Why your digital product needs a design system

By RocketAir Crew
May 26, 2022

Taking a systematic approach to design

There’s a reason why the world’s leading tech companies, from Google to Airbnb, have established their own design system. Far more than a buzzword or something that designers geek out over, design systems can have a profound impact on your digital product and by extension, your business. 

There are dozens of interpretations out there, but fundamentally, design systems stem from a core need for standardization and scalability. That’s why we take a systematic approach to product design at RocketAir. Instead of creating components in isolation, we’re designing whole compositions, in context, as part of a cohesive system.  

Product Strategist Brandon Fiksel explains:

When we’re designing a product for a client, we want the fundamentals of a design system in place as soon as possible. This ensures efficiency and consistency as we design across flows and sections. It also means we can hand off the initial components and styles to a development team so they have something to work with, and then continue to build upon the system more and more with each Orbit.

The anatomy of a design system

At RocketAir, we define design systems as a collection of reusable components and patterns, along with standards for how designers and engineers can assemble them. Cal Notman, Design Lead, says: 

There’s a common misconception that a design system is synonymous with a style guide. Although a good design system will include a style guide, it encompasses far more than that. It goes beyond how a product looks—it’s how it’s built, how it feels. A design system is a rule book for every consumer touchpoint within a product.

Inside a design system that we build for clients, you’ll typically find:

  • Standards and principles: Shared values that are defined in a broader brand and product strategy.
  • Brand assets and guidelines: Logos, color styles, typography systems, and grid systems.
  • UI components and patterns: All interactive elements, such as buttons and inputs in their various states and instances (empty, inactive, pending etc.), as well as navigational patterns and content blocks.
  • Documentation: Guides, annotations and notes for design and development usage. 

Much like product design itself, design systems are never “done.” They’re constantly evolving and iterating with new learnings from user feedback, product strategy, and business growth. Styles get updated, components get added, and patterns get deprecated. 

If it sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it definitely can be—especially if you’re building a new system from scratch. But the long-term benefits of design systems won’t just make your design and development processes much smoother, it’ll help you build better products too.

5 ways design systems produce better products

1. Create consistency throughout the user experience

Without a design system in place, you leave room for design and engineering teams to make their own interpretations for UI components—from a button state to the height of a form field. What starts out as minute differences can quickly become a disjointed user experience, with inconsistent branding and functionalities. This gets exponentially exacerbated if you have a large company with several divisions and product lines.

Design systems solve this by providing product teams a single source of truth. With clearly defined standards, patterns, and guidelines, you can create a cohesive, unified user experience that extends across a full product suite.

2. Build and ship faster

No more designing the same form or product card, again. Having reusable components and patterns cuts down on time and money spent building and shipping new features. Design systems act as building blocks that allow engineers to develop on-brand digital experiences with confidence, as well as give new product teams a quick and easy way to get onboarded and pick up the fundamentals.

The advancement of design tools has made this even more streamlined. For example, we use Figma at RocketAir, which has introduced libraries, shared styles, and variants. This enables us to design components and apply any updates across all projects in one place, making it much easier to grow a product over time.

As more features get released faster, users will find more reasons to love your product. And soon enough, speed and efficiency can become an invaluable competitive advantage.

3. Minimize design debt and maximize scalability

Not only do design systems make releasing new features and products much faster, but they also encourage you to consider the long-term impact of a single design and how it will scale in the future. This prevents you from having to tear down and rebuild products months from now, which in turn minimizes design debt.

As the Design Systems Handbook, published by InVision’s Design Better, points out:

The act of creation does not inherently create debt—just like spending money doesn’t inherently create financial debt. But using a design system will keep you on budget by keeping your design and code overhead low, while still allowing you to grow and evolve your application.

4. Bridge the gap between design and development

Design systems are one of the best ways to smooth over any rough spots in designer-developer handoffs. When done well, a design system accounts for all states, variants, instances, and interactions of a product, enabling a developer to execute a new feature with little to no back-and-forth between teams. The documentation that comes with design systems—what components to use and why—can also fill in the blanks and take the guesswork out of implementing and building designs. 

Better collaboration between design and engineering teams means that, again, you can ship products faster and scale your business much more efficiently.

5. Empower product teams to innovate

There’s an ongoing debate among designers whether design systems stifle creativity. In our experience, these systems have actually empowered product teams, including engineers, to innovate. At the end of the day, design systems are just toolkits that enable teams to better envision what’s possible and build new designs.

For example, design systems speed up the process of creating hi-fidelity wireframes for new features, giving design explorations a more polished look. This ultimately leads to better feedback sessions with internal stakeholders and test users.

And when new components and patterns do get approved, design systems make it much faster to implement updates across an entire product.

Some fuel for thought

  • How much do you imagine your product scaling over the next five years? 
  • Do you have a source of truth, a rulebook to reference, when needing to design something new or unexpected? 
  • How do you handle new design requests; what’s the workflow? Could it be more efficient?
  • Do you recognize any design debt in your business?
  • Are there any inconsistencies across your product or product suite? 

If you’re struggling to answer any of these questions, you might want to learn more about how we help companies design scalable products. Check out our work.