Blog Post

March 27, 2023

Governing Design Systems


Courtney Doane

Design systems are collections of guidelines, principles, components, and assets that are used to create and maintain consistent and cohesive visual and functional design across a product or organization. Done well, they present a comprehensive and holistic approach to design that considers all aspects of the user experience, including visual design, interaction design, accessibility, and usability.

A design system typically includes components such as typography, color palettes, iconography, buttons, form elements, and other UI elements, as well as guidelines for how they should be used and combined. It may also include documentation on design principles, user research, design patterns, and development best practices.

Design systems are used to streamline design and development workflows, improve consistency and quality across products, and facilitate collaboration between designers and developers. They are particularly valuable for large organizations or teams working on multiple products, as they help ensure that design is cohesive and scalable across all projects. 

To bring a new lens to this topic, the March Meetup of Content Strategy Seattle featured Margot Bloomstein and Greg Storey. Unlike our typical events where a speaker presents a prepared presentation, this meetup was designed to be more of a fireside chat and conversation about governance and design systems.

This graphic from Margot and Greg’s slides illustrates what a design system is and how it creates an all-encompassing system that scales to all aspects of a brand’s digital experience. While there will always be differences between companies, working with your clients or stakeholders to understand what their users need is a key component of a design system being effective. Content strategists are good at understanding the overall idea of governance but sometimes proving that to a client can be tricky. 

About Our Speakers

Both Margo and Greg bring years of strategic leadership experience to bear on the topic of design system governance. Margot founded the consultancy Appropriate, Inc. in 2000 and Greg is Design Principal at Airbag Industries and Strategic Advisor to Luro App. In addition to these independent and in-house experiences, they recently formed the Loupe Collective. Along with two other industry professionals, they are a collective of experts in content strategy that come together to collaborate to further the field in a cohesive way. With years of experience between the members of the collective, they have seen projects succeed, fail, and have found ways to recover to create success again.

Governance and Design Systems

In August 2022, Michael Haggerty-Villa led a panel for the Meetup about design systems and since then this topic has continued to grow. 

Margot and Greg brought the topic of governance to the conversation, discussing how, as with any set of processes and guidelines, design systems require governance to ensure that they remain consistent and can be managed collaboratively.. Governance sounds expensive but in the long run putting a focusing effort on the design system could save clients a lot of money. Putting an emphasis on design systems could potentially avoid accessibility lawsuits and other legal issues. Another way governance could potentially save money in the long run is through employee retention because the employees feel they are a part of the design process and this could result in a more positive work environment. 

Design System Initiative Rollout 

A typical experience with an initial design system rollout experience is that you build the design system and launch it and then it fails. Margot and Greg think that failure does not need to happen. One reason  systems fail so often is because they didn’t start with governance and adoption. Another reason is success is not defined and therefore can’t be measured. Companies can prepare for a successful design system by starting with co-creation with shared ownership within the company, collaborating on buy-in from product owners, and defining what “done” looks like and how it will be measured. Being a contractor coming into companies and telling them what to do in the style guide, for example, could potentially fail. Margot mentioned she sat down with a client company and listened to what they are already doing and helped them realize why she suggested the design system. 

With this collaborative system design there is greater compliance within the company.  Every design system needs a system model that can be considered a living document. Making sure there is a process to add new additions and edit processes so that the users of the system are contributors and creators. Getting feedback and getting people to the table during these conversations about the system strategy creates a way to get on the same page with cross-organizational teams. When the expectations and standards are laid out clearly for teams, they know how to engage. A content strategist can play the role of a mediator, helping to develop a common language in a collaborative way with a team.

Watch the video of this lively, informative conversation.

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