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Designers, Design Systems and Finding Our Focus

By Tyler Sticka

Published on October 19th, 2020


For many designers, the process of finding one’s place within a design system can be surprisingly tough. Contributions may seem straightforward when there are new problems to solve with tried and true UX and UI design tasks, but what happens after mockups are approved and specs are delivered? Do we stand by, awaiting the next big problem while other disciplines iterate on our vision? Or do we insist on continued involvement at the risk of narrowing our focus from “blue sky thinking” to policing details like font sizes and border radii?

These are hard questions to answer if we’re drawing a line from our current job description to the outputs of a system. Instead, I like to start from a handful of focus areas representing potential areas of interest that our systems can and should support. These will likely vary across organizations, but here are three alliterative starting points:

  • Concept Design includes the inventive exploration traditionally associated with UX, UI, IA and visual design. This playful, unrestrained exploration justifies a young system’s existence and helps prevent a legacy system’s stagnation. Without it, a system lacks relevance and fails to innovate.

  • Component Design is the craft of designing flexible and repeatable elements that meet the needs of users and maintainers, now and in the future. This process may involve scrutinizing pattern variations, defining design tokens, creating new mockups and more. Without this, there is no system.

  • Composition requires a deep familiarity of the system to masterfully combine and remix its elements into new experiences, identifying opportunities and exposing shortcomings along the way. Without master builders, a design system is unproven, growing without full knowledge of what it can do already.

These specialties can and should overlap continuously throughout the system’s life cycle: New concepts yielding new components enabling new compositions that suggest refined components which inspire fresh concepts… and so on and so on. With this in mind, we can ask ourselves some new questions:

  1. Which focus areas, if any, do I already impact?
  2. Of the remaining focus areas, where could my experience, capabilities and perspective do the most good?
  3. What would need to change for me to be more involved in those areas?

From there, it’s a matter of communicating your goals to decision-makers and addressing any obstacles alongside your team. You may uncover opportunities to improve the way you collaborate with developers. You might suggest a more user-friendly, collaborative or integrated system, perhaps with more freedom to play and experiment. You might even need a whole new team model, governance process or cooperative system.

That may sound daunting, but it’s worth it! A design system without continued design involvement is likely to languish, fossilizing yesterday’s best efforts and commoditizing your craft in the name of efficiency. But a system with sustained, multi-disciplinary involvement can evolve to become, as Jina Anne deftly summarized, “a continuous way of thinking and working,” extending the reach of your contributions by empowering more voices in support of more people. You deserve to be part of that process.