The 4 most common design systems myths (and how to get past them)

4 min read
Lori Alcala
  •  Nov 17, 2020
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In case you missed it: We launched a new guide, Building a Design System Community. To celebrate, we’re sharing an excerpt we think Inside Design readers will find especially useful. Here, author Lori Alcala dispels the misconceptions that keep design systems from succeeding:

Creating a design system can be overwhelming, especially if—like at many organizations—it starts with a small team dedicating only a couple of hours each day to the effort. But even small teams can have a big business impact with the right processes and supports in place. While you may not start with a large core team of design system makers, you have an entire organization that’s likely willing to help if they’re aware of the value they will get from it. From sustainable growth to higher adoption, building a design system community provides numerous benefits, including the unplanned but equally important outcome of bringing people closer together.

Collaborators play a critical role in the long-term success of your design system, but you may have trouble finding them if the process of building and scaling the system is exclusive.  In order to break down silos and promote the benefits of a design system community, it’s critical to understand why some may be hesitant to join. Here are several common misunderstandings about design systems that could prevent skeptics from getting involved and our recommendation for the best ways to alleviate their concerns:

Myth 1: Designers think it will stifle their creativity.

Remind fellow designers (and yourself) that a design system means freedom to work on bigger problems. While they may think it will inhibit their creative freedom or even replace them entirely, spread the message that the design system is changing their jobs for the better, elevating designers from bricklayers to architects solving big picture problems for the business and customers. Designers will get to spend more time researching with customers, building empathy, and helping shape the roadmap, instead of re-pixelating the wheel again and again.

Myth 2: Developers view the design system as a tool for designers only

Reinforce the benefits a design system provides developers, and back it up with data, such as time saved. Such benefits include: (1) Developers often work on the other side of the globe (or just the building) from designers. A design system keeps everyone in lockstep, no matter their locations. (2) Developers care about quality, speed, and efficiency. A design system gives developers the opportunity to integrate their own tools into a streamlined, cross-functional core that helps smooth out the design process for everyone involved.

Myth 3: People believe that only a small group runs the creation of the system, it feels elitist, or it’s closed off to the larger group

At its best, a design system should function much like a government—by the people, for the people. While you have “elected officials” who are implementing the day-to-day decisions, the design system is intended to serve the individual contributors who use it, not the makers. The processes you define around the system ensure this holds true.

Myth 4: Some believe the system may be built by a different team for a different product, and isn’t 100% relevant or accurate for other product groups

It’s unlikely any design system will fit every need of every person at the beginning, if ever. But the purpose of a design system is to bring these groups closer together, with a unified vision. A first iteration of the design system might be geared towards one product. But even then, other groups can find value, use it as a reference, and reuse existing components rather than recreating the wheel.

Build a design system community

Design system makers on teams of all sizes are using the power of community to scale their initiatives and drive adoption. In this guide, you’ll discover how a community can add value to your design system, tips to identify, recruit, and keep members motivated, plus real-world examples of how teams are using communities for better efficiency and cross-functional collaboration.

Read the guide in full

Once you make the decision to move forward in building a design system, it might be tempting to dive in and start creating components, but success depends on both people and design. In addition to bringing people together to discuss how a healthy design system dramatically improves productivity, it’s important to emphasize that a community gives everyone a say in the system, and helps them feel valued. It can also help cross-functional partners like designers and developers collaborate more closely—and with greater transparency—by providing common ground and better defined pathways to work together.

By identifying your stakeholders, getting a conversation started, keeping up momentum, and sharing your successes, your design system will thrive long after you and your core team have moved on. And you’ll leave behind a design community and culture that stands the test of time.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard