Design Systems at Scale: Creating a System That Grows with You

Dive into the art of scaling design systems! Learn how to ensure your system grows with your brand, remains organised, and adapts to change, just like a well-tended garden. 🌱💻📈

Design Systems at Scale: Creating a System That Grows with You

Remember the last article? (If you don't, you can always revisit it). We got on the shoes of a designer that had just started working with Design Systems and wanted to know how to start using one... Let's keep those shoes on! You're that same designer who started a project with a brand new Design System. You were unsure how to start (hopefully, now you have some insights), but now you need to know how to keep that system growing and ensure you're doing it well. So, let's envision that Design System as a garden. Just like plants, it needs regular care to grow and not not turn into a wild jungle.

"But... Why should I care about making my Design System scalable?" Because nobody likes a hot mess, especially not your future self or your team. It's that simple!

Let's dig into the best practices that ensure your design system thrives, scales beautifully, and doesn't become the stuff of digital nightmares.

Establishing a Solid Foundation

Would you build a house on sand? Probably not a good idea. So why would you build your Design System without solid foundations? Just like in architecture, a Design System needs a strong base to support future expansions. Scalability is all about planning for the future right from the start. It might seem hard, but I'll try to make it easy and give some examples along the way!

The first, and perhaps most crucial, aspect to consider is flexibility. Our Design System must be flexible and modular. You wouldn't plant a mature oak tree in a small pot, right? Similarly, your Design System needs room to grow.

Here's an example: I have a tech drawer in my home office where I store all my cables, adapters, and gadgets. To organize them, I bought some drawer dividers. However, I don't separate all my cables into individual compartments based on their type (USB-A, USB-C, Micro-USB, etc.), because then I'd end up with dividers containing only one cable. It's all about balance... 🧘

Let's apply this to our components: if we have various items that require user action (buttons with icons, buttons without icons, icon buttons, links, button pairings, link pairings, etc.) and we want to store them, it's best not to toss them into the drawer haphazardly, but we also don't want 10 dividers for them!

So, what's the solution? Typically, I create a "drawer" labeled "Actions". Inside, I have at least two dividers (one for buttons and one for links) and group all the buttons under one divider, while the links go under the other. This way, all the variants are grouped together and are easy to locate.

This approach allows for intuitive expansion and modification, which is vital as the products and brands it supports evolve. The goal is to create a system that is as dynamic and enduring as the designs it will support, ensuring a robust and cohesive user experience for years to come.

Keeping Your System Lean

How do you maintain that drawer's organisation? With regular maintenance. This is also key to keeping a Design System useful and manageable. Just as pruning helps plants thrive, regular updates keep a Design System (and your drawers) in good shape. To achieve this, establish a routine where you (or a team member) periodically review the work and refine the existing components, documentation, and processes.

This can be achieved in various ways, but you must remember that a Design System is not a one-person show; it requires collaboration across disciplines and must be embraced by the entire team. If a design system is built in a company and no one uses it, does it make an impact? Spoiler alert: It doesn't.

That's why we need to foster active participation and open dialogue among all team members to enrich the system and promote a sense of ownership and commitment to its success. By implementing collaborative tools and processes, we can create a nurturing environment where our Design System can flourish and adapt.

We can do this by setting up regular reminders on our company's communication software or using monthly meetings to request help with the design system, ensuring it's easy for anyone to update the documentation or review components that no longer serve the system or have become obsolete.

I've recently started implementing a guide in every file I create, teaching people how to navigate the file, where to find specific things, and how we can communicate inside the file (using comments) or outside it. I also have a Handoff Library that allows me to add annotations to every page, section, or detail of a design, which aids in documentation. I'm basically creating files and documenting it as if someone from outside the company is reading or seeing it for the first time. Essentially, and one thing to keep in mind, documentation is never enough!

Adapting to Change

Even with all the maintenance and flexibility, change is inevitable, and a Design System must adapt to survive. It needs to be responsive to new trends, technologies, rebrandings, or changes in taste. If it becomes static, a Design System dies. Okay, maybe that's not as dramatic, but you get the point.

That's why regular check-ups, team processes, and system updates are important. Digital products are constantly evolving, and there are always new developments. Therefore, there must be room for changes! It's crucial to implement processes for integrating new design patterns or components and retiring outdated ones. These processes need to be shared among the team and followed through to prevent a scenario where you end up with updated designs and outdated development, or vice versa.

For instance, you could establish processes where, every few weeks, you have a meeting to decide what will be updated and create a project for that, allowing everyone to be aware of what's happening, the timelines, and the project goals. You're essentially creating a source of truth for all decisions made for that component and generating documentation that everyone can reference.

The Thriving Ecosystem of Your Design System

As we've seen, a scalable and maintainable design system is like a well-tended garden that you cultivate with your team. And, like a garden, it requires careful planning, regular maintenance, and the flexibility to adapt to the seasons. However, by establishing a solid foundation, keeping the system streamlined and simple, and by remaining open to changes, you ensure that your Design System evolves in sync with your brand and products.

Just remember that this is a team effort, with everyone contributing to keep the system functional and prevent it from becoming a "hot mess." A Design System should foster innovation and efficiency across your team and may become an indispensable tool in your company. As you continue to build and refine the system, keep in mind that it's not just about components and documentation—it's about creating an ecosystem that supports your team's creativity and productivity, now and into the future.

Now, go forth and nurture your design system with the care it deserves!

One final note: this article is part of a new series on Design Systems. Stay tuned for 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!

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

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