Delay that design system

August 2021

⚠️ Written for early stage teams. Only valid for companies with 200 or lower headcount.

Design system rarely does any good to designers except make them lazy. It should rather be pitched by engineering. All teams irrespective of the size define a surface, spatial, type, color, etc anyway with no need for DS. At an early stage “just enough” works better.

One overly used argument I get is “design System helps bring consistency”. While absolutely true, but don’t build a DS for that, paying attention to details as a team with shared underlying rules works as much and is rather low on cost and effort.

At most places, if you want to standardize your appearance across copy, marketing, & product - building a Brand Language System with a centralized creative library is a good approach. Duolingo does this great.

Because an early product team at any time is opinionated. You work on software making & breaking things to define your "this doesn't work", “this works but we aren't doing it”, and "let's double down here". Unless the company has uncovered the extent of business it can do, and with what values, the design team needs to enable UI experimentation. Your selfish need for UI consistency should not make it tough for product teams to compound quickly.

With time, you get confident in your approach as a team. You have the right data, you know your requirements, you bet on ideas, and you win or lose. You compile learnings and repeat or change strategy. You do it all ruthlessly. The product gets stable. Now is the time to stop executing specs and start working with XFN teams to build some shared values to systematically design across verticals. By this time, all teams across different lines of business have created enough ambiguities and have made themselves aware of the same that a pitch to work together and unify structure sounds very helpful. Alignment comes easy even in areas owned by no one. The right time enables you to build a stronger case and get the support of even those who in general don't like such ideas.

Hence till there isn't a market fit, building a DS isn’t the best use of engineering and design time. Focus on churning features that put money on the table instead, dare I say. The cost of a design system is innovation. What bugs me is also the fact that most good examples of DS come from enterprise software. And Atomic Design is too uptight of a framework to guide development for consumer tech where platform engagement is a never-ending project and often demands pattern-breaking iterations. That well is just part of the problem. Even if you build a DS early, the second problem is to figure out who’ll own it.

until next time