Design systems

Who should be managing your design system, according to Jina Anne

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Dec 11, 2019
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Design systems are like the U.S. Constitution: While the basis is useful indefinitely, they both require basic amendments to stay functional. At least that’s how Jina Anne, founder of the Clarity design systems conference and co-author of our Design Systems Handbook, sees them. Design systems, she says, need to be regularly maintained and updated to address product and user needs. Jina joined us on a bonus episode of the Design Better Podcast, to not only discuss the importance of regularly amending a design system, but also how she’s had success building a community within the organization to support that mission.

Too often, cross-functional needs come as an afterthought to a design system, on account of siloed visual design, UX, and front-end engineering teams. While these stakeholders usually do highlight any problems in a design systems, it’s often too late, unable to be clearly communicated, or delayed by each team’s own set of competing priorities.

“It turns it into, ‘Oh, we can’t move forward because we’re waiting on this team,’ or it doesn’t feel like everybody’s moving forward to the same goals,” she says.

The only way to push past this, she says, is to prioritize a design system across the whole organization from its creation and including its upkeep. The key, she says, is shared governance between design and engineering. Actually, Jina doesn’t love the word governance, as it feels too “top-down.” Instead she prefers to call these cross-organization collaborators “federated contributors,” a term borrowed from EightShapes founder Nathan Curtis.


Ideally, a company will have a dedicated designed system team to teach how the system will be used across the organization. But, when staffing this team, both design, engineering, and any other relevant stakeholders should be represented to give crucial input to how it can address relevant product and customer needs. Jina says this hybrid team should have, at minimum, at least one designer and one developer who can both speak to accessibility.

But even if there aren’t resources for a dedicated team, a hybrid-approached mindset can keep the right people involved. In smaller companies, she suggests design and engineering teams rotate their members for each design systems team meeting.

Listen to the full episode with Jina above for a more in-depth look at crafting a community for design systems. If you want more great interviews with design leaders, subscribe to the Design Better Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio, so you never miss an episode.

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