Nov 09, 2021

How to Build World-Class Design Systems That Fuel Team Culture

By Eric Pier

When people use their favorite apps and websites today — from Nike and Starbucks to Thrive Market and Yeti — they likely don’t realize that the ease and intuitiveness of these experiences are the result of a meticulously built design system. 

Design Systems are nothing new, but they’ve been revived amidst a world immersed in elevating digital experiences. The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated technology adoption across all industries. According to one survey, 77% of CEOs reported that the pandemic sped up their companies’ digital transformation plans, and as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted in the early days of the crisis, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” 

At YML we have been creating design systems for Fortune 500s and startups alike — across industries ranging from healthcare and finance to grocery and retail — because they’re a vital tool to growing at speed and scale.

What are design systems and who are they for?

Design systems are a single source of truth organizing all the elements that facilitate teams to concept, design and develop a product. But a ‘design system’ is often misconstrued as a glorified style guide.

It’s not, and despite its name, it’s not just for designers.

Design systems rely on an integrated team across disciplines. We create design systems to reduce the friction between the design and the code. When people have input into something, they adopt faster, and build better together. 

A truly impactful design system is one that has an impact on an organization’s design culture.

One of the biggest challenges in creating a design system is how people will adopt and use it — and we see it firsthand at YML and for our clients. It’s important not to think of a Design System as a deliverable; rather, it’s an approach to how your teams create. Helping cultivate this type of culture is different for every organization, but it is essential to the long term growth of a design system. Open collaboration and partnership early on will help define how teams will work together.

The truth is if you can create an environment that everyone is inspired to be part of, you’ve won.

Design system’s should be constantly evolving with the product, tools and technologies within its environment. Product design has significantly changed over the years, and with the rapid digital needs, changes, and expectations caused by Covid-19 as well, so has the scale and velocity at which UI is created, especially with the advent of tools like Figma (a staple for building at YML). 

At YML we treat design systems as a joint partnership between your design, development and product teams. They facilitate experiences with consistent look and feel, not just in our design specs, but also in how we code and create the components that make up our system. This helps teams unite around a common language and move at a faster pace.

When we work with our clients, we frame our design system work around three fundamental areas to ensure it will be successful within an organization and help grow a team’s design culture. 

1. Think like a product

Design systems are successful when they are thought of just like the products we build for our users. This takes special planning and a roadmap to get a usable product for both internal design and engineering teams. For every organization this looks different and at YML we work with our clients to help facilitate in different ways that are specific to an organization's needs.

It’s critical to establish a roadmap early on with key stakeholders so that teams can be united in a common goal. This can be done through interviewing and collaborative workshops that will help an organization establish the principles that make up your design language.

Despite the fact that KPI’s and design systems can be difficult to measure, they're vital within an organization to keep track of progress as a design system matures.

A dedicated, cross-disciplinary team is essential to the success of a design system at scale. When we build experiences for our end users we work with cross disciplinary teams to ensure a system that works for everyone using it within an organization.   

2. Establish a process

It is true what they say about design systems: “the biggest challenge is adoption” is something we hear often. Creating processes early helps organizations build better design culture and systems that can evolve over time.

When designing for any organization one of the main roles of a design system team is to allow and orchestrate “how” to design. Process plays an essential role in how teams will contribute and how a system evolves.

Creating an accessible process is foundational to making design decisions. The key is making sure that everyone understands the design language and can build new designs from a foundation.

Building a design system with process in mind involves creating a workflow and design process in which we build individual “atoms” and components. Similar to Brad Frost’s atomic design, we start with a foundation that consists of typography, color, grids and spacing, iconography and animation. These foundational elements enable our design systems to grow as design languages within organizations and the clients we work with.

Along with building a design blueprint for teams to leverage, it is equally important to build a process in which teams can contribute and be part of creating a design system. This involves early input from all teams dealing with design, engineering, and product.

3. Always evolve

The best design systems are never complete because they are just like the products we build — always evolving based on users. They are constantly improving as an organization learns more about its users, both internal and external. As a living digital product, it needs to adapt to change along with the people and products within an organization.

Your team’s culture is part of that equation.

Knowing how your teams adopt and continue to use a design system is important to understanding an organization’s design culture. Using data from Figma and product analytics to evolve components and patterns will ensure you always have a system that is listening to its users.

When we look at design systems user’s, we break them down into who will be using the system: design, engineers, product and marketing teams as well as the end-users of your product. These three groups are what influence a design systems language over time. We work with teams to ensure that there is a process in place for contribution and the evolution of a design system. We all know data tells stories, but more importantly a team’s feedback through workshops, surveys, and open communication help a design system and team culture evolve. 

Sho Kuwamoto, Director of Product at Figma recently said, “Right now, is the early days for design systems” at Schema, Figma’s first design system conference. When he said that, I couldn’t help but smile and think about all the possibilities in the future of design systems. What is most inspiring about design systems is the way we make products for organizations is changing just as it has in the past. Many of us at YML are excited about that path to the future of design systems.

At YML we build, manage, scale and evolve design systems for our clients, and they’re immensely valuable within your digital product, the teams building that product and the customers using it.

Get in touch to learn more.


About the Author: Eric Pier, Associate Creative Director

For the past 15 years Eric has been partnering with some of the world’s biggest brands and smartest startups on design systems and digital experiences. Eric works with teams to create unique experiences that push both technology and design. Most recently he helped build out Fitbit’s design system and worked on some of Fitbit’s most innovative health experiences. He’s partnered with Nike innovation and design on NikeID, Nike Sustainability, Nike Running and ecommerce experiences. Before Nike, he designed experiences for Audi, Visa, Verizon and more.