Regardless of the size of your organization or whether you're B2B, SaaS, B2C, or DTC—the whole alphabet basically—time and budget are significant factors that you're always wrestling with almost daily. What if there was a way in which you could significantly cut down on your budget and save loads of time? The answer is design systems.
In this article, we'll discuss what a design system is, the benefits it can bring, and how to implement them for your startup.
What is a Design System?
According to the Nielsen Norman Group—a design system is "a set of standards to manage design at scale by reducing redundancy while creating a shared language and visual consistency across different pages and channels."
In the simplest of terms, a design system is a complete set of standards intended to manage design at scale using reusable components and patterns.
These systems have become increasingly popular in product and web design teams since the mid-2010s. One of the most popular and widely known design systems in the tech industry is Google's Material Design—initially developed in 2014. As with many other designers, this was my first introduction to design systems.
If you've worked in the tech industry, Material Design is brought up continuously as the gold standard of design systems. Many startups use the open-source system for their web products—eventually, as they grow, they develop their own to integrate or replace it.
Since many startups generally have smaller internal design teams, they benefit the most from using design systems to create consistency within their design, branding, and dev projects.
By utilizing a design system, you can ensure that multiple—if not all touch points for your brand's visual design—are consistent, recognizable, and easy to replicate at scale.
What Does A Design System Include?
Not all design systems are the same. Some are very complex and cover various components and design elements, while others are small and simple—almost like a toolkit than a full-fledged system.
Various design systems usually include a style guide or brand guidelines—the rules of the brand and the procedure. You can think of it as the brand's rulebook or owner's manual. This is where you keep information about using your brand's design system, do's and don'ts, typography, colors, spacing, visual references, design principles, and much more.
A system also includes a toolkit or design library—this I a repository for all design templates, design elements, and components. They are reusable design elements and can be utilized by your design team—marketers, developers, sales, etc.—to expand and create designs for your brand. One thing to note, making both the toolkit and the style guide for a design system can be a very time-intensive process—but it's one that you will reap the rewards time and again.
Three Benefits of Utilizing a Design System for Startups
Design systems offer several benefits for startups with small design teams or who need more design resources. Here are three benefits you can expect once you've implemented and started using a design system for your brand.
The first benefit is that a design system increases speed and efficiency for internal teams within your organization. Your designers can use design elements and components from your design toolkit and create designs faster—than if they had to design each element piecemeal. After I helped implement a design system for Instapage's internal marketing team, we increased efficiency by over 50%—creating assets for marketing campaigns at a rate of one or two a week while having limited design resources.
The second benefit is that design systems are consistent at scale—especially between different departments and teams. Using a design system across all departments and teams within your organization—no matter the size—helps to keep your visual brand consistent across the board. It also protects from rogue design decisions from being made. If you'd like an example of a rogue design decision, check out old slide decks your sales team created on their own—I'm sure you'll find some "gems."
The third benefit is that design systems can be used as an educational tool for onboarding junior designers, new employees, and contractors to your organization's visual brand. One of the most complex parts of bringing anyone new to an organization—especially designers—is the onboarding process. Getting a new or junior designer up to speed on how assets are designed or the visual language your brand utilizes can be intimidating—for both you and them—a design system helps by keeping everything they need right there at their fingertips.
What to Consider Before You Create A Design System
Now that we identified the benefits of creating and implementing a design system for your startup let's discuss why you might want to avoid using a design system.
As mentioned above, the first thing to consider is that creating, implementing, and maintaining design systems can be labor and time-intensive. These systems require a dedicated individual or team—depending on the size of your organization. It's not something that you create once and have forever. Like a brand, a design system is a living ecosystem of elements and components that will change and evolve. Like a brand, a design system is a living ecosystem of elements and components that will change and evolve. It's not something you create once and have forever.
Though it's a great learning tool for onboarding new employees, implementing a design system involves training and teaching all current employees and teams how it can be used. Without proper training, you risk inconsistent system use and issues creeping up in a cascading pattern—leading to large amounts of design debt.
You may run into problems when you are looking to implement your system. You may find resistance in people utilizing your design system. This can stem from a few reasons—from some being set in their ways or the belief it doesn't apply to specific one-off projects. This could signify a more significant issue—misalignment internally with your core brand strategy or other more profound reasons.
A design system is a complete set of standards intended to manage design at scale using reusable components and design elements. When used correctly, it can significantly boost your brand and internal organization.
Utilizing these systems is an excellent tool for small startups to major corporations. They can increase efficiency, improve brand consistency, and make collaboration across teams a lot easier.
Though it might seem daunting to create and implement a design system, the upfront costs are worth it in the long run.