A guide to creating design systems

A guide to creating design systems

Updated 16 October 2022

Support your designers and developers with a standard guide of reusable components and how to use them.

The importance of design systems

Design used to be the garnish you’d throw on a dish at the end; it's now the ingredients used throughout your recipe.

In the context of design systems, imagine how much quicker and easier it would be if your ingredients were already purchased, perfectly ripe, measured, prepared and ready to go.

A design system is a collection of reusable functional elements, components and patterns. It is used to create a singular design language with clear standards for your customer experience across digital teams.

A design system has many benefits, it ensures consistency across the platforms you are building and gives a sense of comfort and confidence to your users when they are interacting with your brand.

Users want to see and interact with experiences that they know their way around. For example, a ‘hamburger’ menu that shows on mobile devices is a navigational element that users know will reveal their options for getting around your site. Users know this as it’s a universal design system that they see almost everywhere.

Read more: Design for all life, not just the end-user

How to build a design system

When building a design system, it is worth taking the time to collect every UI design component detail – down to button designs – and develop a high-level design system to guide your teams with one single source of truth. However, a design system can have many forms since it can be as individual as your business. But it usually includes some essential elements: a style guide, component library and pattern library. 

A style guide

Most brands have a style guide that defines specific style guidelines, visual references and design principles. It usually focuses on branding, e.g. brand colours, typography and fonts, trademarks, logos, backgrounds and placements. But a style guide can also help with content – writing style, tone of voice and language – or visual and interaction-design definitions.

A component library

Also known as a design library, this is what most people associate with design systems: it’s the central hub for designers and developers to find the reusable UI elements and components and how to use them. Creating a component library usually includes:

  • Preview: add a visual example of the component to make it easy to look for and identify.

  • Component name: give each component a specific ID to avoid miscommunication between designers and developers.

  • Description: explain what this element is and how it is typically used. You can also clarify the do’s and don'ts to clarify.

  • Attributes: define custom variables or adjustments that adapt the component for specific needs (e.g. colour, size, shape, copy).

  • State: describe the default state of the component and any subsequent appearance changes (hover, click, error states).

  • Code: attach the code excerpt for the element – some design systems go as far as sharing multiple examples and offering a “sandbox” environment.

  • Front-end and back-end frameworks: implement the library, if applicable.

A pattern library

A pattern library typically shows user interface patterns for design, development and project teams to use when creating (or maintaining) digital products. It’s called a pattern because the idea is to solve design problems quicker with recurring solutions that are contained in the pattern library, including content structures, layouts and templates to reuse or adapt.

Start creating your design system

A design system will still need your design team’s expertise. Whether created or adapted, a design system requires design support and oversight to ensure it doesn't become outdated, obsolete or overcrowded. But it will ultimately help to define one design language, principles and documentation for everyone to use and keep your brand consistent. 

If you need help with making a start or want someone else to take over the work: we got you!

Written by

Linda Bailey

UX Director

Diverting from a career in Architecture, Linda uses the left and right side of her brain equally. She's been with Honest Fox from the beginning and is involved in all facets of the business. She's empathetic and kind and loves punk music.