Design systems: Exploring trends and examples

March 2, 2020User experience
Design systems: Exploring trends and examples

A design system provides a set of principles for design and code that would be consistent across both disciplines. This ensures coherence across the organization’s products, and provides a stronger emphasis of the organization’s values and agenda. 

Different from the traditional mode, where separate disciplines work in silos, a design system seeks to encourage conversations and cooperation between different practices to speak in a single language. This language should embody the vision and the values of the organization. Briefly, some reasons that undergird the importance of a design system include: 

  1. to establish unified principles for the teams and its accompanying line of products to follow, 
  2. to guide the teams towards a shared vision- it is not about building a single product or code, but about the collective values we aspire towards,
  3. to embody a message with consistency and clarity, and
  4. to provide a structure that forms the basis of our (otherwise convoluted) iterative process of questioning, reworking, rethinking, and redesigning.  

How do I start? 

The principles of a design system begin first with a common understanding; stakeholders would have to tackle the difficult conversation of prioritizing  (and de-prioritizing ). This would create the foundations, in order for a design system of choice to take root. With this consensus in place, it would then be key to obtain management approval and to garner organizational buy-in, so as to provide a stable foundation. Teams could then turn back to the principles of the design system, in times of disagreement. 

Next, the design system team would be formed. Designers and developers would work closely to schedule and run design sprints to ensure regularity, and to stay atop trends and needs. Design thinking is key to review the user’s journey. Through iterative cycles, the team could repeatedly improve on the product, increasing the product’s effectiveness and make the product or service more intuitive.

Design systems: Exploring trends and examples

Designing for simplicity

Adhering to design systems include adopting a set of standards to guide subsequent decision-making processes. 

Increasingly, the proverbial “less is more” continues to gain traction. Users who previously questioned the usefulness of each feature has now moved to challenging if there is a reason for the product at all. Taking heed from Golden Krishna’s critique of the overutilization of screens, The Best Interface is No Interface: The Simple Path to Brilliant Technology, readers from designers to developers alike, are urged to not unnecessarily complicate designs and development- The best screen would be no screen at all. 

Holding fast to the principle of simplicity meant that the designer and the developer both adopt the practice of repeatedly questioning the value of each feature that was introduced- Does this really need to be there? If it is not backed by reasonable justification, it should go. Is there a consistent design with consistent messages and branding, amid multiple platforms and products? The minimalist approach continues to hold sway and users strongly reject products where they are needlessly bombarded with too many pages, and notifications, and words. 

Designing for truth

Perhaps the most prominent of trends in principles of design systems would be the emerging emphasis on designing for truth. Inundated by news from innumerable sources and channels, the uphill task of distinguishing the accurate from inaccurate, and the genuine from the deliberate falsehoods, i.e. Fake news, has only grown tougher. In Singapore, because of the threats that fake news bring, the Protection from Online Falsehoodsand Manipulation Act 2019 was legislated to prevent false statements of fact. Furthermore, all over the world, what used to apply to false texts has crept into other mediums such as impersonation through fake pictures –- and even videos. Coined “deepfakes”, synthetic media created using artificial intelligence to imitate an individual’s actions and behavior has increasingly propagated the internet. 

Having had to once conscientiously design and develop products to protect identities and enable anonymity, the method has taken a turn to instead focus on the verification of identities in the virtual world. To mitigate the rising threats of deceptive information, designers and developers have been mandating considerations to promote truth and dispel falsehoods. An example is The Guardian’s move to include the date of publication in its social thumbnail as a response to users re-sharing dated news in disguise of current news. This move by The Guardian, in a bid to deter dishonest use of journalism. encourages transparency and accuracy.

Designing for diversity

The trend towards racial diversity continues to be a fine line to walk on, but nevertheless, the efforts made are commendable. Society steers towards a right direction when individuals and communities make a conscious effort to be sensitive and considerate of our different traits and cultures. This effort has seeped into the design and development within the virtual sphere, as more thought is given towards celebrating diversity. 

A leading example would be WhatsApp’s deliberate move to cater emoticons of different skin colors. In a study by Edinburgh University, researchers found that the range of skin colors provided closer representations of self. Through an analysis of a billion tweets on Twitter, the researchers found that most tweets used the varied options of skin color in positive ways. Nevertheless, there is also a camp that concurrently disagrees with WhatsApp’s choice of emojis of different skin tones, and are of the opinion that this decision was in itself racist. The conversation of design systems, would unavoidably be subjective in nature, and whether the masses support WhatsApp’s choice for emojis to factor in skin color or not, each in his or her field should continue to be encouraged to persevere in this aspiration, as the debate rages on… 

Design for accessibility

I close with a personal favorite principle in framing a design system – accessible design. Despite the unending benefits that technology has brought, it is worthwhile to consider ways technology has unintentionally privileged only a select group. Technology continues to widen the inequality gap as latest innovations and gadgets sell at prices too hefty for the average worker. Technology also divides when products did not take into account special needs that could become a barrier to entry. Developing with accessibility in mind is when the we strive to see beyond the smallness of our world, and to imagine it through the eyes of people with different needs. 

A design system with accessibility as a priority spurs the team to value inclusive design and development. Examples include incorporating translations for multiple languages, not just the vernacular; developing assistive functions built into smartphones that provide magnification for people with visual difficulties; or through developing a simpler product with partial capabilities at a more affordable cost. This could extend access of the product to a wider audience by offering reasonable prices Other instances of accessible design and development include an option for audio on mouseover through text-to-speech transistors. By prioritizing accessibility, the designer would consider opting for the larger texts in bold, over the tiny, perhaps more fanciful ones that would resultantly leave a population isolated. Alternatively, the developer could also put in place functions to zoom, rather than static texts, whenever there is a large chunk of words in smaller fonts.

Conclusion

Considering the impact that the principles of the design system would create, the path towards putting it together must be carefully thought through. A regular review of trends in the principles of design systems serves as reminders to highlight gaps in our existing framework. This could also give us some direction on where we could start. I wish all aspiring and professional teams a rewarding journey ahead! May the principles you choose to adopt not only be coherent across both disciplines, but also a purposeful journey that takes into account insights ahead of our times.

“Rachel Kristen is a tech optimist and a mobile application developer. She is keen to broaden her sights, pick up new skills, and sharpen existing ones.” 

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