• UI & UX

A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Design System

  • Felix Rose-Collins
  • 8 min read
A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Design System


In this era of accessible-everywhere-and-anywhere, ubiquity has become a norm. However, it is also well-known that consistency is credibility. Users are now more aware. A quick and smooth experience is a basic expectation, regardless of the interface.

Furthermore, time is an asset you cannot afford to waste. All these should be enough to send you scrambling to do more with your website or interface. However, trying to be consistent with 50 different components in the design without errors is a tall order.

Cue in the drum rolls for "Design System" is here to make your life easy.

What is a Design System?

A design system is an extensive archive of clearly documented reusable components that the product team can leverage to create digital experiences. In other words, consider design systems the single source of truth for a company w.r.t. design.

More than Style Guides or Pattern Libraries, a design system is ever-evolving. This ecosystem of guidelines related to various entities, including UX design, can be used as a framework of building blocks for any project to ensure all components are consistent and match the branding.

While helpful for start-ups, growing businesses, and enterprises alike, a design system becomes an essential, non-negotiable asset as a product develops. It can also positively influence business goals, workflow, teamwork, user experience, and overall brand experience.


What are the Benefits of a Design System?

Some of the merits of implementing a system design are

  1. Increases efficiency while reducing time - A primary benefit of any design system is the ability to quickly create and recreate design and development work. Teams can use premade elements to decrease the need to constantly reinvent the wheel and reduce the risk of inconsistency.
  2. Improves visual consistency across pages and channels - Lack of an organization-wide design system can lead to inconsistent visuals, a fragmented user experience, or isolation from the branding. A cohesive set of standards also helps manage major redesigns or visual rebrands at scale.
  3. Promotes a unified language - A shared design language decreases the possibility of wasted design or development time due to miscommunication within and between cross-functional teams.
  4. Allows better focus on more complex problems - Teams can better fix complex issues, like information prioritization, journey management, etc., when simple UI components are created and unequivocal.
  5. Serves as a reference and educational tool for contributors - A design system smoothens the onboarding process in case of personnel changes. It also helps ease new individual contributors into UI UX design or content creation.
  6. Contributes towards a strong and timeless brand - A design system's purpose is to communicate a particular identity and design behind the products it passengers. It helps create impactful brands and aids people in remembering the brand experience. This makes people feel more connected to a brand and trust it more.

A Ten-step Guide to Building a Design System

We have elaborated a ten-step process to help your company create a design system.

1. Thoroughly analyze your existing Design Process.

The first step to strategizing and initiating any process is understanding where you are currently. Reviewing and analyzing your organization's current design process can help you better understand the system design best suited for your brand. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is your organization's current design approach?
  • What are the existing tools that your organization utilizes?

Ensure that you evaluate the product team's level of design maturity. This will assist you in rough accessing the time required to implement the new system in your organization.

2. Determine your Brand's Alphabet

Determine your Brand's Alphabet

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The alphabet of a brand would lead to the brand identity, i.e., the brand and product values and the brand language. Brand language comprises shapes, fonts, colors, animations, voice, and tone.

Designers will employ a visual language defined by the brand's alphabet. Reviewing the brand guidelines and speaking to the stakeholders can help you understand the brand identity and language. This is where a graphic design service can help with fresh ideas and staying on track.

3. Conduct Audit for Current Product AI

Conducting a UI audit of the current product will help you tackle a major product design challenge: design duplication. The audit aims to achieve two goals -

  • Call attention to the areas within the product with significant inconsistencies.
  • Discern the most used and essential elements of the product.

A UI audit is a multi-step process. Identifying and analyzing the principal UI properties and their utilization in components is crucial. You can employ available tools to see the number of unique colors and typefaces in your style sheets. You can then further break down every website design into individual elements.

4. Establish the Design Principles of Your System

To create an excellent user experience, it is imperative to understand the reasons behind design decisions. In addition, a clear set of goals make defining design principles and coordinating with teams easier.

Want to have a design system process? Start with these questions:

  • What are you creating
  • Why are you making it
  • How will you build it

Design principles need to reflect your brand values and vision.

5. Build a Component Library

Also known as the Pattern Library, this should include all your UI's functional and decorative elements. Evaluate the components according to the project, user needs, and business goals, and retain the ones you need.

Build a Component Library

6. Establish Rules

Design systems are not built to restrict designers to a specific design direction. On the contrary, it is only supposed to provide designers and developers with a fundamental framework that extends the creative direction and allows room for innovation.

They are two approaches to Design System rules, as mentioned in Alla Kholmatova's book:

  • Strict Rules - Designers and developers follow a rigorous process to introduce new patterns or components.
  • Loose Rules - These rules allow designers and developers to create without adhering to strict constraints if they believe it results in better design.

Like many other aspects of life, it's essential to find the right balance between these rules so the product can be consistent while being creative.

7. Choose Your Model of Governance

Dynamic, ever-evolving design systems require a straightforward process of approving and implementing changes. There are three models of governance:

  • Solitary model - An individual or a group of individuals directly "rule" the design system process.
  • Centralized model - One team is in charge and guides the system's evolution.
  • Federated model - Multiple people from several groups lead the system design process.

While each of these models has its pros and cons, the solitary model especially can lead to the one individual in charge becoming a bottleneck for the execution of many tasks. The best bet is to use a combination of different models in alignment with your needs.

8. Define Component Structure

Duplication of functional components is a significant challenge in design systems. This results in an inflexible system and requires designers (and developers) to create new elements every time there's a new scenario.

Successful system designs are highly reusable and allow users to use them as the foundation for their products. Hence, developing elements that can be reused in different contents is recommended.

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Criteria for Reusable and Scalable components:

  • Modular - Independent components and interchangeable elements.
  • Composable - Fuse existing components to create new ones
  • Customizable - Customizable components that work in a multitude of contexts.

9. Make Sure All Teams Use a Unified Language

A design system's purpose includes facilitating seamless teamwork. Hence, integrating the system into the teams' workflow is vital. It increases productivity while delivering value to the team members.

Gaining a better understanding of how various people use the design system in the initial integration process can help you modify the system accordingly.

10. Convey Changes Regularly

A design system process evolves with the organization and cannot be static. Therefore, after introducing the system to your organization, it's essential to communicate all changes and keep the organization updated.

A concise and well-maintained changelog can help users understand various upgrades and how they will impact their work.

Three Exemplary Examples to Get You Started

Atlassian Design System

Atlassian Design System (https://atlassian.design/)

The Atlassian Design System, a famous Australian enterprise software company, aims to provide seamless collaboration among agile, dispersed teams worldwide.

Trello and Jira, two of Atlassian's widely used collaboration tools, fully capture the company's design philosophy. This philosophy is about leveraging the digital experience to increase the productivity and overall potential of teams and individual team members.

Having said that, the Atlassian Design System offers agile techniques and effective tracking of every single stage of a project, from product planning to delivery. This ultimately produces beneficial results of the creation and delivery of products. Their design system mainly includes:

  1. Design Guidelines
  2. Brand Standards
  3. Product
  4. Illustration
  5. Prototyping
  6. Marketing
  7. Personality

IBM Design System

IBM Design System (https://carbondesignsystem.com/migrating/guide/design)

IBM is a prime example of a large IT enterprise that operates globally and follows its own design system.

Their capabilities include everything from business advising and financing to software creation, IT hosting/management, and solutions that connect software to hardware.

IBM's fundamental principle is to constantly drive progress, be it human society or a brand, using science, reason, and intellect.

According to IBM, having a good design is not just a necessity but also a commitment to the users. Here are some of their Carbon Design System's standout features, which provide developers and designers working with Adobe, Axure, and Sketch with a wealth of tools and resources:

  1. Data Visualization
  2. Patterns
  3. Components
  4. Guidelines
  5. Tutorials

Uber Design System

Uber Design System (https://baseweb.design/)

We all have taken an Uber atleast once. The American technology company relies on movement, including food delivery, ride-hailing, peer-to-peer ridesharing, and micro-mobility using scooters and electric bikes.

Uber needs an efficient system design for this type of service to function flawlessly across all sub-brands, internal ones, products, and projects.

Uber Design System's primary attributes are:

  1. Brand Architecture
  2. Composition
  3. Tone of Voice
  4. Motion
  5. Illustration
  6. Photography
  7. Iconography
  8. Color
  9. Logo
  10. Typography

Pointers to Know Before Creating Your First Design System

1. Early, Clear Communication is your new best friend

It can be complicated to involve your internal consumers right away. In fact, their feedback may hinder the process if it's ambiguous, provided too early in an alpha or beta release cycle, or isn't helpful.

Tell your customers, the design system users, what you need to ensure you receive constructive feedback. If you're in an early pre-release cycle, be honest and clear about the exact input you want. This indicates that you are looking for the product's most significant flaws and not high-fidelity criticisms.

Be mindful of overthinking, withering away your mind but do not hesitate to over-communicate.

2. Your footsteps aren’t the only thing you need to track

A crucial missing piece of prioritization is often tracking the usage of design systems. It's imperative to understand where the system is being used, by whom, how often, and the frequency of updates.

Implementing some daily statistical gathering on which teams were utilizing precisely which versions of the library enables a fair comprehension of the rate of adoption, upgrading, and downgrading.

When you identify the teams who rarely update, you can move to know the issues blocking the upgrade and subsequently rectify them.

3. Feedback Mechanisms are as underrated as Rhaeghal from GOT

To ensure that your system is not only valuable for its users but also something they feel a part of and have actively contributed to, having simple yet straightforward ways for people to give feedback (Slack, email, etc.) and contribute to the system will be a key piece.

Always provide instructions on how and where to provide feedback in as many areas as possible, and never assume anything, especially that a user will find it in the location you think is the most obvious.

A Design System is the North Star Your Organization Needs

A Design System is the North Star Your Organization Needs

A successful, well-crafted design system becomes a part of the very backbone of a company, resulting in consistent and amplified experiences. In addition, designers and developers get the opportunity to better communicate the purpose of the product instead of being stuck putting together basic building blocks.

Any generalist can be your partner in delivering a design, but only a design specialist identifies the current issues, challenges, and aspirations to craft a design system, especially for you. Now is not the time to wait. With this extensive guide on how to create a design system, you are only an initiative away from a complete transformation of your production process.











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Felix Rose-Collins

Felix Rose-Collins


is the Co-founder of Ranktracker, With over 10 years SEO Experience. He's in charge of all content on the SEO Guide & Blog, you will also find him managing the support chat on the Ranktracker App.

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