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Decoding Design Systems: What They Are & Why You Need Them

Sarah Pendleton-Moorhead
Sarah Pendleton-Moorhead
6 min read
Decoding Design Systems

What exactly is a design system? What goes into a design system? Do we need one? Chances are, you’re here because you’re trying to wrap your brain around these questions. There are a lot of competing definitions out there in cyberland and some confusion as well. It's certainly a new(ish) buzz-phrase you've probably heard tossed around but it's also an incredibly useful tool that can drastically improve efficiency and consistency and save your company time and money.

Many people conflate style guides or pattern libraries with design systems. While either is a good starting point, each is actually just one piece of a design system. There are a lot of moving parts to a good design system and it needs to be dynamic, scalable, agile and unique to each company.

Once upon a time, companies would create Graphic Guidelines. Giant, book-like documents that spelled out all the visual pieces of their brand which could be given to designers, copywriters and partners to ensure everything stayed consistent and on-brand.

Design systems are the newer, more holistic, digitally native version of graphic guidelines, integrated into the team workflow and woven throughout all the mediums the brand uses to interact with its customers from print to social media to website button design.

Overwhelmed? We have you covered with this crash course in design systems, what goes into one, and why they’re so important.

What Makes Up a Design System?

In the simplest terms, a design system is a collection of repeatable components with a set of rules and standards that guide the use of those components. Medium’s UX Collective defines a design system as a “single source of truth which groups all the elements that will allow the teams to design, realize and develop a product.” A design system is made up of tangible elements like colors, font and voice as well as intangible elements like brand values and best practices.

Above all else, your design system should be custom-tailored to your company. So, let’s take a look at the basic elements of a design system.

1. Style guide

A style guide contains the building blocks of your brand; the visual design language, brand voice, tone and examples of how products should look. This is the blueprint for your brand’s identity.

The visual design language includes brand colors, typography (fonts, sizing, spacing, etc), imagery, icons and illustrations. Your style guide will also likely include sounds, brand voice and tone.

2. Pattern library

Where a style guide is focused on graphic and written elements, a pattern library integrates functional components and defines allowed design patterns. Templates, modules, components and other web elements all go into your pattern library.

Components and patterns aren’t just about look and feel. Your pattern library must also define their functional behavior to create a consistent user experience across all products and platforms.

3. Purpose and core values

Having a clear vision and a shared set of goals is essential to the success of any project, and by extension, any business venture, big or small. Including these in your design system ensures that everyone is looking in the same direction and that what you’re designing doesn’t deviate from your company’s core values.

4. Design principles and best practices

These are the guidelines that help your team reach the product’s purpose. Essentially, this is the rulebook section of your design system made up of guidelines, do’s and don’ts and examples of good usage. Design principles guide design choices and best practices keep everything on brand, above board and moving as smoothly as possible.

Do I Need a Design System?

"Design has always been largely about systems and how to create products in a scalable and repeatable way…These systems enable us to manage the chaos and create better products… A unified design system is essential to building better and faster; better because a cohesive experience is more easily understood by our users and faster because it gives us a common language to work with."

– Airbnb

Putting a cohesive design system together may feel like a lot of work on the front end but in the long run, there are a number of benefits that make it well worth it. This is one of those failing to prepare is preparing to fail moments.

Consistency and scaling

As companies grow, there are more and more hands on any given project. A fleshed-out design system will help you scale without turning your products into patchwork. It also helps eliminate inconsistencies in look, feel and user experience.

Your customers may not comment on consistency of experience switching from a desktop to a mobile device, but they’ll definitely notice if that transition is jarring and disjointed.


Having a good design system can be an enormous time-saver for your team. Building a solid design system speeds up the design process and improves communication and links between teams. Clear standards and documentation get everyone speaking the same language. When your team is all speaking the same language, with clear expectations and guidelines, their flow will be exceptionally better which means you’re saving time and money.

Cross team collaboration

With a single, comprehensive repository for all your design elements, guidelines and goals, it’s much easier for teams to collaborate with one another. Your design system can also be a place to store and share solutions to design problems so that each team is benefitting from the other’s work, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

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What does a Design System Look Like?

Several companies have publicly shared their design systems. Here are a few great examples to draw inspiration from.

1. Google – Material Design
Google - Material Design

2. Airbnb’s Visual Language
Airbnb's visual language

3. Shopify – Polaris
Shopify - Polaris

4. IBM – Carbon Reacts
IBM - Carbon Reacts

5. The United States Government
The United States Government

6. Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet colour palette

Where do I Start?

The first step in putting together a design system is getting crystal clear on who’s going to use it and how. That will determine which elements go into your system. The next step is conducting an audit of your current brand identity and all its design elements. From there, you’ll develop your design language and create a UI/Pattern library. Finally, comes the documentation; standards and guidelines for each and every component and how to use it.

A design system that is both solid and agile requires a delicate balance but it's also incredibly important for any business that needs to produce at scale. For the sake of a consistent customer experience, saving your design teams time and headaches, and saving your company money, building a strong design system is a must.

Published: Aug 22, 2019
Sarah Pendleton-Moorhead
Written by
Sarah Pendleton-Moorhead
Sarah Pendleton-Moorhead is a writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. But that’s not all she does: She’s also an artist, singer, mom, wife and self-described sci-fi and fantasy nerd.

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