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.

05

Expanding your design system

More than the sum of its parts


by Marco Suarez and Sophie Tahran

As mentioned in Chapter 1, early software programming was limited by the speed and capability of hardware. But over time, hardware became increasingly faster and cheaper, and the inefficiency of software became even more noticeable.

As product teams are expected to move faster and faster, speed and efficiency is an ever-growing concern. However, design systems enable teams to find speed, efficiency, and consistency through reusability. As you experience these benefits, other areas of inefficiency that were once unnoticeable become glaring.

Alignment is often one of those areas. Aligning team members, teams, and a company around things like direction, expectations, and quality is critical to moving and scaling quickly. Without alignment, friction increases and velocity slows—something product teams cannot afford.

A design system is a fantastic way to create alignment around interface design and implementation. But beyond components, teams can build alignment with vision, design principles, process, and voice and tone.

Vision

A vision statement moves everyone toward a common destination. Vision is your North Star. It’s a reusable statement that gives context to your work to help your team stay on track and in sync. A vision statement declares what your team, product, or company is attempting to achieve and why it’s worth achieving. It’s comprehensive yet memorable, elevating yet attainable.

Vision creates clarity, making non-essentials easier to identify. Momentum is far easier to build once everyone knows where they’re going and why.

A few years ago, the Starbucks product team was reorganizing and needed to clarify—for themselves and the entire company—their reason for existing. In a corporation as large as Starbucks, it’s vital to clearly and succinctly express the purpose and value of your team.

“We create digital products that make our customers happy and our partners proud.” This statement became their rallying cry. The vision grounded decision-making to improve the experience for customers and partners (baristas, managers, office employees) as well as achieve business goals.

Informal vision statements for discrete projects also became useful. “Clarity first, then elegance if possible,” was the guiding principle of a recent redesign.

Nick Grossman of Union Square Ventures gives several examples of how a North Star impacts company alignment in his talk, “Purpose, Mission & Strategy.” One example he gives is about Foursquare’s product focus moving from the consumer app to the direction of being a location data platform that could power other applications. This was a massive shift in direction. It was the vision “making cities more delightful” that provided a much-needed North Star for employees to accept and embrace this new model. Grossman says, “It was a watershed moment for aligning the company around a new direction.”

It’s helpful to assess your progress as a team. At Etsy, we held retrospectives after every major launch. A retro is a meeting to celebrate the things that went well and identify the things that didn’t for a particular launch. It’s also an opportune time to check your alignment with your vision.

Design principles

Designers often operate with their own implicit set of standards to evaluate the quality of their work. But when teams grow, explicit standards become necessary to unify all with a shared language and a guide to evaluating the work. How do you define good design? How do you know what’s essential and what’s arbitrary? How do you know when something is ready to ship? How do you know if you’re on the path to achieving your vision?

A system of principles can provide the answers. Design principles act as a reusable standard for designers to measure their work. They replace subjective ideals with a shared understanding of what design must do for users. Just as guardrails keep you safe and on the road, design principles keep teams on the path to achieving their vision.

Posting your principles on the office walls, creating a computer desktop wallpaper, adding them to your design systems site, or printing them on notebooks are all great ways to keep them top of mind. Task your most senior designers with using them in every design critique to ensure the new language is adopted. This new system of language will become a vital part of your design system because it creates alignment, enabling your design team to scale.

While designing InVision Studio, the design team realized far too much time was spent debating solutions. So a set of principles was drafted to help navigate the complexity of designing software. These principles were used to guide individual decision-making, help reach agreements faster as a team, and acted as a transcendent standard to create harmony and cohesion throughout the product. The principles were modified over time as Studio evolved and needs changed, but these principles aligned the team and helped them keep the velocity they needed.

Process

Providing a clearly defined process for how user experience problems are approached and solved builds alignment within product teams. This consistency helps to remove friction and build velocity.

Process guide designers through a series of clearly defined milestones, each with different objectives and deliverables. These milestones act as interdependent components that, when used together, improve the probability of arriving at optimal solutions.

A repeatable process offers several key benefits:

  1. It provides clear expectations within each step, allowing you to focus solely on the tasks at hand without worrying about what to do next
  2. It builds data within each step that can be referenced and used to inform future iterations or course-correct low performing launches
  3. It creates an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each team member involved—bringing the right people in at the right times, making everyone’s involvement beneficial to the quality of the output

A repeatable process will ensure progress is smooth, efficient, and predictable while also improving the quality and consistency of your work.

At InVision, our process has 6 steps:

  1. Understand: First, we use customer research and insights to gain a deep understanding of the problem space and identify how it aligns with our business goals. Product management leads this phase and works with the research team to conduct interviews, gather data, and perform competitive research.
  2. Explore: The design team then ideates and explores possible solutions. They work with product and research teams to produce wireframes, core flows, and user journeys.
  3. Define: Once a potential solution has been identified, the product team works to align everyone on what success looks like. The output of this work is a problem statement and defining measurements of success.
  4. Design: Refining the solution is design team’s responsibility. They work with the research, product, and engineering teams to develop core flows, prototypes, and identify tech requirements.
  5. Build: Engineering translates the design and prototypes into reality. The product team orchestrates quality assurance, support documentation, and the sales and marketing teams.
  6. Learn: At this point, we observe the effectiveness of our launched solution. The product team collaborates with the research, design, and engineering teams to gather insights to measure against our success metrics. We use these insights to inform our next steps and start the process over again.

Voice and tone

Sophie Tahran, InVision’s UX Writer, weighs in on the value of writing guidelines—and how to create them.

Great writing is an essential part of great design, but even in-house UX writers aren’t able to edit every single word in a product. That’s where writing guidelines come into play. A source of truth promotes good communication, credibility, and consistency—no matter who’s writing content.

Every writing guide should cover both voice and tone. While your voice generally stays the same (like a personality), your tone shifts according to the situation (like an attitude). Both are an essential part of communication—and you can’t ship a product without effectively communicating it.

Because voice identifies who we are and defines our relationships, building writing guidelines early on is one of the best ways to gain credibility with your users. They’ll begin to recognize you, and know that they can trust you.

Writing guidelines also help evolve your voice. Just as your personality matures over time, your voice will evolve as your company grows. Guidelines define what you should sound like right now, so when you do steer away from them, you’ll know that you’re doing so intentionally. (“I’ll just throw an emoji in this subject line,” turns into, “Hey, let’s test how emoji perform and see if they’re worth adding to our writing guidelines.”)

Without thoughtful writing guidelines, teams risk allowing their voice to be determined by patterns instead of users’ needs, and end up making decisions solely based on what they’ve done in the past.

Building writing guidelines

Start with an audit. Talk to people across (and outside) the company: designers, writers, support agents, co-founders, users, etc. Your goal is to get their impression of the company’s personality. Consider not only conducting interviews, but also creating mood boards—visual collections of colors, people, places, and more—to represent more emotional, intangible qualities.

Define the findings. Have a core group of people, normally writers, narrow down the best words to describe what you found. Is your voice human, real, and bold? Or is it kind, experienced, and empowering? Take into consideration not only how you sound now, but also what you aspire to be and avoid (“InVision is never clickbait-y or pandering”).

Tone can be more difficult to hammer down. It shifts according to the situation, so it’s sometimes more helpful to provide direction than it is to identify characteristics. State your key priorities, like, “Always provide clarity,” and, “Consider the user’s emotional and mental state.” This is also a good place to determine whether humor has a place in your writing, and where you fall on the formality spectrum.

Once you’ve identified the more nebulous aspects of your voice and tone, carry that same thinking into the tangible. What should your different channels look like? Do you use sentence case or title case?

You may find that you have a need for multiple guidelines—voice and tone within your design system, a company-wide style guide focusing on words only, and brand guidelines that also encompass visual design.

Get buy-in. Potentially more important than building voice and tone guidelines is encouraging everyone to follow them. Anyone who works with content should have a chance to sign off.

Find a home. Your guidelines need to be easily found and integrated. If you’re building voice and tone into your design system, follow Mailchimp and Shopify’s lead in giving writing its own section, separate from components, principles, and layers. You can also go one step further by creating a separate list of copy patterns (like Mailchimp did) for grab-and-go words.

Develop. Writing guidelines are living, breathing documents that require maintenance as your company grows. From the start, use an editable Paper or Google Doc—and better yet, schedule monthly check-ins.

Invest time in writing guidelines from the start. Most companies have more people representing their voice than you’d expect, from product designers to support agents. By having a source of truth—and creating it together—you can offer users a better experience.

Conclusion

Just as design is far more than the sum of its parts, your design system can serve as far more than a components-only guide. Vision, principles, process, and voice and tone expand your design system into additional areas where reusability can also increase speed and efficiency.

Design systems have changed the way we design and build applications—so much so that we must look at the future of design through the lens of systems. In a future where design systems gain wide adoption, design could take on many new, exciting forms.

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
Design Systems Handbook

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