San Francisco, California

Design, system.

I just re-read this piece from Ethan Marcotte all about design systems and how it’s kinda easy to forget that a system is really a collection of tools, and if those tools aren’t working then that’s a problem:

Let’s say you, a hard-working designer on deadline, have to add a hero image to a page. Your company’s invested quite a bit of time and energy in creating a pattern library, or perhaps an entire design system, so you look to it for a bit of guidance. Unfortunately, none of the existing patterns are quite right: perhaps the proportions are off, or the available options don’t cover the specific combination of image, copy, and color you’ve been asked to incorporate. So: what do you do? Well, chances are high you go ahead and create a new pattern, and go on with your day.

It’s easy for an organization to look at that one-off pattern as a problem of compliance, of not following the established rules. And in many cases, that might be true! But it’s also worth recognizing when a variation’s teaching you a lesson: namely, that your design system isn’t meeting the needs of the people who’re using it. Maybe there was a pattern that met our designer’s needs, but they weren’t able to find it; or maybe they’ve identified a gap between the business’ needs, and the patterns available to them to meet those needs. In both cases, it’s important to have mechanisms to receive that feedback, and adapt your design system accordingly.

I think there’s also something that needs to be said for design value here. If this new design that’s outside of the design system doesn’t solve the issue in a significantly improved way then I would say that’s a problem of a different kind. There’s almost always a middle ground that can be taken that doesn’t involve breaking the system in my experience.