Having a design system is now table stakes for companies that want to scale design; drive a consistent, seamless customer experience; manage design debt and technical debt; and free up designer time to solve new challenges — not reinvent the wheel.

But can a design system also ensure that the experiences you create are inclusive? And help fuel a cultural shift by changing how people work? According to the speakers at this year’s Clarity conference in San Francisco: Yes, and designers have a collective responsibility — and power — to make sure that happens.

I attended Clarity as part of my ongoing research on how companies scale design. In its fourth year, this year’s event welcomed 700 designers and developers to talk about everything from how best to make the case for, build, and evangelize a design system to the ethical challenges design as a field is grappling with to the role design plays in driving social justice.

When I arrived at Clarity, I was immediately struck by the strong community that solo organizer Jina Anne of Sushi & Robots has created, made up of people who work on and believe in the power of design systems. And it was no surprise that one of the earliest proponents of design systems, Brad Frost, author of Atomic Design, hosted the event.

In the two weeks since the event, I’ve been reflecting on the idea that design systems can do one of two things: 1) They can bake in incorrect, narrow assumptions you have about your customers, effectively cementing biases or 2) they can bake in an accurate broader understanding of your customers and therefore lead to more accessible, inclusive experiences.

To accomplish the latter, here are a few pieces of advice for experience design pros.

Make Sure Everything In The System Is Accessible — No “Garbage Components”

Marcy Sutton, head of learning at Gatsby, challenged the audience to “lean into the pain” of what people with disabilities go through when faced with inaccessible web content. She did this through demos of what she refers to as “garbage components” — UI elements that don’t adhere to accessibility guidelines and therefore cement commonly held false assumptions that many designers make about individuals they design for. One of Marcy’s most powerful slides — and picture-worthy, judging by the reaction of the audience — laid out some of those dangerous assumptions: “Our users have perfect vision; everyone knows what icons mean; people fit neatly into boxes.”

So how can we make sure these assumptions don’t get baked into our design systems? Marcy recommended experiencing for yourself one new interaction every week — like navigating without a mouse, which helps you spot interactive elements that aren’t accessible through the keyboard. She also recommended making sure you have a solid foundation by adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) in anything that goes into your design system.

Don’t Think Of The Design System As A Tool — Think Of It As A Way To Transform Your Culture

In addition to having the perfect, on-brand name for their design system — “Stitch” — Gap Inc. is a great case study of how a design system can improve the way employees work. I first learned about Gap’s journey at Adobe’s SF Design Week event on design systems (see my recap of that event). But what really stuck with me from Nicole Torgerson and Teresa Aguilera’s presentation at Clarity was the importance of going in with the recognition that establishing a design system is a human challenge. Creating it is the easy part, but achieving widespread adoption comes through collaboration and trust.

How did Gap do it? Through actions such as: 1) holding design system office hours — that were as much about the systems team empathizing with the challenges of their stakeholders as about answering stakeholders’ questions; 2) doing “developer embeds” where developers loyal to the system are embedded within product teams to help teach them about the system and how to contribute to it; 3) applying journey mapping to understand the pain points stakeholders face in finding what they need in the system and opportunities to better serve them; and 4) education — like teaching UX designers how to deliver specs in a component world through a series they call “that UX life.”

Use Your Power

“We don’t think nearly enough about power in design,” said Ethan Marcotte of Vox Media (the guy who coined the term “responsive web design”) in one of the most powerful presentations of the conference. His point was that design is capable of packaging bias and cementing inequalities. Using examples like Amazon’s Rekognition software that incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, disproportionately members of color, with mugshots of criminals, Marcotte challenged the audience: “Use your power not to exclude but for good.” As I wrote about in The Inclusive Design Imperative: Win And Retain More Customers, this can start with asking new questions such as “What will this design sound like?” And if you identify a problem whose cause is that you’ve failed to make the experience screen-reader-accessible, be prepared to act on that.

Have you succeeded in spreading inclusive values through your design system? Get in touch — I’d love to hear from you!