Design System Principles

Design System Principles

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster

Design Systems. Today, it’s almost impossible to work on an application without hearing this phrase. But it’s often used as if everyone intuitively understands what we mean when uttering “Design System.” On the surface, it does seem like a fairly straightforward concept; simply systemize your design patterns.

On the contrary, I’ve found working with design systems to be unexpectedly complex and nuanced. This doesn’t mean the end result is necessarily complex, but the path to create and maintain an effective design system can be challenging.

There are hundreds of tiny decisions: how should the colors be defined and structured? who do I need to talk to to make this change? what API should be used? It’s critical all of these day-to-day decisions are made using a shared set of principles so the system evolves along a predictable, sustainable path.

At the core, I believe there is a set of shared principles that can help guide any design system. These principles are distilled from my experience and a snapshot of my current understanding of what leads to a successful design system.

Principles

  1. There is only one core design system: this may seem intuitive but when focusing on the day-to-day tasks of working on an application it can be easy to lose sight. What is defined as the core of the system can differ based on needs, but must be defined. For example, if you need to support apps with many different frameworks the core may be vanilla CSS and the API the class names. If needing to support only a React app, the core and public API would be the React components. Regardless, it’s important that there is a single core. If in doubt, the entire system is the core. Having more than one system leads to unintentional inconsistencies. This not only results in a confusing experience for users, but also a confusing experience for designers and engineers who need to use, maintain, and evolve the system. It’s best to evolve the current system in place so at any given point there is always a single system. This ensures consistency for users and eliminates confusion for designers and engineers during any type of transition.

    1. Be cautious of the “hard fork”, “re-write”, or the like: it may be tempting to fork or start from scratch after a recent redesign. However, that means there are now two systems. Do changes to button functionality need to be made in both forks? Is one being deprecated? Is it feasible to swiftly replace all existing usages to return to a single system?
  2. Ownership is evenly split between design and engineering: this can manifest itself in a number of ways and doesn’t imply a specific team organization. For example, this may be a single individual whose skill set is a nice balance between engineering and design (eg: UX engineer), or it may be a team of engineers and designers each focused on their strengths. The important thing is to have a healthy balance with collaboration and effective communication. While neither is the autocratic ruler of the system, each has ownership over certain aspects to streamline development and avoid decision paralysis. Ideally, this is a very collaborative process.

    1. Design has final say on styling (UI) and functionality (UX): after taking into account all relevant information such as user research, design has final say on anything related to styling or functionality for the system. Related, this means design is also responsible for defining all of the “atoms” in the system: colors, spacings, typographies, etc. Often these are manifested as variables within a system that are combined to create specific components.
    2. Engineering has final say on implementation details: for example, whether to use vanilla CSS or CSS-in-JS. Related, this means engineering is responsible for the final “public” API. With React, this is the props and components. Even though design may define a single UI component, engineering may define the API as multiple components (eg: tables, dropdowns) to optimize the maintainability and experience for other engineers.
    3. Use a unified language: design and engineering should use the same words to refer to the same things. It’s also important the language reflects the actual components or API. This leads to clearer communication with fewer misunderstandings and allows new designers and engineers to quickly ramp up without learning translations between design and engineering terminology.
    4. Product only needs to be informed: when done well, the implementation details of the design system should be invisible to everyone except design and engineering. Everyone else should only see positive symptoms of the system: more consistency, more velocity when developing, more accurate documentation, etc. This includes product. Product should be aware of the system, understand it’s purpose, and the importance of investing time to maintain and evolve the system. Beyond that, they shouldn’t need to care about the atoms, if it’s CSS-in-JS, or what the API is. When product starts to become more involved in system related decisions this indicates some part of the system is broken. It might mean communication has stalled, mocks don’t match the actual system, there isn’t a clear process for evolving the system, or any other number of issues.
  3. The design system is built in isolation: this can have a lot of meanings and depends on the circumstances. Concrete examples of this may mean the system is built in a separate repository or it’s in a separate package if working in a monorepo. The intent is to establish clear, physical boundaries between the system and the application. This is important to avoid the system blending with the application. If business logic starts to blend into the system it gets harder to make changes and limits the reusability. For example, an avatar component should not be aware of any user data model or where the avatar image is hosted.

    1. Invest in design system specific tooling: one of the advantages to isolating the system is that tooling can be optimized for the system. For example, releases can be automated or documentation can automatically deploy when changed without worrying about the rest of the application.
    2. Open source it: or get as close as possible. The point isn’t that it is open source, but rather the journey to open sourcing it can help encourage good practices. Would you put business critical (or sensitive) logic in something open source? Would you open source something without proper test coverage? Would you open source something without proper documentation? Hopefully all of the answers are no. It’s probably unlikely others will actually use it but it encourages good practices. If done well, it can also benefit your design and engineering credibility in the community.
  4. Be specific and intentional about the public API: there should be a finite number of combinations of props and components. If there are an infinite number of combinations or impossible states it leads to confusing APIs and unexpected bugs.

    1. This means no className: What’s the total number of unique values? It’s the number of all possible unique CSS classes, which may as well be infinite. Trying to build and maintain a component to handle an infinite number of styles is impossible. It will eventually break. One common response is “but the system is too constraining.” Yes, it is. That’s the point. When a new use case is presented, the system should evolve to handle the new case but constrain against anything else. It shouldn’t be one-offed by overriding styles with a className. Violating this principle leads to inconsistency and maintenance nightmares. For example, say you need to adjust the text color for a component but it also accepts a custom class name. Now, you need to audit every single usage and see if it’s overriding the background color and verify the new text color is still accessible on the random background colors. Now imagine this is a button component. For a while, it’s possible to manually check every single usage. In a large app this could take weeks, all for a single line of code to adjust text color. The short term benefit of adding a className prop “to move quickly” doesn’t warrant the long term maintenance cost.
    2. Be explicit with attributes: this also applies to any other attributes. Think critically when adding a new prop whether or not it could result in the component having infinite combinations. For example, instead of accepting any arbitrary values, maybe invert control to provide the flexibility you need but keep the internals simple and bounded by offloading to the consumer.
    3. Define usage guidelines: the intended use cases for components should be well documented and communicated. This helps new folks quickly understand when a component (or color, shadow, etc.) should or shouldn’t be used. It also helps avoid incorrect usages that can make it harder to make changes in the future. Finally, it’s easier to understand and communicate why a component needs to evolve when a new usage presents itself that has not yet been documented.
  5. Have a well defined process for adding new components: it’s important to clearly define so engineers and designers know how to introduce components and evolve the system. Without this, it can be a frustrating experience. The following principles can be used as a starting point for evolving a system. These principles can help keep the system “clean.” Meaning only truly reusable, robust, and flexible components exist. This helps avoid littering the system with components that are used in only one place or developed with one specific feature in mind.

    1. Avoid adding new components directly to the system: it’s very hard (often impossible) to predict every possible usage of a component with a sample size of one. This makes it hard to optimize the API for flexibility, understandability, and maintainability without knowing the end state (all the possible usages). Remember, AHA (Avoid Hasty Abstractions).
    2. Develop components in feature specific context: keep the scope as narrow as possible. Even though “we know this component will eventually be used a lot,” priorities shift, designs change, and the product fluctuates. Once the component has been used in at least three unique features then it can be considered eligible to get “promoted” to the system (but doesn’t have to be). This can help improve confidence that the API and implementation will properly handle multiple use cases.
    3. The wrong abstraction is worse than no abstraction: this isn’t unique to design systems but is worth repeating. Are they really the same component?
  6. Components are layout-isolated: generally speaking, this means a component should not have any margin baked-in. This also includes other attributes such as align-self that can affect a component’s layout differently depending on it’s parent’s styles. Layout-isolated components are more composable and less complex because they don’t have to support all the different contexts and exposing a way to override those styles.

    1. Well, how does this actually look in practice?: for the longest time, I’ve struggled with this question. This was something I went back and forth on often. I’ve been a proponent of both the custom elements with custom styles approach and the baked-in margin approach. The custom element is nice because it keeps the components clean and layout agnostic, but it requires a lot of random divs and one-off CSS classes with a single margin-top: 16px;. On the other side of the spectrum, baking-in the margin or other layout attributes makes it really nice for the 80% use case but in cases where you don’t want that spacing or layout it requires disabling that styling or overriding. Recently, I discovered the Stack and Inline components. These and other similar layout components are great for most use cases. Any remaining one-off needs can be done with custom styles.

Conclusion

These are principles that are distilled from my experience. Inevitably, these will evolve with principles becoming more detailed, getting added, or being removed.

Hopefully these are useful to you and your team as a starting point. If you don’t agree with everything, that’s fine. The important thing is that you and your team have taken the time to clearly define and state your principles.

Do you have additional supporting evidence or counter examples? I would love to hear your thoughts on these principles or others you feel are missing.

Credit to Principle by Ray Dalio for inspiration on the writing style and formatting.