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What is a Design System? Learn What Design Systems Are & Why They’re Important

  • 5 min read
  • May 22, 2024
What is a design system? by KIJO

Did you know that there are over 1 billion websites in the world as of January 2024? Each of these websites usually has multiple pages and nowadays, there are multiple screen styles to view and use them on. With this enormity and scale of online demand, it’s become essential for web designers to streamline their work. That’s where design systems come in. But, what is a design system and how do they enable web design management at scale?

In this article, we’ll get to grips with the basics of design systems. We’ll learn what is meant by a design system, how they work and why they’re important. We’ll also share some examples.

What is a Design System?

A design system is very similar to a set of brand guidelines, but are specifically for a website and all accompanying digital products. It’s essentially a guide regarding all aspects of styling across a website which maintains consistency throughout the design. 

The design system breaks down a website into all the key, smaller elements: typography, button styles, UI elements, colour palettes, spacing rules and form inputs. This means anyone creating new pages on the site can keep it within the styling of other pages and stop it looking out of place. 

Ultimately, it aims to protect your website design and elevate your digital presence in terms of the experience you offer your users.

Why Use A Design System?

different pages from ESPA Life at Corinthia's website displayed across three different laptops. These show how a design system provides consistency

There are several reasons why it’s considered essential.

Protects Against Inconsistency

If your website is providing a different experience across different devices, this can significantly affect your brand’s perception and user experience (UX). A design system ensures there is less chance of this happening as it acts as a single source of styles and components.

Streamlines Tasks

Repeating tasks is not an efficient use of an employee’s time. Using a design system means your online creation and its development can be created and then replicated with ease, at speed and at scale across mediums. This in turn saves time on tweaking small, visual elements on site so more complex and unique tasks can take priority.

Improves Team Communication

A design system essentially creates a unified language for a team. This reduces time wastage via miscommunication. Elements won’t need to be clarified or debated as the design system acts as the decisive point.

Bolsters Onboarding

Your design system will also serve as a reference bible for any junior designers, freelancers or other content contributors that work within or alongside your team.

KIJO PRO TIP: Initially, implementing a design system may seem daunting and time consuming when you first set out curating one. It may also take your team time to come around to it. It’s important to remain objective and long-sighted during this process. Try to remember that the long term benefits nearly always outweigh the teething stages. It’s common for there to be an element of delayed gratification when ever introducing a new, cultural shift within any company and team. So, stay patient and reap the rewards.

What does a Design System Typically Consist of?

ESPA Life at Corinthia design system - created by KIJO

All design systems vary, however most will typically contain at least the below three sections. 

Style Guide

The style guide section of your design system is essentially your branding guidelines. This will be a tone of voice document, language recommendations, colours, logos, typography, and front-end styles (anything visual).

Read KIJO’s Brand Guide 101 and learn what to put in your brand guidelines here.

Component Library / Design Library

Known by both names, the design system’s component library contains reusable UI (user interface) elements like buttons, icons, toggles and drop-down menu styles. Each component should be appropriately titled and described. Their code excerpt, recommended defaults, and both front and back-end frameworks should also be included. If any variable attributes are applicable, these should be noted in the component library as well. 

Pattern Library

Sometimes the Component Library and Pattern Library are put together as one, but there is a distinction. The Pattern Library is how certain components are laid out on a page. Patterns will include carousels, content structure (like page layouts), navigational elements like menus, news listings, and social media features.

Examples

Here are some popular and well thought out design system examples.

Airbnb

What is a design systen? Airbnb's unofficial UI kit shows you!

Airbnb is an American company that operates an online marketplace for short and long-term homestays. Their design system is strong and distinctive, and certainly streamlines their process. Whilst it’s unofficial, Growth Product Designer, Isabelle Scheier has put together an Airbnb UI Kit as an example on the collaborative web application for interface design, Figma.

Mailchimp

Mailchimp's Pattern Library

Mailchimp is a marketing automation and email marketing platform. Their design system is colourful, detailed and clear. What’s particularly impressive is the Mailchimp Pattern Library which details colour groupings and data visualisation. It’s thorough, brand-orientated and definitive.

IBM

IBM's UI kit for Figma

International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) is an American multinational technology company headquartered in New York. Carbon is IBM‘s open sourcedesign system for products and digital experiences. The IBM design system consists of all of the fundamentals you’d expect; working code, interface guidelines, tools and resources. You can explore their official UI kit for Figma here.

Design Systems

Now you understand how a design system works and how much it can deliver. Design systems are key for optimising design efforts and streamlining design tasks. However, if you’re going to commit to one, do it properly, thoroughly and with patience during the implementation process. Miss a beat, and it can end up a chaotic mess of code with a confused set of components. Your design system should be enabling for all team members associated with and working with it. 

If you need further support on understanding or implementing a design system, speak to KIJO regarding our Web Design and Branding packages. Contact us today.

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