Four Kitchens

Why your institution should prioritize a design system

5 Min. ReadDesign and UX

There’s simply no replacement for great design chops. That’s always going to be the most important consideration in any redesign project. But as iconic brands like Shopify, IBM, and Lonely Planet have discovered, it’s just as important to have the right design system in place. Doing so will infuse your website with the flexibility it needs to change with the brand over time.

With their accessible, dependable, and reusable components, design systems have the power to impact all aspects of a business. They can streamline the user experience, make it easier to illustrate ROI, and free designers to focus on creating innovative work and messaging. 

A growing number of brands are exploring this concept. That’s why it’s a great time to talk about what a design system should entail and how it can help articulate your brand with forward-thinking consistency and efficiency.

How to use a design system

Design systems share some similarities with style guides, pattern/image libraries, and other components of brand strategy. But none of these should be mistaken as interchangeable.

One unfortunate similarity is that like style guides, companies often pour time and money into creating a design system, only to relegate it forgotten to a shelf. Perhaps they trot it out occasionally for reference or to win an argument. Instead of a forgotten relic, these collections of pre-made components should be treated as the flexible, living backbone of any creative process.

When executed correctly, design systems give designers the freedom to spend their time innovating. This can give your organization a competitive leg up as your teams will be better equipped to prioritize shared goals while building agility and intentionality into day-to-day workloads.

Design systems lend vital consistency to the user experience

It’s no secret that consistency is the key to building meaningful relationships. And it’s no coincidence that consistency problems tend to appear more frequently in the absence of a reliable design system. When multiple admins are working simultaneously on the same projects and issues, they naturally begin to implement their own adjustments and solutions to challenges. This is especially true for large organizations that strive to maintain consistency across a wide variety of channels. 

As these small inconsistencies add up over time, it lends to an incoherent user experience. Some may choose to ignore these issues at first. Others might not know how to articulate small discrepancies in design pattern usage, for example. But make no mistake: Users can feel when small elements of a design are discordant, misaligned, or mismatched in some way. This can ultimately drive visitors away from your brand.

A thoughtful design system ensures consistency and keeps traffic on your site. For example, your design system can feature site-wide implementation for updates, such as changing a primary button color. The result will be a well-crafted flow punctuated by deliberate fonts, colors, and patterns. If the goal is to present professionally, the site will feel professional. But if the brand is more playful, that can come through as well.

Having a strong design system in place won’t determine how your brand is presented. Instead, it will work to keep your brand intact, as opposed to allowing it to be diluted across various media. When your brand is coming through on the website as originally intended, it makes it harder for inconsistencies to sneak into the design — even as roles change and the project evolves.

The most efficient design systems are built with intentionality

One major goal of any design system should be accounting for the components that project developers need to do their jobs. This results in smoother workflows from idea to deployment — while creating as little extra work as possible. 

Take, for example, a departmental blog or scholarly article summary. These typically include an image, short sentence or two, and a link to click through to the full story. Designers need these elements to be flexible so they can change with each new piece of content. An intentionally built design system allows these cards to change while keeping the basic HTML structure underneath them intact. This provides a wider selection of components for their site without a lot of extra work.

Another example are website buttons. A well-built design system will feature a roster of primary contact buttons and form fields. Creators can pull these components into the design and quickly create a form or a call-out as needed. Instead of spending valuable time rebuilding calls to action, they are free to focus on choosing the right photography, messaging, and other elements more closely related to return on investment.

A great example of this is a tool called Emulsify, which is used to connect front-end code to different content management systems. It allows you to manage the code portion of a design system in one repository that can potentially be used for both Drupal and WordPress websites, which can then be reused over all products. This increases efficiency by saving time for developers later. The end result is a smooth handoff and clean workflow chain from design through front-end engineering and buildout.

Rely on your design system to scale with flexibility and control

Because of their reliance on reusable patterns and components, some creatives mistake design systems for a handcuff or limitation. But that couldn’t be further from reality. In fact, having a robust design system in place provides even more freedom to explore creative efforts while maintaining consistency throughout the experience.

For instance, say your site redesign features a large hero image and mask effect, similar to a scratch-off lottery ticket. Since your design system relives you of the task of placing images into a grid, you can spend that time investing in unique experiences. Once a component has been created and tested, reusing that component in different contexts helps to ensure high quality and maintain accessibility.

There are dozens of benefits to incorporating design systems in your creation process. But the main advantage is that by allowing designers to create a smoother, more streamlined experience, it increases the potential to delight and invite users to interact more memorably with your brand. Helping users feel more attached to your brand is, of course, is the ultimate goal of any web redesign project.