engineering perspective. Most engineers hadn’t taken part in training sessions and had learned to use the new design system by reading the style guide.

Findings: We learned a lot about out holes in our documentation. For example, tutorials didn’t lend themselves well to engineers, utilities were useful but buried, and people felt concerned about how to use styles safely in experiments. This led us to reorganize and elevate important information up-front, improve search and navigation, add tutorials that appealed more to engineers, and provide more clarity on style usage.

Product managers

We ran a session with product managers to walk through the new system and discuss the impact of refactoring and building responsive layouts as part of feature development. Building a design system that was responsive by default was a core goal—and new for many parts of the Etsy web application.

Findings: We learned that most product managers trusted their engineering managers to guide them with impact on scope—this confirmed communication with engineers was a priority. PMs understood there might be extra work initially, but moving to the new design system would make front-end implementation easier in the future. We showed them they could scope work and make progress iteratively.

Collaboration creates investment in adoption

It might not be logistically possible to involve your entire company in design systems decisions, but some level of collaboration is worthwhile.

Before Etsy formed a dedicated design systems team, a working group made of a cross-section of designers drove the evolution of the system. This group met regularly to plan and prioritize projects, share work, and get feedback. Group members collaborated with engineers and specialists where needed, in situations like running experiments on high converting pages and measuring performance.

These collaborations spread adoption even further and resulted in design system champions across the company. People who spent time contributing to the system were invested in it and promoted it to others. Working in a silo had helped us for the short term, but extending contributions to outside the team set us up for success in the long term.

Incremental rollout

Not all design systems teams are able to take the time to develop a fully-fledged system before rolling it out. Many teams have to roll out parts of a design system at a time.

On the plus side, with an incremental rollout, teams can adopt new parts of the system as they become available, which can feel less daunting and disruptive. However, teams will also need to give more thought to communication and promotion of the system. Without a launch, there isn’t a big moment to get everyone’s attention. Instead, you need to find and create occasions to introduce people to your design system.

When I joined GitHub and began exploring how the small, then-part-time team might turn Primer into a more robust design system, I knew we weren’t able to go away for a long period of time and develop a complete system. There was a ton of work in flight, and no planned re-design or siloed feature we could use as a pilot project.

We needed to figure out the biggest pain points, reduce them to their smallest part, and roll out Primer updates incrementally.

Solve problems and win early adopters

One of the biggest pain points at GitHub was the amount of time people were spending writing CSS, particularly for things that should have been systematized, such as spacing and typography styles.

Our solution ended up being the introduction of utilities (single purpose classes, often referred to as atomic or functional classes) based on system variables. We weren’t able to start with auditing components and page layouts—we had to start small and test the foundation of the system before extending to larger parts. Adding utilities enabled us to make styles available without refactoring tons of UI. Designers and developers could start to use the primitive styles of the system as soon as we rolled them out.

Once people discovered they could use utilities instead of write new CSS, Primer started to catch speed. It solved a real problem while allowing us to test the primitive layers of the system. From there, we could start to replace and update the component layer of styles.

Improve documentation and findability

Like at Etsy, documentation was key to adoption at GitHub. Tons of widely used patterns in the GitHub codebase weren’t in Primer and thus weren’t documented.

We sorted through piles of custom CSS and created a directory in the GitHub codebase that formed a “waiting room” for patterns that should be moved into Primer. We focused a lot of effort on getting as much as possible documented, whether it was in Primer or not. We also focused on adding more layers of documentation, including describing our class naming conventions, accessibility principles, recommendations for tooling to work with our system, how to run linters, and an overview of our style organization and packages.

Just having styles documented wasn’t enough, though. We needed to prioritize the style guide navigation and search for findability.

We originally modeled the navigation to match our package organization—core, product, and marketing—prioritizing that information over the findability of searching for specific styles. The style guide also lacked search and hid styles behind several layers of navigation, forcing multiple clicks before people found what they were looking for.

I found myself acting as a human style guide search, with people pinging me to find what they were looking for rather than finding it themselves.

With research outlining people’s struggles to find styles, and the fact that we were wrestling with an aging web app we originally used for the style guide, we decided it was worth the effort to rebuild and redesign.

The new documentation site listed all our styles in the navigation, and we added a contextual search that helped people find documentation with similar keywords—such as finding “color” within utilities vs. support variables.

Getting a documentation site set up early on was important. Looking back, I don’t think it was the wrong choice to repurpose an old web app at first—it may not have been ideal, but it did what we needed. It is important to re-evaluate the quality of your documentation site over time though, to ensure it meets user needs, and is scaling with your design system as it grows.

Grow adoption through many touchpoints

When you don’t have that big moment to launch your design system, use every opportunity to share its value. You’re building systems to solve real problems and you know what your goals are—take some time to share those goals and how you plan to reach them. These details are helpful when you’re trying to show how changing something like a few lines of CSS matters.

At GitHub, we used lots of small interactions to promote Primer and the design systems team. Here are a few ways we made our piecemeal approach successful:

Creative comments in code review

We started to jump in and comment on pull requests in the GitHub app that touched CSS or design patterns we were trying to improve. This gave us an opportunity to suggest changes in line with the new design system, and point people to our documentation site so they knew it existed.

We spread the word about our team and our availability to help by adding simple comments to pull requests, such as, “Ping the design systems team,” or, “Find us in the design systems slack channel.”

Over time, people started to CC us on issues and pull requests, and we took advantage of features like Code Owners so we got automatically requested for review when someone made CSS changes.

Recently, we’ve started adding bot scripts that comment on pull requests with simple feedback. With lots of points of communication about our team and Primer, we’re growing awareness and adoption of design systems.

Show, don’t tell

We noticed when teams updated the GitHub UI, they would go to another part of the website and literally copy and paste the markup and CSS. Refactoring away old instances of patterns is our best fight against the continued reuse of old patterns. It is a long-term initiative, but we can prioritize the most popular and troublesome patterns.

Respond quickly to support requests

Most teams at GitHub have an on-call duty rotation called First Responder. It means one or more team members are on call to triage issues, respond to support requests, or provide code review.

As support requests grew for design systems, we adopted this process to help respond to people in a timely manner. Over time, we’ve iterated on the process and created a number of automated scripts that help track notification items that need attention. Responding to people quickly increases the likelihood that they react positively to our team and recommendations.

Presence and responsiveness  

Particularly early on, we made the simple effort to be available via Slack to answer questions, pair on code, or jump on a call to walk through something. It takes time away from deeper work, but allocating time to this is worth it to help win friends and champions on other teams.

Publishing and distribution at scale

Most of my recent experience working on design systems has been on large-scale web applications like Etsy and GitHub. The scale to which those systems need to be distributed and published usually requires more complex infrastructure than a small company with a small system and small team.

However, many companies intend to grow the size of their team and scale of their product over time, so understanding how to set your design system up for scalability will benefit you in the future.

Let’s walk through methods of style organization, distribution, and public vs. private documentation and code, to help you consider what’s right for you and your team.

Package management and organizing modules

Design systems should be built for change, large or small. This isn’t just important for how you code your system or use things like variables or design tokens—it’s important for how you organize modules, and version, and distribute them too.

At GitHub, we iterated on how we organize and package styles multiple times. Like Etsy, we pulled our design system out of the GitHub monorepo into its own repo. We wanted to have more control over the changes made and when those changes made it back into GitHub.com.

We also use Primer for more websites and applications beyond GitHub.com. Conference websites like git-merge.com are built with Primer, as well as community websites such as developer.GitHub.com and opensourcefriday.com.

Not all these sites need the full suite of styles we use for GitHub.com, and GitHub.com doesn’t use all the marketing-oriented styles in the core application. This led to taking a modular approach with style organization and influenced how we packaged and distributed Primer.

Versioning the entire system vs. versioning by module

Versioning the entire system means everything within the system belongs to just one version number and can only be installed in its entirety. This could be likened to browser or software versions. When you update to a new version of Google Chrome or your phone’s OS, for instance, you’re updating the whole piece of software in one go.

If you were to version your design system in the same way, it would mean everything within the design system would be updated too.

For example, you may have updated your font styles, added a new navigation component, or deprecated an old grid layout. When a user of your design system chooses to upgrade, they get all of those changes together. This still gives teams the flexibility of when to update the system, but a more granular approach can be helpful as your system scales.

Versioning individual modules means having a version number for every component or group of styles within the design system. So if you put your button component into one module and your utility styles into another, they would each have their own version number, such as primer-buttons@2.4.0 and primer-utilities@2.8.0.

You can still maintain a package that includes the entire set of the modules and version that too. For example, primer-css@9.5.0 includes primer-buttons, primer-utilities, and all the other Primer modules. So you can provide the best of both worlds—the option to use the entire system, or just use individual modules.

This modular versioning approach does require more effort for initial setup because you need to work out what to boil each module down to. For instance, should you have a module for layout utilities as well as a grid system, or combine them all into one layout module?

The benefit of this approach is that users of your design system can choose to upgrade just the bits they need. Giving teams the option to selectively update when they have the time to do it can mean they’re more likely to iteratively keep up to date—whereas the overhead of updating the entire system in one go can act as a barrier.

Versioning by package enables a design systems team to push updates more frequently without the pressure of forcing an update to the entire system.

Compared with versioning the entire system in one go, versioning by module creates more flexibility around major design systems releases, can lead to a culture of continuous development, and enable your systems team to move faster overall.

Releases, branches, and version numbers

Design system teams often have to balance competing priorities. Attending to bug fixes or other commitments has to be balanced with intensive projects requiring more research and planning, such as developing a new color system or bringing in a newly supported feature like a CSS grid.

Your publishing workflow needs to work for both the users and the maintainers of the design system. Maintainers want to have confidence in what they test and ship. Users of the system want to have clarity on status and what type of updates they’re getting.

At GitHub, we found the combination of versioning and organizing releases with Git branches gave us the right amount of flexibility in planning and shipping new design system releases.

We maintain a “dev” branch that includes work in progress and creates a new branch for each individual release. Since Git allows us to create multiple branches of the design systems code, we can work on a minor or patch release at the same time as a major release. This means we can take our time with a major release that might include breaking changes, while also shipping timely updates and bug fixes in minor and patch releases.

Versioning our system and using Semver makes this workflow possible. We can clearly point to a specific version number for each release, and know by the Semver system what type of updates are included with it, and therefore what type of testing we need to do.

Since Semver is a well-recognized standard for versioning, it helps clearly communicate to users of Primer—internally at GitHub or externally—what updates they’re getting and what type of testing they may need to do in order to use the updates.

Public vs. private

As your system and its number of users grow, you might find yourself considering whether to make your design system public to some degree. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this—it should be based on what’s right for your team. Making a system public doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, there are multiple ways of breaking down what’s public.

Many pioneering teams have created and published beautifully designed documentation, such as Material Design, Lightning Design System, and Shopify’s Polaris. We shouldn’t assume the solution that worked for these companies is right for everyone else. These are companies making a significant investment in design systems. Plus, they have the broader objective of wanting external developers to use these systems to build on their platform.

When deciding what, if anything, is made public, you should prioritize based on your company’s needs, rather than standards set by other companies.

Here are a few ways you can make your design system public:

Public documentation only

You might decide that making the source code public isn’t right for your team, but you want to make the documentation public.

Marvel’s style guide and Mailchimp’s patterns are examples of public documentation sites that don’t (yet) share their source code.

Open-source design systems

Many companies open-source their design system. This means the general public can open issues to request new features, give feedback, or let the maintainers know of bugs. Maintainers can also choose to accept contributions in the form of code or documentation changes via pull requests. If the maintainers choose, they can make the design system available for modification and reuse by adding a license.

The US Web Standards, Primer, Help Scout, and Solid are all examples of design systems open-sourced on Github.com.

Open-source the docs with your code on GitHub

You don’t necessarily have to share a crafted documentation website—you can just share documentation written in markdown format and it will be rendered and styled on GitHub. Another option is to publish the docs via GitHub pages. This can be a low-barrier way to share documentation since GitHub hosts the documentation, giving you a default public URL if you don’t add a custom domain.

Share a ZIP file to download

If you want to keep the source-code and/or the npm packages private, you could choose to share the code for your design system so it can be used by others. This might be a nice option if you don’t want to make in-progress work on your system public, or add the overhead of managing open-source contributions, but are still happy to share the code for use by others.

Projects like Lab by Compositor (a design tool for creating React components for design systems) use the Releases feature on GitHub to share release notes and a ZIP file download of the software. They also use the repo to host documentation and issues to get feedback from users.

Publish a Storybook of your UI components

Storybook has become a popular tool for design systems teams, especially for those using React, though it can also be used with Sass or CSS-based design systems too. As Brad Frost describes, Storybook is a “workshop” tool designed to output rendered examples of your styles and components, which you can use in development for testing changes. Style guide documentation is your “storefront” and includes crafted and detailed documentation with information like usage guidelines and code-style principles.

Providing rendered examples of your components, even without detailed documentation, is still very useful to users, maintainers, and would-be contributors of your design system. It provides a catalog of what’s included in your design system.

Pattern Lab (created by Brad Frost), Fractal, and React styleguidist are other tools that provide similar features to Storybook with options for documentation and code examples. All these tools can be used without sharing your design system’s source code, and give you options as to what level of documentation you share.

As you consider varying degrees of access to your system, also consider some of the reasons teams make their systems public:

No authentication barriers to sharing

Anything behind authentication, like outside VPNs or firewalls, means one more barrier to access. I know this firsthand since we have a new, in-progress documentation site for Primer that requires staff login. People frequently think the style guide had been taken down or don’t even know it exists.

Authentication also makes it difficult to give external contractors access. It’s a small barrier, but it can have a negative impact and mean people who could be using your design system documentation can’t or won’t because it’s too much hassle.

Helps with recruiting through previewing design maturity

Design systems are a popular topic in the design and front-end community right now and might be part of a prospect’s decision to choose one company over another.

Design systems can be a sign of maturity for a team, and also provide insight into what it might be like to work at that company. Especially if you’re trying to recruit directly for your design systems team, making the documentation public is an obvious way to attract people and set expectations.

Opens you up for input from the community

Making your documentation and/or your source-code public opens you up to external contributions, whether via simple feedback comments or direct contributions to code. This risks overhead, particularly if your system becomes popular, but the benefit is that you get feedback and insights from a wider range of people.

Primer is open-sourced on GitHub. We’ve been increasingly working in the open and sharing issues and pull requests so people can see how we work. We’ve noticed a gradual increase in contributions from the community and internal GitHub contributors. People generally feel proud to contribute to an open-source project that can benefit anyone.

Conclusion

There’s a lot that goes into the rollout of your design system, and much of it will extend naturally from how you decide to build your system, who you’re working with, and the best way to spread adoption inside your company.

Creating a perfect rollout strategy is less important than ensuring you’re involving the right people, being clear about your end goals and how your strategy supports those, and documenting your plan methodically through each step.

Design systems are always evolving, and the way you share and encourage adoption of new iterations will evolve along the way as well. An intentional, thoughtful strategy with room to scale will go a long way to making sure adoption is treated as a crucial part of the building process.

About the Authors

Marco Suarez
Product Designer, InVision
Katie Sylor-Miller
Staff Software Engineer, Etsy
Roy Stanfield
Design Lead, Airbnb
Diana Mounter
Design Systems Manager, GitHub
Jina Anne
Design Systems Pioneer, Independent
Design Systems Handbook
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