Section 26 of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching ends with this:
If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.
One of the challenges with design system work, in particular, is staying rooted. This section seems especially important to remember. You will be pulled toward the needs of your users/subscribers/consumers (the folks who you hope will use the system). You will also be pulled toward the needs of your leadership/executives/the business.
Both are important, both are secondary. (Don’t tell your leadership this, though.)
I say this because in the conversations I’ve had with many, many design system leaders, I don’t think a single one of them would say they are getting the full benefits of the system they’ve worked so hard to put in place.
The highest efficiency benefit you can get from a design system is surprisingly simple: people understand each other. Design systems can help with this by giving your organization a language to speak about the problems you are solving with digital design.
The highest consistency benefit a design system can help with goes way beyond “all our buttons look the same.” Instead, it’s a cultural consistency that infuses every interaction someone has with your company. This is only possible when the system is rooted in the values and brand of the organization. It means that your audience will feel consistency between the conversation they have with tech support, the ad they hear for your company in their favorite podcast, and the checkout flow you built with the system.
These things can’t be accomplished unless we hold onto the core reason a design system can make an impact in an organization. That reason is “unity.” Your design system should put everyone on the same team, working toward the same goals. If you stray too far from this goal, things get muddy.
Believe me, you will be pulled away from this by well-intentioned, good people. Whatever you do, try hard to stay true.