Joe Dawson

Joe is the director of Creative.onl and oversees all of the design and technical work that we produce. Find him on Twitter.

In a competitive market where it is increasingly difficult to differentiate with your USP, businesses need better-than-ever return on investment from their digital teams.

At the same time, a powerful user experience is more important than ever in growing revenues and establishing a lead over the competition.

So how can improved design processes help your team achieve to these things?

Making sure product development teams have the right elements in place, whatever the content or project development you are undertaking, is vital. Developers and project managers need to know what assets they can use, and which rationale to apply, whether they are creating a website or an app. 

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The key to maintaining good user experience and also your team’s efficiency is to have a design system in place. This goes beyond the simple reusable snippets of code, or the style guide for your marketing team. 

It’s a comprehensive set of easily repeated elements and concrete guidelines that should make the implementation of any new project within your business simple and efficient. 

Here we take a closer look at design systems and why your company should put one in place. 

What is a design system?

Whether you are putting together a new app for your customers, or a state of the art website, a design system brings together the core components which will be used. In its most simple form, it is a collection of reusable interface elements and a guide to explain the rationale of how to use them. 

It essentially stops your team repeatedly reinventing the wheel or making the wrong design choices, giving your team the basic building blocks they need to do a good job. 

Think of it as a library containing your most regularly used assets which you can draw on whenever you need them. The collection could include a set of interface elements, snippets of code, a catalogue of suitable images, and your style guide for setting out a page. 

Not only do you have a catalogue of assets, however, these are also backed by a deep understanding of how each fits together and what role they play in your overall design strategy. 

Many businesses (especially larger ones) will have some form of design system in place but a significant number also fail to use it to its full potential. Key is the documentation and process that is used when incorporating the assets that are in place. Without it, teams will often not understand how a particular asset is to be used. It can mean a piece of code, text or image are used inappropriately, leading to a poor or confusing user experience.

The benefits of design systems

At the heart of any great design system is the capability ensure a stable UX for customers. It means they easily recognise and feel comfortable with your brand and your digital presence wherever they are engaging with it. They know what is being delivered whether they are using a mobile app or opening a webpage on their desktop. 

Developers are able to quickly access the right components and spend less time going over old ground, particularly when it comes to creating a new app. At the same time, you ensure your brand is maximised and not diluted by rogue design assets that really shouldn’t be there. There’s no confusion on how a particular component is implemented as the guidelines are clear and accessible. 

How to develop a design system

Any good design system will have a series of rules, constraints and principals which are related to the branding of your businessnand the nature of your digital presence. A rule might be that you are only allowed to use a colour in specific way. A constraint would be only having a certain selection of colours available to your design team and a principal would be to use those colours in meaningful ways. 

You could, for example, have colours that are specifically used for foregrounds and backgrounds. You may have rules for layouts and typography, spacing and all the components that you use within layouts. You will also have a design system for the tone and language that you use when writing content. All these assets are independent in at least some way but they are also interrelated. They come together to create the whole of your brand. 

So how do you put everything together and create a design system that works for your business? Here are the three steps you need to follow:

1. Do an audit

First, you need to understand where you’re at right now. Whether you have an app or a website or are putting together a completely new business or digital product, your first job is to list all its design assets. This will not only highlight the good things that you want to still include in your system but some of the assets that you might want to get rid of. You also need to pay special attention to how you sanction the use of each element. 

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2. The design elements

There are core aspects of your visual design that are going to be important to your brand. They are colour, typography, size and spacing, and imagery. 

Each of these will have their own rules, constraints and principals attached to them and separating your assets out into these categories will make everything easier to understand for your team of developers. 

For example, the size and quality of images that you use for your content will be closely controlled. This will hopefully ensure that problems such as images taking too long to download or actually not representing your brand at all from being used by accident. 

3. Create your library

The next step is to put all your components from buttons and images to forms and page structures into one central library. That way developers have a one-stop shop to find all the assets they need and won’t be tempted to use something else that just happens to be hanging around. 

4. Creating guidelines

No library is going to be an effective design system if there are no guidelines available on how to use each asset. A logo may have pretty strict stipulations on what size it should be and how it is positioned on the page. You might decide that written text needs to be justified or of a certain size and colour. 

These guidelines must be comprehensive but also easy to understand. There should be no ambiguity which means that developers end up using the component in the wrong way. 

Putting together your design system team

Your team is not just going to be made up of developers. Any design system depends on a good deal of collaboration, especially as components and branding evolve over time. Your design might need to be scaled up as you develop as a brand or scaled down if it becomes too complicated. For that, you always require stakeholder buy-in and cooperation. 

At Creative.onl, our aim is to ensure that you have all the tools available to deliver a user experience that really counts. Contact us today to find out how we can help you develop the digital strategies that work for your business. 

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