When you’re designing for a complex organization, it can sometimes feel difficult to distinguish where one project ends and another begins. If your client is responsible for managing multiple subsidiaries, their design and development standards must find a way to reach across the entire organization. Otherwise, the visual connection between properties will deteriorate — and, as new features introduce new errors and inconsistencies — so will their websites.
Whether your client is a media company, university, or other multi-site organization, you should discuss the benefits of implementing a design system into their development process. Along with saving both time and money, a design system offers peace of mind that digital features will be created in a way that reduces errors while upholding the organization’s standards.
For companies managing multiple sites, a design system holds the key to alleviating concerns about consistency and efficiency in development. However, for all the advantages a design system can deliver, they require care to reach their full potential for your clients.
Understanding Where Design Systems Fit in Digital Development
One of the core difficulties surrounding design systems comes down to a language barrier. The technology is still relatively new, and in some cases terms like component libraries, pattern libraries, and style guides are used interchangeably.
Regardless of terminology, a design system refers to a centralized resource that stores the elements that make up your client’s user interface and outlines how they’re deployed. From the smallest radio button to the components that make up features like user submission forms, each element is displayed with its corresponding code. But just as importantly, each design element includes complete documentation outlining the guidelines for its use.
Think of a design system as the digital equivalent of a brand manual for your client. Once stored on a shelf in a massive binder, these guides offered a physical record of all the rules governing the visual representation of a brand in print.
A design system serves the same function for your client’s digital presentation except with a “.com” behind its name. With the right internal support and deployment approach, design systems provide all the resources the various parts of an organization need to create features fast with built-in quality assurance.
Design Systems Offer More Than a Library of Components
When successfully implemented, a design system provides your clients with a single source of truth for design and development of their brand’s digital presence. But along with providing their marketing, product, and development teams with a tool outlining a framework for consistent design, design systems are flexible enough to encompass a broad assortment of guidelines.
Along with outlining a brand’s digital components, design systems also provide resources to resolve design issues as they arise. The documentation should also include:
- Company values and design philosophy: The principles guiding how your client views its mission and approaches its customers are vital tools to inform your client’s designers and developers.
- Brand voice and tone guidelines: How a brand speaks to its users further informs how design elements are created and developed.
- Content writing guide: Similar to brand voice, a documented style guide will inform those on your client’s content creation side how to write about the brand and engage with users.
- Animation philosophy: Outlining standards for when and how to apply motion graphics to your client’s products will further inform decision-making for their design and development teams.
- Coding standards: Specific guidelines will encourage developers to follow your client’s best practices to minimize errors and reduce technical debt.
- Future design considerations: Documenting how to frame solutions to upcoming design issues such as platform upgrades or new initiatives allows your client’s teams to work from a shared baseline as new business priorities arise.
When your clients take full advantage of a design system, they gain a tool that streamlines onboarding for new designers, developers, and content writers. A single platform can provide a vital, comprehensive reference point for a brand’s values, voice, and visual presentation that brings new team members up to speed much faster.
Plus, incorporating a single source of truth that’s available across the organization facilitates better collaboration. For example, any designer can access the design system to view content guidelines, which can then inform their process. And content writers can view how a component will appear on the page to understand character limits or other design specifications.
Organizational Support Is Crucial for Successful Design Systems
Design systems mark a comprehensive shift in how your client’s teams will create digital features. Instead of needing to reinvent the wheel each time a subsidiary property needs a new site, app, or landing page, a design system provides each building block a property needs to ultimately ensure consistent development.
Given the breadth of a design system’s reach, they can be massive, complex projects that take time to implement. Successful design systems require working with your clients to catalog their existing components and ensuring those components remain up to date. Rather than allowing such an undertaking to become a shared but poorly defined responsibility, you should encourage clients to establish dedicated stewards to handle maintenance and upkeep.
Design systems thrive when they’re viewed as another valuable product within your client’s organization. An assigned owner and support infrastructure for a design system will protect its overall health. More than a one-time project, a design system should be seen as a living thing, and encouraging its continued use will ensure it remains a vital resource.
Design Systems Reward Investment in the Long Run
Though a design system will require internal investment, it isn’t the kind of tool that requires constant attention across your client’s organization. Once you’ve established a catalog of performant components with documentation outlining their use, those details provide a baseline for development with built-in quality, consistency, and accessibility.
Beyond ensuring those components are updated as the brand evolves, a design system provides a stable foundation for digital development. Every digital property in your client’s organization can access the design system to get a head start on creating the proven features they need. To lay the groundwork for that foundation for your clients, you should discuss the core questions behind building a library of components.
A design system can then be custom-built within a component library’s platform or through third-party tools such as Frontify, Invision’s Design System Manager, or Atlassian’s Confluence. The software options for creating a design system may vary, but the benefits of a centralized source-of-truth for development across multiple sites remain constant.
If your client needs an efficient, organized way to provide each of their properties with the resources they need, a design system is the answer. The only question for your agency is determining the right path for getting started.