What you need to know about design systems in 2021

4 min read
Liz Steelman
  •  Jan 12, 2021
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Digital products were front and center during 2020’s unprecedented shifts: From easing the overnight transition to work-from-home to finding new ways to help control the spread of the virus (and disinformation).

Now in 2021, digital product designers and their collaborators are poised to drive business success and activate the insights we gained over the past year into real change around equality and diversity, health and wellbeing, and family and local relationships.

However, the first step to designing a new path forward is understanding the context you’re operating in. That was the idea behind the 2021 Product Design Trends Report we released last month. In creating the report, we spoke to the people developing products and driving innovation and change on the ground: multidisciplinary experts, analysts, leaders, and ICs. We captured their predictions for 2021 and thoughts on how each trend connects with a key catalyst.

We’re publishing select interviews from the report on Inside Design each week for the next coming weeks. First up is a conversation with Nathan Curtis about how design systems transformed in 2020 and his predictions for 2021:


Inside Design: How do you think design systems have changed in 2020 (or even in the way that we’ve thought about them)?

Nathan Curtis: So many companies, like Google, are dealing with a maturing design system. To cope, they’re embracing a multi-platform attitude around their components. For example, they’re [figuring out] what and how to weave between three predominant platforms that people design for: iOS, Android, and the web. Many companies integrate design guidelines and some other outputs, but haven’t integrated code well, yet.

Is that just design systems’ logical next evolution, or did something in 2020 happen to make that change?

It’s the design systems’ arc taking hold. It’s not a tipping point, but if there’s a sufficient scale within an organization—marketing or product, or different factions of a product like business vs consumer—the company begins to ask questions about integrating tools across business units.

Design systems are systems, first and foremost. They can solve or create problems at scale. In our end-of-the-year survey, Inside Design asked its readers to benchmark their company’s design system (if they had one). Turns out, there is a wide disparity between the number of companies who operate with advanced design systems (and the companies that build them) versus those who have a more nascent system. The design community looks to companies like Google for the standards and best practices that’ll push forward Design System technologies. Knowing that most people who work in design deal with a more nascent system, are they going to be faced with a monopoly like we have in search technology? Will those who don’t have the investment resources not be able to access design systems that’ll serve their business needs?

When smaller companies or business units understand the need for a design system in order to scale, they’ll look to Google’s Material and wonder “Can’t we use that and overlay our own design and visual style?” For small ventures with two or three teams and no existing baseline, that’s a reasonable alternative. But larger enterprises with 50 or 100 different teams and diverse technical architectures, then the architecture of a Google Material is less likely to suit your needs.

It’s common for companies with 20 or 50 or 100s of internal teams to build their own design system based on the models, naming, and feature set that works for them.

Design tools enable you to rapidly embed a design system. Individuals or small groups can then harness more of their toolings’ power for broad, inclusive collaboration. For the past five years, I’ve said that teams need to integrate their design and code documentation. Yet, in 2020, I’m excited to see that design and code tools improve enough that documentation can be treated as managed content and better threaded into the tools themselves.

In our survey, we heard that about 90% of respondents with a design system have reported at least an hour in work savings per week because of it. About 50% said it saves them more than six hours of work each week. In our old 9-5 world, efficiency didn’t necessarily consider how it affected a team’s mental health or your ability to work asynchronously so you could help your kid on remote learning. But since Covid, we see that many redefine efficiency as “how much work can we get out of the time and concentration we have?” In purely mathematical terms, I’m thinking about how 2021 may show how companies with more mature design systems will not only save time, but be able to accomplish more than those nascent systems. 

When one pitches a design system, the rationale slide tends to lead with efficiency and speed-to-market. There’s an upfront cost to define the models, taxonomies, and reusable components, but the benefits show themselves over time. People say that design systems aren’t just your component library, but the way you talk about all the decisions you make as a design and coding organization. How you collaborate to hand-off those decisions and use that system to create an experience.

If you have a system set up that serves as a collaboration and communication intermediary, I would expect but don’t have data to prove that when you go remote, it enables an asynchronous work environment to be smoother than it would have been otherwise in aggregate.

What is the big question worth asking in terms of design systems for 2021?

Design systems have been around for over 20 years. They really only picked up and named “design system” around 2014. By 2016, conferences popped up—and everything has really grown rapidly since then. They’re at a point in scale where many companies face a hump. Google couldn’t imagine itself without Material, but many companies—even some with prominent design systems—look on the system skeptically or cynically because of accrued debt or a system programs’ inability to articulate the cost of an upgrade, migration, or generational change in design language (a “redesign!”) or technical architecture.

I wonder if there’ll be a backlash to design systems. It may be because companies hit a ceiling and bounce back downward either because they don’t have a talented-enough team or a successful-enough program to get over the hump. Or, it could end up being deprioritized and then looked upon as a decaying endeavor that lacks investment. In that case, a “failed system” up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Companies hit a ceiling, a system disappears or stops changing, and collaborators look upon the concept of design systems with disregard.

Some of the people I’ve been talking to have said they’ve noticed businesses in industries that have had to react greatly to Covid aren’t investing in design systems right now, even though we know that scaling output and efficiency is more important than ever.

I read an article by Yesenia Perez-Cruz from Shopify Polaris on experience systems for design systems. The opening talked about how they discovered this new dimension of their system because they stopped their investment and “shrapnel” (my word, not hers) blew the system’s team members into front-line teams to respond to Covid-related urgent needs. The design system team members learned from this and brought back improved understanding of bigger impacts they could effect. Companies may deprioritize their system in times of crisis to address more important priorities. That’s not surprising—that’s how it should work. The test of a systems’ resiliency comes afterwards—that it can elastically snap back into its steady, growing state when normalcy resumes.

Do you have any advice for people experiencing their system’s deprioritization? 

You have to prioritize what’s most important to keep the system functioning as an alive entity. A new feature category may take a back seat to fixing defects in your most important components. You’ll prioritize keeping your core’s quality as high as possible. You’ll pause on the big future ventures. If the design system investment ebbs, you’ll make decisions to advocate and justify such needs. A system’s mission is, in part, remaining connected to all of its customers—all the other teams making experiences. So ask yourself: How can you orient yourselves to where you create the most sustainable momentum and value? Participate in that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Want to learn more about how design systems will unlock team potential in 2021?

The 2021 Product Design Trends Report offers answer to this and other top of mind questions for the year.

Read the full report here

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