August 9, 2023

Intent to Collaborate

So many teams choose to begin their work on design systems by identifying all the problems with their current digital products. I get it, it’s easy to do. Every organization has old button and link styles laying around that don’t align with the new brand standards. I’ve written before about why this is not my preferred approach, but allow me to elaborate a bit.

Instead of starting your design system journey by auditing your digital properties for inconsistency, try auditing those same products for delight.

Of course, there are inconsistencies to fix. Believe me when I tell you, there always will be. But I happen to believe one of the most critical skills for someone trying to create a more systematic design program is observation. I don’t mean the ability to observe the flaws in your interfaces. I mean the ability to observe the amazing work your team is already doing.

Most individual contributors I’ve met truly want to do fantatsic work. They don’t release things to production with the intent to steer the brand off course. Instead, they’re often forced to choose from competing priorities. Leadership wants things faster, so they have to decide what is good enough—always with the hope to refactor, but how often does that really happen? So, they’re left with mediocre results and no time to improve them.

Even in cultures like this, there are wins. Somehow, in a climate of rush to the next feature,” teams are still able to occasionally deliver great stuff. Our job as systems people is to identify the patterns in the great work, not to police the less-than-ideal work. You can only see patterns worth repeating if you seek out those experiences, catalog them, study them, understand why they are great. This is the best way to settle on the principles that resonate for your culture.

The bonus with an approach like this is that it begins your design system journey with the intent to collaborate. Instead of highlighting what folks have done wrong, be a student of what they’ve done right. Only then you can establish a system that is true to the context where it must thrive.

Writing Design Systems

Sign up for The Question, a weekly design system deep dive.

Explore more of my writing and speaking.

Or, inquire about

© Copyright Ben Callahan All Rights Reserved