There’s no denying that design systems deliver major business benefits. They help companies drive consistency across the customer experience, maintain the brand, increase speed to market, scale accessibility best practices, and so much more. But creating one can feel like a daunting task, particularly if your organization has many brands, lines of business, and digital experiences that you’re trying to align to a common standard. The good news: You don’t have to carve your own path. Companies with successful, highly adopted design systems learn from those that went before them.

Learn From Over 100 Published Design Systems

I’ve always loved the level of sharing that happens in the design community, and this includes sharing design systems — the principles, foundations, components, guidelines, and resources that an organization creates and continually evolves to guide its design efforts. While many clients I speak with are early in their journey of creating a design system, some companies have been at this work for over a decade. Even more exciting, many of these companies have made their systems open source, providing a wealth of knowledge and examples to learn from. You’ll find links to over 100 of these systems on the Design Systems Repo website. I’ve spent a lot of time researching open-source systems, and I want to share three best practices I’ve uncovered.

Start By Implementing Three Best Practices

  1. Tap into your user community to build shared ownership. When teams contribute to a design system, they are more likely to use it. The best design systems work to instill shared ownership from day one by encouraging, supporting, and celebrating contributions from users. IBM’s Carbon includes design patterns developed and maintained by its design system community. The company celebrates and showcases contributions, listing contributor names as well as what products adopted the contribution. While many design systems focus on component contributions, IBM welcomes many types of contributions, including component enhancements, design kits, and website documentation. While IBM is a model example of cultivating a feeling of shared ownership — and helping the design system team grow the system in the process — it’s not the only example to follow. The BBC’s GEL design system also prominently showcases contributors. REI celebrates contributions from its community by planting a tree — a very on-brand way of recognizing contributors. The GOV.UK design system publishes the top priorities for which it is seeking community input.
  2. Boost user confidence in the system by highlighting the research that informed design choices. While I see few systems that do this, it’s arguably one of the best ways to get users onboard — particularly if you work in a company that values evidence-driven decision-making. In the documentation for its carousel component, Google’s Material Design includes a summary of the findings from qualitative and quantitative studies that gathered user perspectives on carousel designs. It highlights findings such as “participants expected around 10 items in a carousel that scrolled multiple items at once.” It’s not just Google — government design systems shine when it comes to this best practice. The GOV.UK design system explains the user research that informed a component and encourages users to get in touch to share user research findings. The US Web Design System links to external research that informed its design patterns (for example, for its patterns on asking about gender identity).
  3. Use your design system to scale responsible design practices. More companies are waking up to the importance of designing responsibly. As companies increasingly look to deploy generative AI features, earning customer trust and mitigating against harmful outcomes is paramount. Look to companies that have begun to codify responsible design best practices in their design systems. Adobe’s Spectrum design system includes robust guidelines for inclusive writing. Google’s Material Design includes accessibility guidance for every component. SAP published design principles for generative AI, as well as detailed guidelines and patterns for how to design with AI responsibly in its design system Fiori.

Get In Touch

If you’re a Forrester client and would like to chat about how to apply these best practices in your design system, set up a conversation with me. You can also follow or connect with me on LinkedIn.