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Design, system.

When I start talking with clients about creating a design system, this is often one of the first questions I get:

What happens when someone deviates from what we’ve designed?

And it’s a very good question! After all, it’s inevitable that after creating a design system, something will fall out of sync with your pattern library, or miss the spirit of some guideline. By way of trying to answer the question, I’ll share stories of how other organizations work to ensure their products are as consistent as possible; I’ll also ask my clients if they’ve come across similar stories they like. We’ll talk about testing strategies, chat about product reviews, and discuss ways to integrate their design system into various applications and workflows.

But we’ll also talk about how organizations shouldn’t focus exclusively on ensuring compliance. And how those that do might be missing an opportunity.

Let’s say you, a hard-working designer on deadline, have to add a hero image to a page. Your company’s invested quite a bit of time and energy in creating a pattern library, or perhaps an entire design system, so you look to it for a bit of guidance. Unfortunately, none of the existing patterns are quite right: perhaps the proportions are off, or the available options don’t cover the specific combination of image, copy, and color you’ve been asked to incorporate. So: what do you do? Well, chances are high you go ahead and create a new pattern, and go on with your day.

It’s easy for an organization to look at that one-off pattern as a problem of compliance, of not following the established rules. And in many cases, that might be true! But it’s also worth recognizing when a variation’s teaching you a lesson: namely, that your design system isn’t meeting the needs of the people who’re using it. Maybe there was a pattern that met our designer’s needs, but they weren’t able to find it; or maybe they’ve identified a gap between the business’ needs, and the patterns available to them to meet those needs. In both cases, it’s important to have mechanisms to receive that feedback, and adapt your design system accordingly.

For organizations small and large, working with a design system is a tremendously delicate act. Getting buy-in from disparate product teams, generating excitement from possibly-skeptical designers and developers, choosing the right governance model (and knowing when it needs to change)—this is hard work.

And throughout it all, it’s worth remembering that the real value of a design system isn’t defined just by the consistent interfaces you’ll create with it. Rather, it’s tied to how frequently—and how easily—your design system is used by the people who interact with it. Make sure you’re able to listen to their feedback, so that your design system—and you—can learn from them.


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