Design Systems

Why you’re the right person to start your team’s design system

4 min read
Rebecca Kerr
  •  Aug 27, 2020
Link copied to clipboard

In case you missed it: We launched a new guide, Building a MVP Design System. To celebrate, here’s an excerpt we think Inside Design readers will find especially useful. Here, author Rebecca Kerr explains why the biggest barrier to entry for design systems is your mindset.

I f you’re reading this, you probably know that a design system can deliver major benefits. They help create unified experiences across products, platforms, regions, and teams. They help scale code and design norms company-wide, and create sustainable workflows for all—no matter the number of designers and developers, nor their distance. And they also lead to faster time to market, reduction in development and design time, and more room in the day for real innovation.

Design systems are great! But they’re also notoriously complex—sprawling across multiple tech stacks, interconnecting, growing, and evolving more rapidly than other products. You’re likely overwhelmed by the potential size and scope of building and maintaining a high-functioning design system. It also doesn’t help that you don’t have buy-in from executives, and therefore no dedicated staff, no budget, and no divine mandate to support the effort. Oh, and you probably have zero sprints to spare in the wash of competing product and brand priorities, too.

Right now might seem like the most inconvenient time to build a design system, but it could also be the most crucial time for your business to have one. When market disruption and competition intensify, that’s when consistency, scale, and speed become even more vital to success.

Here’s the good news. The barriers you’re facing are normal. It’s normal to start a design system with zero full-time design system builders. It’s normal to feel that design system work doesn’t fit into your current product timelines. And it’s normal to feel unequal to the task of building something so comprehensive, universal, and useful to so many teams, products, and edge cases. Frankly, it would be weird if you didn’t feel a little awed by that.

Don’t believe me? Let me introduce you to Joe Galliford, who joined IBM iX as an intern, fresh out of design school. He had no formal design system training or experience, but his first assignment was to create a design system for a multinational client that would unite the work of four teams scattered across continents. He used InVision Design System Manager as a best-practice template, and spun up a functioning collection of foundations and components in a matter of days. A few months later teams were seeing a 50% increase in workflow efficiency.

While it may seem like Joe is a Design System Wunderkind, his story is actually… pretty normal. In our conversations with leading design systems builders, we’ve learned the first step in creating a design system is just starting. He unlocked the secret that, while he may have been the person to launch the rocket ship that is a design system, the design system’s success didn’t depend on him alone. He couldn’t build a massive design system and grow it all himself.

Design system success depends on teams and leaders buying into a thoughtful, sustainable plan that will make their work better, faster, and easier. But it starts with step one: Creating a “minimum viable product” (MVP), the first of many design system iterations. The magic of the MVP idea is the way it helps teams start small and prevent scope creep. Once a team has defined their MVP, they can hold themselves and their leaders accountable to releasing at a clear cutoff, so they can iterate based on real user data as soon as possible. That’s a great way to start something as big and powerful as a design system.

“Don’t worry about getting it perfect right away,” Joe says.“Even if you don’t have every icon yet, just by having a few components and guidelines available you’re going to start seeing results.”

Want help creating your MVP design system? This guide details practical ways to win executive support and engineering allies, with real life stories and advice

Read the guide

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard