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GuidesUser experience (UX)Design system: Ultimate guide with examples

Design system: Ultimate guide with examples

Last updated

27 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Businesses are constantly talking about ways to create a consistent user experience across a large scale of platforms. Consumers require it, and brands benefit when they achieve it.

Today's 'hybrid' consumers interact with brands across a combination of 20 or more channels at a time. 75% want consistent experiences, and 73% are fine with changing brands if they aren't living up to expectations.

Enter: design systems.

A design system is crucial in combining your central principles, best practices, brand identity, and usage guidelines into components and patterns. This helps your brand deliver consistent user experiences across customer-facing digital products and internal-facing systems.

That's just the tip of the iceberg on a design system and what it can do.

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What is a design system?

As Alla Kholmatova points out in her book Design Systems, 

"There isn't a standard definition of 'design system' within the web community, and people use the term in different ways — sometimes interchangeably with 'style guides' and 'pattern libraries.'" 

A design system isn’t actually interchangeable with style guides or pattern libraries. Rather, it’s a combination of the two with some additions. 

The consensus is that brand design is a collection of reusable components, such as: 

  • Your brand's logo

  • Fonts

  • Colors

  • Pattern libraries

These define its standard of use, creating a consistent visual and interactive design at any scale. The five key elements that make up an effective system include its: 

  • Design principles

  • Foundations

  • Components

  • Guidelines

  • Resources

Why is a design system important?

You need consistency across silos and teams, including how you interact and communicate with customers directly and how you operate internally. 

A design system streamlines communication and designs and becomes your entire organization's single source of truth. 

In turn, you reduce the risk of unintentionally misrepresenting your brand while speeding up brand exposure within your market. You also get to increase your revenue by 23%.

How to create a design system

You can integrate a design system into your business in one of three ways:

  1. Adoption

  2. Adaptation

  3. Creating your own

Adoption is the most cost-effective option, offering the least customization with minimal brand differentiation. It refers to the complete adoption of an existing design system. 

Adaptation is a little more expensive and time-consuming. It requires adopting an existing design and adapting it to your business needs with unique modifications. It allows you to differentiate your brand significantly more than adoption. 

Creating your own design system achieves the most brand distinction. Yes, it comes with a high cost and requires more time and effort than the other two options. But designing your own system allows you to customize more components for your unique business needs. 

The best option will depend on your company's needs and budget. 

Advantages of a design system

Consistency across your brand is vital. Here are additional advantages of a design system:

It's reusable

Ditch time-consuming, wasted efforts and starting from scratch on projects that you can equip with a design system. That means every team can conduct their business and represent your brand quickly and accurately.

Scales with you

Whether you’re rapidly growing, breaking into smaller pieces, or fluctuating with the season, a design system will adapt to your needs. When your teams use prebuilt, reusable design components and patterns, they only need to assemble a few elements for the final design. 

Protects your brand from misrepresentation and bad publicity

Even if your teams are siloed, a universal design system strengthens your team's efficiency, helping them complete projects that align perfectly with your brand.  

Design system best practices

You can do a lot with a design system, especially if you make your own. These best practices should remain in the back of your mind as you embark on the journey:

Simple but smart

Your design system can provide beautiful experiences without getting overly complex. Experts recommend keeping it simple because a tricky system will likely discourage users. 

Find a balance between not being too strict, damaging your teams’ creativity, and not giving so much freedom that your brand voice disappears. 

Communication is key

Your team members might not be aware of the power of design systems. Establishing open communication throughout the process can instill confidence in your team, enabling them to use the system to everyone’s advantage. 

Establish success metrics that are meaningful to your business

The key to delivering on your goals and measuring your success is through metrics specific to your design system—i.e., adoption and outcome. 

Adoption metrics track and measure your ability to communicate the full value of your digital product to your teams and get them to adopt the new system. 

Outcome metrics refer to the more specific data that measures how well your design system reaches your goals. 

What is an example of a design system?

Dozens of design system examples are at your fingertips. Let’s look at the most prominent examples from the Big Four: Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. 

1. Google’s Material

Google's Material Design System is in its latest version: Material 3 (M3). This adaptable system is jam-packed with dozens of components and backed by open-source code to streamline collaboration between your design team and developers

Core features of the system include: 

  • Components

  • Color

  • Layout

  • Typography

  • Mobile guidelines

  • Starter kits

  • Design source files

Material’s foundations that form the basis of layout, interaction, and overall user interface include:

  • Adaptive design: How to design for all visual elements, screen sizes, and devices.

  • Accessibility: Cater to diverse user abilities to create more accessible experiences.

  • Customizations: Create consistent, user-friendly product experiences and simpler brand expression through M3.

  • Design tokens: Streamline core style values across code, design tools, platforms, and designs via tokens.

  • Interaction states: Communicate the status of interactive elements and components through visual indicators like interaction states.

2. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines (HIG)

Apple Human Interface Guidelines is a design system exclusive to Apple platforms. Those designing for the following would benefit most from Apple's design system:

The system is rich with best practices and guidelines for making the most meaningful design decisions and amazing user experiences. It features buttons in components, touchscreen gestures in inputs, augmented reality (AR) technologies, and more.

The fundamental design elements create rich experiences through: 

  • Accessibility

  • App icons

  • Branding

  • Color

  • Dark mode

  • Icons

  • Images

  • Inclusion

  • Layout

  • Materials

  • Motion

  • Right-to-left

  • SF symbols

  • Typography

3. Amazon’s Cloudscape

Amazon designed Cloudscape for its web services (AWS), which the company still uses today. It has 66 components, 35 patterns, and 27 demos, with core principles like accessibility and responsiveness.

To help you create exceptional experiences, Cloudscape provides the tools and guidelines necessary to build the most accessible user interface (UI). 

To adhere to the multitude of screen sizes and devices users operate, Cloudscape is committed to building responsive content in a browser over designs for specific resolutions or devices. 

The visual foundation of their system comprises 'more than components and individual patterns.' It embraces: 

  • Colors

  • Content density

  • Data visualization colors

  • Design tokens

  • Iconography

  • Layout

  • Motion

  • Spacing

  • Theming

  • Typograph

  • Visual modes, style, and context 

4. Microsoft’s Fluent

Microsoft introduced Fluent, an open-source, cross-platform design system, as a framework for 'engaging product experiences.'

Each platform has its own set of tips and resources for flawless implementation and integration:

The core features of Fluent experiences include being intuitive and powerful by adjusting to behaviors and anticipating user needs. It’s also engaging and immersive as its design communicates in a way that feels effortless.

In summary, a design system is a way to ensure consistency across your business, whether that’s with your company’s colors or adhering to a social media style guide.

You can adopt an existing design system if you don’t know where to start. If you’re raring to go, you can create your own to ensure your brand truly stands out against your competitors.

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