Founder & CEO, Rocketium • Ex-AWS, Microsoft • Cornell • Cat parent | Connect on LinkedIn
Before I get into why and how a design system works, I feel the need to explain what it is exactly.
A design system is a set of rules and standards to maintain consistency and uniformity across the design requirements of a brand. When managed at scale, it helps create a shared design language across different channels—from ads to branding content.
Note that a design system is not simply a style guide for a brand. While it does include important brand guidelines and directions to express technical and functional elements of the visual brand—it goes further and also includes a constantly updated set of rules and observations on what elements, animations, colors and fonts are driving most user engagement.
The concept originated with an intention to improve the process of product design, more specifically UI/UX design. However, aspirational brands employ a design system across use-cases and beyond product design in order to reduce redundancy and improve production capabilities. It can help your team work faster and smarter while giving them back their most valuable resource: time.
Similar to how users can immediately identify an app by glancing briefly at the interface, a design system brings regularity and dependability to all collateral so viewers can recognize the brand.
Apart from operational efficiency, design systems enable brands to build trust and reputation and direct it to their visual collateral across channels.
Design Systems And Campaign Performance
At first glance, it may seem that design systems don’t have much to do with campaign performance. I can personally attest otherwise; well-defined design systems drive growth at some of the world’s fastest-growing brands. Below, I hope to outline some ways that adopting a design system can change the day-to-day campaign operations for a brand.
Turn-Around Time For Campaign Collateral
Without a design system, the design team assesses the volume of requirements and attempts to templatize creatives across the campaign. This is then shared with the marketing team, and suggestions and feedback are accommodated. After this, designers start creating design variants and sharing them with the performance marketers one by one.
However, with a design system, the design team assesses existing designs and gains insights into the designs that work best from a performance perspective. They identify common high-performing elements to build a design library that can be used like Lego blocks for future campaigns. Designers can use these design presets to quickly compile campaign assets for fast turnarounds.
Without a design system, the design team has to start with a concept every time and then tweak it after feedback from marketers. This means a lot of back and forth on emails, precious time wasted and sometimes even delayed timelines.
With a design system, designers and marketers make design decisions based on existing data and conclusions drawn from the last few campaigns. As the brand voice, graphic tonality and other elements are clearly defined, the team always has a launching pad for any new design or template. Further, the teams can even share real-time feedback on the platform to speed up the review process.
Repurposing Existing Content
Without a design system, designers may go through their Adobe Suite for previous design iterations and concepts to find unpublished content that can be reused. They may also need to make minor changes to existing or new designs over the period of time a campaign is live.
With a design system, designers use interchangeable elements across designs for faster turnaround time, making the most of the organizational abilities of the digital asset management system. Additionally, they can make informed decisions about bulk edits and changes based on tangible data, reducing the feedback and checks that the marketing team has to conduct for any new design.
Creating Your Own design System
A design system is far more comprehensive than a pattern library or style guide. In fact, it allows for interplay between otherwise disparate teams to achieve better-performing campaigns.
Here are the most important elements you need to start setting up a design system for your brand.
• Colors, gradients, palettes.
• Aspect ratios.
• Presets and styles.
• Brand guidelines.
Depending on how many of these have already been worked upon, a brand may need less or more time to set up its design system. However, the real reason to set up a design system is to maximize the application of these elements across use-cases. This requires some management to start, but the results benefit every stakeholder across the team.
Setting Up Your Design System
Start by defining the usage for each element of the design system. For example, properly define rules for using logos across background colors and sizes. Account for placement across varying aspect ratios, margin cases and linguistic variants. This should include margin and negative spaces, unacceptable uses of the logo, etc.
Similarly, define the usage of elements like typography by deciding font, size and weight across platform use cases. As you set up each element, you will realize they all have a coherent interdependence—a way they work together. Now that each element is defined, it is time to compile them in one place.
This is when having a digital repository becomes really important. You could use digital asset management (DAM) software, spreadsheets or internal wikis for this. But it is crucial to have a common repository where each of these is available and easily digestible.
I find that specialized software like creative management platforms or creative automation platforms help automate this process and better ensure compliance with guidelines. They also make it easier for new and existing team members to interpret and follow the design system guidelines to the T.
Setting up a design system has helped the best brands stay consistent while scaling visual communication with their users. This internal mechanism allows them to observe what drives the best results for their marketing collateral with a data-driven approach. The result? Consistently high-performing campaigns.