7 reasons why your design system may be failing you

Back in 2006, when Spotify was newly launched, it operated only with a team of engineers trying to build an audio streaming app. With no knowledge of design and no designers on board, they resorted to Microsoft Paint for creating client mock-ups of their UI system. Around 2008 and a few years after that, Spotify expanded its domain into various platforms including desktops, laptops, and multiple mobile applications. Each of these platforms including their UI and UX was managed by different teams in the company. Naturally, none of them was aligned and in harmony with each other. Because of the problems posed by this fragmented user experience, Spotify decided to launch Project Cat- Spotify’s first step at creating a design system. Over time, they dedicated a team of designers to maintain and expand the design system that they now called GLUE which stands for Global Language for a Unified Experience.

Source: Design Systems London

And just like that, Spotify gave us the signature dark experience contrasted with the “Spotify Green” colour- a visual language that we, as the audience, identify and recognize globally today.

spotify dark design system
Source: Spotify.design

A visual language is the simplest way one can describe a design system!

An article on Invision defines a design system as “a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications”.

Designing a design system is about deciding how the colours, typefaces, shapes, patterns and other components interact with each other and how, ultimately, they tell the story of a brand in the most effective and impactful way possible. We have written a detailed blog about design systems and how they affect a company. Do give it a read!

Having understood what a design system is, we move on to address why some design systems do not offer the value they are supposed to! If you find your design system failing or simply want to avoid any discrepancies, you may want to take into account the following mistakes designers usually make while developing a design system-

Design system mistakes: Not doing enough research

A design system determines how your audience and target consumers interact with the brand. It is, therefore, necessary that the design system is developed keeping in mind what would appeal and not appeal to them.

For instance, a tacky design system may repel a lot of modern consumers. However, if you are targeting a mass audience, tacky designs may be your best bet! There is no “one size fits all” rule with a design system and it is independent to each brand and the impact it aims to make. Hence, going by assumptions will not always yield the best results.

Whoever is in charge of developing the design system must do a thorough study of the market and take into account the sentiments of the audience before beginning the project.

design system research
source: Medium.com

Design system mistakes: Lack of purpose

A brand needs a design system for one reason- to create harmony in the visual language and make the brand identifiable in the market. A visual appeal is necessary to make an impact. However, that simply cannot communicate much about the brand. Like we said earlier, developing a design system isn’t simply about incorporating a couple of colours and typefaces. It is about telling a story!

The first step towards that is to determine the story you want to tell. Is your client a luxury chocolate manufacturer or do they deal in real estate? What values do they want to communicate to the market and who is their audience?

One cannot have a design system for the sake of having it. Defining the purpose helps a designer colour within the hypothetical lines of the brand’s identity.

Read more: abstract.com

Design system mistakes: Centering the designs around yourself

As designers, we tend to develop our eye for design by exposing ourselves to a lot of visual content. But, we are only human at the end of the day. We come with a sense of what appeals to us and what repels and that is our very personal opinion. What makes a designer valuable is his/her ability to make an unbiased design decision that complies with the needs of the brand and the interest of the target audience.

In other words, a designer must never centre the design around themselves. Meaning, they should not make it about their personal preferences, likes, and dislikes. Being open to suggestions and accepting the clients’ requirements will result in a design system that is best suited for them.

design system centering illustration
Source: Medium.com

Design system mistakes: Not determining cross-platform stability

A design system is a set of guidelines or a structure within which all the creatives and visual material of the brand will be created. Hence, it will be put into use in many places and forms. It is necessary to keep in mind while developing a design system that elements interact differently on different platforms and so do colours.

Oftentimes, when such decisions are not taken beforehand, designers are left confused as to how to incorporate certain elements on certain platforms.

On that note, one must also keep in mind that these elements act differently on different screens. A laptop does not show what a phone screen does, and a tablet does not display what a smartwatch does! Develop your design system in a fashion that allows the designers to easily shuffle the elements here and there to maintain visual harmony across all screens and platforms.

IOS and Androind icons
Source: Medium.com

Design system mistakes: Having too many elements

It is understandable that you want to incorporate as many elements, icons, typefaces, colours, and more to give you flexibility in your future projects. However, it often backfires! The purpose of a design system is to offer a structure to work within. A framework if you may. Having a number of components in your design system will only leave you and other designers on board confused with options. One designer may find a certain combination of elements appealing while someone else might find the contrast looks best. This ultimately results in fragmented or independent creatives that are not tied together defeating the very purpose of a design system. Not only will this rupture your brand’s identity in the market but will also confuse the audience as to what message you want to convey.

Old and new Google app icons
Source: Techcrunch.com

Design system mistakes: Having too few elements

On the contrary, not having enough elements or components to work with is also not an ideal scenario. A designer must not be spoilt for choice but must have enough freedom to be able to design a great creative. Not incorporating enough elements is like not providing the required tools to complete the job. The result? A compromised creative that lacks depth and the ability to make an impact.

Balance is the key! Or like Henry from Oswald likes to say, “no less, no more”.

Design system mistakes: Sticking to one design system forever

It is true that a design system is what helps us identify and tell apart different brands. It definitely needs to be consistent. However, with time, a lot of design trends change. While nostalgia is a good feeling, you wouldn’t want to give the impression that your brand or your product is outdated or worse- from a by-gone era. The change does not have to be drastic though. You can incorporate an element or two at a time and test the waters.

In conclusion

If you have noticed, a lot of big brands that have been in the game for a long time have rebranded themselves time and again. Be it tweaking their logos or changing their colours altogether, they have ensured that they constantly have relevance in present market times. Recently, Google performed a similar feat with Android 12 where it revamped the entire UI, making it more personalised. Read about it here!

Putting together a design system is a major project in itself. It will take months or maybe even a year, but it is worth all that time!

What do you think about the design systems? Which brands have communicated most effectively with you, and do you see a design system in action there? Let us know in the comments section below.

The Purple Papaya Blog

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