When most people think about the design process, they might say it includes doodles, storyboards and big brainstorm sessions that result in fantastic, imaginative concepts. And in lots of cases, they’d be right. Design is a creative process — but that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. The most effective designs adhere to a structure that allows it to be quickly connected to its brand, and tell its visual story in a consistent and uniform way. In short, the best brands are supported by a design system. 

What is a design system? 

A design system is a digital collection of reusable components, rules, and standards to create brand alignment within an organization. 

Using a design system has many benefits:

  • They unite teams around a common visual language
  • They accelerate the design process 
  • They help teams produce better quality work 
  • They enable teams to create branded materials faster by making design reusable  
  • They decrease time spent in quality assurance

What is included in a design system? 

A design system includes standards for design, development, and content. But they’re far from one-size-fits-all. The size of the design system and granularity can range in scale based on the size and needs of the organization,  and its audiences and end users. 

The visual standards in a design system are very similar to the well known brand standards but its digital format makes it easier to update and share with a team. They should include all of the fundamental elements that make up the visual design including color palette codes, typography guidelines, spacing specifications, photography styles, icon libraries, illustrations, and anything else that will help a team be successful when designing something new. 

And don’t forget about the guidelines for web and mobile work! These should include a User Interface Library with reusable code for all of the elements (which are small stand alone items like buttons & icons) and components (which are made up of elements like a form that includes inputs, buttons, and icons) that are used in the organization’s digital materials as well as development best practices and accessibility guidelines. 

Finally, the design system should include content standards: direction for brand voice, tone, grammar guidelines, naming conventions, vocabulary, and any other rules that the organization may need in order to create new content. 

These may seem like a lot of rules and guidelines, but they’re all essential in making sure you’re telling your brand story with consistency and clarity at all times. They’re also an asset to your team. Design systems help take the guesswork out of the process for growing design teams, teams that are spread throughout the company and possibly other locations, and if a brand is applied to multiple platforms. More importantly, it makes the process efficient and is more likely to produce work that is on target, reducing the need for revisions and reconcepting. 

So, how do you create a design system? 

Creating a design system can be a great undertaking. You’ll need to bring together your internal team of experts — including designers, developers, content writers, and other organization stakeholders — to work together to create the final product. Research must also be done to understand who will be using the design system and what their needs are. And you have to know where you’re starting and what needs to be done; an audit will need to be performed to assess the existing marketing materials and identify what needs to be standardized and what can be consolidated. 

Finally, you need to put your design system to work, and make sure everyone understands what it is and why it’s important. Your team and other users of the system need to be trained on how to properly use it — and you all need to commit to continually and regularly updating the design system as the organization continues to grow and evolve. 

Want to learn more? Check out some of our favorite design systems for inspiration:

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Written by Cara Bow

“No matter who you are, I'll find something I like about you. We're all in this together, friends.”