A design system is a set of templates, assets, principles, or behaviors that can be reused across a project to reduce duplicated effort, improve the consistency of visuals and user experiences, and accelerate delivery.
Common examples include buttons on web pages, where design systems are used to define what each button should look like and do. Then, as buttons are replicated between pages, the system automatically defines how each one should behave when pressed, ensuring total consistency.
What is it?
Design systems are sets of artifacts — everything from graphics and code to behaviors and principles — that can be reused multiple times across a project, or even between projects.
The concept is simple. Instead of building every element you need for something like a website redesign or a new app, you build reusable elements first that can speed up delivery and reduce duplicated effort once they’re created.
Over time, design systems become complete toolkits of pre-built elements and artifacts that design and development teams can use to build new services, transform existing ones, or experiment and test new experiences and approaches.
What’s in it for you?
Design systems can help brands deliver consistent experiences across multiple customer and employee touchpoints. From customer apps to employee tools, components can be reused with ease, ensuring visuals and experiences are consistent between them all.
Design systems are also extremely useful when you need to deploy new services quickly. For example, if customer demands change and you need to develop new functionality for a customer-facing app, if you already have basic functionality like buttons, forms, and other common elements in a design system, you’ll be able to get to market much faster.
Because design systems use pre-built elements, they’re easier for non-technical stakeholders to engage with. That helps improve collaboration, and it helps line of business teams get more involved in development projects and have more of a say in what digital services do and look like.
The other major advantage of using design systems is that they reduce duplicated effort in large development projects, while also improving quality. Once you have an element in your design system that you know works, you can replicate it immediately instead of building the same functionality, process or connection again.
What are the trade-offs?
The biggest trade off with design systems is that they require a significant upfront investment — both in terms of time and money. Building a design system from the ground up requires skilled technical capabilities. Alternatively, buying the elements to add to a design system can be expensive despite saving time.
However, even in smaller projects, those costs are quickly recovered through a combination of time savings, reduced duplication of effort, and fewer errors being introduced as new elements and code are created.