Beyond Aesthetics: The Designer's Guide to System Governance

Explore the balancing act of design governance in my latest article, where I'm going to reveal how to maintain a cohesive Design System that encourages innovation without sacrificing consistency.

Beyond Aesthetics: The Designer's Guide to System Governance

Now that we've mastered the art of feedback and iteration (at least we tried it in our last article), it's time to shift our gaze to the equally crucial phase: system governance. This time, we're going to explore some strategies on how to maintain order and consistency while keeping the system flexible and responsive. Buckle up for some (hopefully not too boring) tips on establishing guidelines, defining roles, and ensuring your Design System remains a well-oiled machine that everyones loves to use!

The Role of Designers in Governing a Design System

We should probably start by addressing the elephant in the room—what in hell does "governance" mean!? (I know, right?)
Well, a governance model is a framework that outlines processes, roles, responsibilities and rules for decision-making within an organisation, a team or a system. That means that, in the context of a Design System, it's key part is making sure it is adopted and used consistently.

Imagine your Design System as a bustling city. Without traffic rules, zoning laws, and public services, chaos would reign supreme.
How do we control it? In any well-governed system, knowing who does what is half the battle. So we should start by assigning clear roles and responsibilities to people who are going to help you ensure that every aspect of the Design System is managed efficiently. Whether it's a dedicated Design System team responsible for the creation, maintenance, and documentation of the design system, or a cross-functional committee that regularly reviews changes and additions to the system and provide strategic direction while helping resolve some major issues, having designated gatekeepers helps to streamline decision-making and implementation processes. So you might end with roles like a Design System Owner, a Component Librarian, a Feedback Coordinator or a Steering Committee. Whatever it is in your case, by clearly defining who is responsible for what, you can avoid having "too many cooks in the kitchen" and keep your Design System running like a well-choreographed dance.

At the end, just know that everyone in your team plays a huge role in governing a Design System, as they need to make sure the rules and guidelines are clear and easy to follow, while also keeping the Design System up-to-date and answering all the needs.

Balancing Creative Freedom with Adherence to Standards

After setting your team, it's now time to make your Design System to function smoothly, by working on those dreaded guidelines. You and your team are now going to work on the rulebooks, ensuring everyone knows how to contribute, update, and use the system effectively. From naming conventions to component usage rules, having a well-documented set of standards helps maintain consistency and quality across the board. Think of it as creating a user manual for your Design System—one that everyone can refer to when in doubt.

Now, one of the challenges you might face is how you balance flexibility and control—who hasn't heard the famous "I don't like to use grids because they block my creativity!" for example?. The trick to manage this is to create a governance model that allows for innovation and iteration while maintaining a strong foundation of standards. Guidelines and roles are essential, but so is to strike a balance between flexibility and control. A rigid system can cripple creativity and adaptability, while a too-loose approach can lead to confusion and inconsistency. It's all about balance, as everything. This might involve setting up regular review cycles, where proposed changes are evaluated and approved by the governance team. By finding the sweet spot between structure and flexibility, you can ensure your Design System remains both robust and adaptable.

Designers as Advocates and Enforcers

At this point it's safe to say that, as essential as guidelines and roles can be, if your team doesn't advocate for the Design System, it won't shine as it should. A Design System is a team effort where you fight for it in order for it to succeed. So, designers are not just creators; they are also advocates for the Design System. They need to promote the use of it and help others understand its benefits, by demonstrating the system's value to stakeholders and other team members, for example. Telling them how it streamlines workflows, how it ensures consistency between teams and ultimately save time and resources (managers love this part). You can create documentation, provide training sessions, offer support to other team members as they begin to integrate the system into their work. By sharing success stories and demonstrating the efficiency gains from using the system, you can build enthusiasm and buy-in across the organisation and turn your Design System into an amazing success.

And as the Design System owner, it is also your role to foster a culture that includes check-ins and audits of the system to assess its effectiveness and identify areas for improvement. Remember that consistency and efficiency are the cornerstones of any Design System, so everyone should be continuously seeking ways to optimize it, making it more intuitive and easier to use. This involves not only iterating on the system based on user feedback, but also proactively seeking out new trends and technologies that could enhance the system. By staying informed and adaptable, you can ensure the Design System remains relevant and effective over time.

To truly bring your Design System to life, think of it as a living, breathing entity that evolves with your team. Celebrate the small wins and milestones, and don't shy away from showcasing the tangible benefits it brings. Host regular "show and tell" sessions where team members can share how the Design System has made their work easier or more efficient. This not only builds a sense of community but also reinforces the importance of the system. Encourage feedback loops where everyone feels empowered to suggest improvements, fostering a collaborative environment. By making the Design System a shared responsibility and a source of pride, you transform it from a mere set of guidelines into a dynamic force that drives innovation and unity within your organisation.

One final note: this article is the last part of a new collection on an introduction to Design Systems. Stay tuned for news, more insights and tips in upcoming articles!


That’s all folks!

Thank you for sticking till the end. Your insights and discussions make this journey worthwhile. Drop a comment, spark a conversation, and let's keep this adventure alive!

I'm excited to share that I've started mentoring on ADPList. If you're interested in one-on-one sessions to delve deeper into design systems or any related topics, feel free to book a session with me. Your participation and growth are what drive me to keep sharing my knowledge!

You can also find me on dribbble, behance and Instagram.

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