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Design Systems: What are they and do you need one?

Uniformity on the web has a negative connotation. It often is synonymous with boring, unoriginal, or even copied. But when it comes to your site uniformity tells a very different story; one of reliability, forethought, care and organization. Design plays an increasingly important role every year. So, it can become a daunting task to keep the design of various elements of your product in harmony with one another. To aid in this, the concept of a design system has emerged. But what is a design system? Does my company even need one? How is this different from a style guide? All of these questions (and more) will be answered in this pencil pointing up, yellow pencil pointing down

What is a Design System?

A design system is simply a scalable way to implement design across a variety of elements through your product(s). It should have clear documentation, principles, and rules that define the purpose, look, feel, and usage of elements to be used throughout your product.

The purpose of your design system is to help you create the final product. With that in mind, it should make it easier for you or your team to do so using predefined elements that are reusable and modular This is so you can combine elements in different ways to create products with a consistent feel even when they may have different purposes.

This is not something you want to rush. Your design system should be the guide for building current and future projects for your business, so you want to spend time crafting it.

That doesn’t mean that your design system is set in stone once you make it. It should be viewed as an ongoing project that you work on, seeing what works and what doesn’t and improving it. That means it won’t be done in a few days. It requires a deep analysis of your goals as a company and the steps you will take to deliver a product to your customers.

Design System VS Style Guide

So far it might seem that a design system is just a new name for a style guide. After a style guide covers many of the same elements such as color, style, and typography. So, what is the difference? Rather than consider them in opposition to each other a style guide can be a part of a design system. While it outlines many of the elements that go into the design, it lacks the processes that made them, the tools that created them, and how all those elements work together.


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A design system puts context to your design in a way a style guide does not. Using your design system, you can create the building blocks of your products by following the rules, processes, and tools outlined. This differs from the basic sets of properties that your elements follow. You can consider your style guide a byproduct of your design system, covering a small part of the larger picture. Let’s consider this example:

girl in colorful ball pit

Lego bricks made today are still compatible with Lego bricks made in 1958. They are one of the greatest examples of interchangeable pieces that can be used to build a variety of amazing things. The Lego Company has made a variety of sets over the year that allow you to build almost anything your heart desires. A style guide can be likened to the brick list that comes in every package. It tells you how many bricks are included, their colors, their sizes, and part number. A design system is like the instruction guide to building whatever your set is supposed to be. It outlines what pieces go where and how they should be pieced together to build your creation, except instead of telling you how to build one thing it shows you how to build several different structures using the same exact set of bricks. Knowing how they fit together and why they do can help you even make something entirely new from the same pieces.

While related, a style guide and a design system are two different things that play very different roles when it comes to design.

Why do I Need a Design System?

Now that we know what design systems are and what the difference is between them and style guides, you may be wondering if you really need one. After all you may only be building a website or two or may only have one core product. Building out a design system is definitely a large time commitment; can you truly justify the time spent? If you would like to improve any of the following it might just be for you.


If you would like to have a consistent look and feel across your product or site, you can benefit from a design system. Imagine a site that uses several frameworks to build. They may have different button styles, heading fonts and several other elements that are not consistent. It feels very patchwork and that can make a site feel very low quality to a customer. With a design system, your team will have more instruction on the exact way an element should look, feel, and behave.


Whether you have a large team made up of designers and developers, or it’s just yourself, a design system can make you more efficient. Having premade elements that you can piece together will save you time and help you to work faster. This is true even more so when you are planning to build a new project. No more time wasted looking at frameworks, colors, typography, it’s all right there in your design system.

Unity in the Team


football team in huddle

If you are working with a team, a design system can serve as a guide for design instead of everyone making their own. Using it leads to fewer questions on how to implement a design. Everyone has a central resource to refer to that will guide the decisions they make regarding the product. This is especially helpful for people that need to be caught up to speed quickly, like new employees, remote workers, and freelancers.

If you would like to increase any of these areas, creating a design system for your company can be considered time well spent.

Who is using a design system?

With all this talk of design systems and their importance, who is even using them? Many large well-known companies use a design system and even make them available for the public to view. Here are just a few:

Even the United States Government has their own design system. Notice that it is more than just a component library but also includes the principals and goals that shaped the design system itself.

You don’t have to be a big company to start one. Having one in place even when you are small will help you to implement and maintain it as you grow. It’s an everyday tool for your organization to keep consistent, organized, and efficient. So, stop wasting time reinventing the wheel for every project and put some serious consideration into building a design system.

Authorship: Taj R. 

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