What a Design System Does (and Why Your Business Needs One)

Last Modified: November 4, 2019

Lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time with business owners and executives telling them about the magic of design systems. Often, the men and women we are meeting with haven’t heard of this particular term or idea in the past. Once we explain the concept and its benefits, though, they become very excited about the possibilities.

Because we know that not every business owner in and around Tulsa has taken the time to meet with our team (yet), today we want to explore some of the key ideas and advantages around design systems. That way, those of you who are reading our posts and thinking about ways to improve your bottom line in the future can start brainstorming future possibilities.

Let’s jump right in by answering the big question: what is a design system, and why does your business need one?

What is a design system?

A design system is simply a collection of different graphical and stylistic elements that can be used again and again in your marketing. You could think of them as a series of templates, but in this case they aren’t visual ingredients or fill-in-the-blank taglines you’re buying from an online vendor. Instead, they have been carefully cultivated to work for your specific business and branding.

For an instructive analogy, imagine you were running a restaurant that specializes in a certain type of organic meal or ethnic cuisine. If someone were to walk into your kitchen they might see pots, pans, and ingredients that would be present in any eatery. However, there would also be some staples that were unique to your business and wouldn’t be found in most others. These would be the tools and ingredients you would rely on to create distinct flavors and experiences.

Those specialty ingredients are the pieces of your design system. They allow you to create dozens or even hundreds of different items, all without breaking away from your core branding and marketing themes.

Although the term design system might be new to you, you could be forgiven for thinking this sounds a lot like a style sheet or branding guide – marketing documents that many small and medium-sized businesses already have in place. However, there are some key differences.

What separates a design system from a style sheet?

Many business owners and marketers have created or adopted a style sheet at some point. This usually happens when they’ve grown tired of using disjointed marketing campaigns, or when they’ve been prompted by a creative team to think in terms of consistency.

A style sheet will normally outline things like which company logos are supposed to be used, whether there are primary and secondary colors associated with a brand, or maybe even which fonts are preferred. The goal of a style sheet is to ensure that any new marketing piece that is created builds on existing branding and customer awareness.

In that sense, a style sheet represents a good start but a design system takes things to a completely different level. That’s because a design system incorporates all of those style sheet elements while adding actual User Interface (UI) elements — like buttons, menu templates, etc. — that can be used to construct bigger pieces and campaigns. It fills in the gaps and adds an extra layer of usability.

To help you understand why, let’s move past the abstract and into a real-world example. While a style guide might be a short document that outlines preferences, a design system would include the company’s logo in various sizes, headline wrappers that could be pasted onto documents, pictures that work well for collateral materials, call to action buttons that come in several sizes, shapes, and brand-consistent colors, etc.

Each of these little branding ingredients serve as a building block for larger marketing elements. They are plug-and-play solutions, not unlike the branding equivalent of a plastic Lego piece. They can be used again and again to make smaller or larger materials.

For example, if you or a member of your team were putting together an ebook cover there might be a series of templates to choose from, along with title styles, branded images, logo designs, etc. Then, it would just be up to you or your employees to put together these ready to use elements in a way that worked for the particular title and audience. The same would go for a social ad, a blog post header image, or even the introduction of a marketing video.

A design system takes your style sheet and turns it into a working inventory of marketing parts. It’s driven by the same kinds of decisions and preferences that were made at the beginning of the branding process, but it goes so much farther. For that reason, it’s easier to use and can help you to create bigger results.

Some of the advantages that come with using a design system are probably fairly evident, while others may not be immediately apparent. Let’s spell out some of the bigger benefits.

Why use a design system?

Once you have a comprehensive design system in place, it becomes incredibly easier to manage a growing and evolving set of online and offline marketing campaigns. After all, everything you need to construct a new element – from the smallest tweet to a detailed annual report – is in your digital toolbox. You no longer have to generate one-off designs or talk to your creative team for minor revisions.

The time savings that come with having access to the tools you need to make design systems well worth the effort on their own. Whether it’s you managing creative flows yourself, or delegating the job to a team member or vendor, the need for extensive back-and-forth communication and revisions is eliminated. The process of generating new campaigns, or altering existing marketing pieces, becomes streamlined.

It’s also worth pointing out at this stage that design systems are cost-effective. While you might have to budget for initial content creation and refinement, the resulting work can carry your business forward for years afterward. Your need for ongoing design and messaging help goes down because you already have the visual and branding elements you need on-hand and ready to use.

One of the less obvious benefits has to do with the fact that a design system keeps your marketing consistent and on message. Even companies with comprehensive style sheets run the risk of losing their focus, particularly when they change vendors or find themselves in a rush to put a campaign together. That’s when small details are missed or overlooked and the brand is taken, unintentionally, off in a new direction. Naturally, that can’t happen when you and your entire team are creating from a common set of pre-approved resources.

And finally, while many marketers may not realize it at the beginning, using a design system encourages them to be more active with their marketing, promotion, and engagement. For one thing, they are freed of the time and expense associated with generating new designs. And for another, the toolkit they have to work with – all those ingredients that allow them to make different recipes – will be large enough for experimentation but not so vast as to overwhelm. They have the perfect starting point for fresh inspiration and all the tools to bring it to life.

How to build your own design system

Once you understand the power of a conference of design system you might want to get with your creative team to put one together. It’s a project that can seem like a huge undertaking at first, but it’s not so stressful once you understand the basic steps. That’s especially true if you have the right design partner to guide you along the way.

The first job is to catalog your existing visuals and marketing materials to see what’s on hand. How many elements can be incorporated into your new design system, or possibly expanded upon? Are there images you own the rights to that could be used in a variety of ways? Most businesses start with more than they realize. In fact, much of your existing content can probably be adapted into a full-blown design system.

The next step is to think about where you want your brand and marketing to grow in the future. This will reflect your current plans outcome of course, but also customer preferences. You might even think about your competition, and the different ways you want to separate your business from the others in your area or category.

From there you can move into the familiar topics of colors, fonts, spacing, and images. Again, you might refer to your existing style sheet or branding guide if you like the creative direction you followed in the past. The point is to arrange and standardize these choices so they can form the basis of everything else that still needs to be generated.

After all of these formative pieces have been put into place, your creative team can get busy generating the various marketing elements you’ll need. These will include obvious templates for web pages, documents, business cards, and so on, but also elements for ads and other promotional items you might not use now but could include in the future. The idea will be to get them in a variety of sizes, colors, resolutions, and file formats.

Remember that versatility is the key. Going back to our restaurant example, flour can be used to make things like bread and pasta. Each of these, in turn, can be incorporated into sandwiches, seafood dishes, or other items that are altogether different. The same goes for your design system – you and your creative team will begin with basic elements and templates that can later be combined and expanded in ways that are virtually infinite.

Putting your design system to work

Putting together a design style requires more thought, planning, and expertise than arranging a logo or style sheet thoughts. It’s probably not something that’s going to get done in a weekend.

By the same token, though, your design system can guide future marketing efforts for years – or even decades – to come. While there may be a time when you have to add new elements or create fresh variations on your brand, you will always have the ingredients you need to put together documents, images, and other forms of media on an as-needed basis.

The important piece of the puzzle, of course, is that you actually use your design system. That means developing the discipline to draw creative elements from your pool of resources, and also making sure that any employees or vendors you work with do the same. The beauty of a design system is in its simplicity. When you take the time to build it thoughtfully and organically, it has the power to help you create and expand almost effortlessly. But, if you rush through the process of compiling your library or fail to put your ingredients to use then you’re never going to realize the benefits.

A design system sets you free to do more without having to slow down or go off message. As with any marketing tool or philosophy, though, it’s only as effective as the people designing the system and putting it to work.

Published: November 4, 2019

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