“The heart of a brand is definitely its culture, and the design system is a bit like the skeleton,” Beyond Design Lead, Munch Patel, says at the end of a long conversation about design systems. “It's quite a funny thing talking about creativity and structure together, but that's essentially what a design system is, it's those two things.”
I spoke with my colleague Munch after attending Schema, a global Figma conference focused on design systems. Schema 2022 brought the design community together in-person across three major cities — New York, Tokyo, and London — and I was invited to attend the New York conference in-person.
The conference offered an inspiring lineup of speakers — from Uber, Dropbox, and Credit Karma, among others — who all reiterated that cultivating a strong product culture can foster creativity, reduce friction between teams, and promote collaboration. And a company's design system can reveal a lot about its product culture: it’s what exists beneath the surface, articulating the brand's guidelines, product principles, and product components.
Design systems and product culture
“Design systems are drivers of cultural change, disguised as a component library,” said Lauren LoPrete, Senior Product Design Manager at Dropbox, in her outstanding talk. This idea caught my attention, since our work at Beyond usually starts by understanding where a company is on their brand and product journey. To truly add value, we need to meet people where they are.
Understanding how a company's brand, design system, and product culture are interconnected is key for us to be able to move together. Often, this link isn't intuitive or visible at first, and requires us to outline it. Stephen Gray, Senior Designer at Beyond, used a metaphor to explain why a design system can’t live separately from a brand and product culture:
“Having a box of LEGO bricks is great, with all the individual pieces. But when you bolt them together, you might create something that doesn’t have real meaning, because there is no tone, narrative, or UX thinking behind it.” Developing the right design system, whether it's building one from scratch or further enhancing an existing one, must feel natural to a company’s product culture and current place in their journey.
And, as Jules Forrest, Director of Product Design at Credit Karma, mentioned in her talk, working on a design system requires collaboration. A product culture is ever-evolving, shifting, and changing, so creating a shared mindset for product development can be challenging due to this dynamic nature. One way to achieve such alignment is by demonstrating how building the foundations of a solid design system produces value over time.
The clear value of a good design system helps achieve alignment across departments — Marketing, Sales, Product, and even People — and helps bring everyone on board. Munch says, “Once a person understands the power of how a design system is going to save time and money — and bring the team together because they’ll be working in a much smarter way — they generally want to give it attention.”
“Design systems are drivers of cultural change, disguised as a component library.”
<quote-author-title>Senior Product Design Manager at Dropbox<quote-author-title>
Whether we are designing an app, a website, or a product, we are mindful of how we can help to make progress on the brand and product culture fronts as well. Because, at the end of the day, a company's design system, brand, and product culture need to evolve together.
Design systems are products
“Unfortunately, not every design systems team has the luxury of being staffed like a product development team,” said Jules, encouraging us all to think of design systems as living, breathing products. When design systems are thought of in this way, it's easier to fit the work into an existing paradigm, where there are product owners, and the work is quantifiable and measurable. And as soon as we are able to articulate the scope of building and maintaining a design system, we can more easily advocate for the resources it needs.
Data is critical to this mindset, because without it, product teams may struggle to communicate or prioritize to create meaningful experiences. The Uber team named their lecture “Evolving systems with data and heart,” and demonstrated their use of AI-driven tooling, which explores the role data can play in the future, helping product teams scale systems by balancing numbers with creativity. In this way, data can actually inform the heart of a product — shaped, too, by imagination, intuition, creativity and craftsmanship — but both contribute to the success of product work.
Other teams also shared their approaches to building design systems like products, including:
Community-driven decision making: Credit Karma co-created a design systems roadmap with the company’s internal community to bring confidence, clarity, and focus, and push their design culture forward.
Bringing design and development closer together: DoorDash is using the Figma API and Style Dictionary open-source library to transform a component library into code that lives in Figma.
If we think of design systems as products used internally, it becomes clear why they’re an essential part of a company’s product culture and why evolving and maintaining them requires resources and continuous attention.
Design systems require team effort
In our work, sometimes we are refreshing and expanding a design system that has sat for some time and sometimes we start from scratch. Over the years, we've learned that delivering a comprehensive design system that can work as a product requires a team effort — it involves understanding the business needs and goals, the chosen tech stack, and how components can function, as well as what the customer needs.
We’ve done this most recently, while transforming an end-to-end retail experience for customers. Our team set out to design tools that would improve the retail giant’s employee and customer in-store experience, including a comprehensive point-of-sale experience.
One such tool is an app that is now being used by hundreds of employees across ten countries, with a roadmap to localize it to other retail brands. We are now designing a bespoke, end-to-end tool for teams to allocate thousands of products more efficiently.
This kind of work requires a deep understanding of a brand’s culture — the heart— and ongoing development of a design system — the skeleton — that can grow with the business. And with both in place, there is the potential to enhance a company’s product culture.