August 17, 2023

The Power of Your Language

Read this excerpt from pages 223 and 224 of Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building.”

The source of life which you create lies in the power of the language which you have.

If your language is empty, your buildings cannot be full. If your language is poor, you cannot make good buildings until you enrich your language. If your language is rigid, your buildings must be rigid. If your language is florid, your buildings will be florid. Your language generates the buildings which you make, and the buildings live or not, according to the life your language has.

Here, he’s speaking about the power of language in architecture, but this applies directly to the work you are doing on digital products.

Thinking of a design system as a set of lego bricks with which we can build experiences is actually quite limiting. The core of your design system should be the pattern language you use, not specific instances of those patterns. And that language should be derived from the values of the organization.

The more I study these concepts, the more I believe you don’t need a library of reusable components to create cohesion across your digital products. Instead, you need a common language spoken by the teams doing digital product work. Once you have this, it’s completely reasonable that various sets of reusable components emerge. As a design system lead, your job is to make sure the language is spoken fluently, to trust in the power it offers, and then to gently guide the design system that emerges.

What I’m Not Saying

I’m not saying this is easy—especially at scale.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t build components and doc sites and all the stuff we think of when we say design system.”

What I Am Saying

I am saying your onboarding should be as much about teaching people to speak the language as it is about how to use the system.

I am saying it’s just as important for your leadership to learn and use the language as it is for you to do so.

I am saying the language is the root of the system—speaking the language is a form of adoption.

Idealism is Necessary

This is an optimistic approach to a problem set that is often bombarded with pessimism. However, as systems people, we must operate in the ideal while accounting for the real. The moment you let all the reasons something won’t work drive your decisions, you’ve lost sight of the point of a system. For there to be real impact, we have to be continually pushing the approach more toward the ideal. That’s the change we’re looking for—a cultural shift that encourages more life in the products built with the systems we offer.

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