What Is a Design System?

An introduction to what a design system can do for you, when you need one, and how to build it

Andrew Couldwell
Modus
Published in
6 min readNov 18, 2019

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Laying the Foundations by Andrew Couldwell © 2019

TThe path to success with a design system starts with every member of your team understanding what design systems are and how they can help. This understanding will help you all work better together, and it will help you pitch and gain support for creating a design system at your company.

A design system is hard to summarize. It’s perhaps easier to explain why design systems are important, and what they help us to do, than to explain exactly what they are. However, here’s my attempt at a definition:

What is a design system?

Design systems bring order and consistency to digital products. They help to protect the brand, elevate the user experience, and increase the speed and efficiency of how we design and build products. They are a source of truth and a system of record for our design decisions. They hold us to high standards, keep teams on the same page, and help to onboard new team members. They document the why, when, where, and how.

I should stress that the design, build, and “rules” of a system are not set in stone — they are a constant work in progress, open to iteration to improve, adapt, and scale.

Designing and building on-brand, quality, and consistent digital products at scale is hard. It’s even harder when your designers and engineers span different product teams, departments, and locations. Success requires more than an assortment of Photoshop, Sketch, or Figma files, style guides, a print brand book, pattern libraries, and whatever else your team may be working from. You need a single source of truth.

Why are design systems important?

Here are just some of the things design systems help us with:

1. Efficiency and speed

Design systems allow us to work faster and more efficiently. They streamline the design and development process — decreasing the amount of time it takes to design, build, and ship new websites, products, and features. They also enable teams to rapidly prototype and experiment with ideas in high fidelity — ultimately…

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