Are design systems the monocultures of the digital world?
A report on Patterns Day 2019 in Brighton, UK
Patterns Day is a conference focusing on design systems. The talks are therefore aimed primarily at developers and designers who are interested in this topic. The conference took place in a century-old cinema, which lent a certain extra charm – a perfect fit for the pleasant and somewhat nostalgic Brighton cityscape.
During his talk at Patterns Day, Emil Björklund cited Rune Madsen, who suggested that design systems might well be the monocultures of the web. I think we can already see this trend around us today, if we look at a range of different products bearing strong similarities: with design systems, a clear advantage is that users can operate new products right away, because the underlying usability patterns are very similar. Furthermore, established design systems let companies save time when expanding their portfolios and implementing something new. On the other hand, the resulting “joy of use” is significantly lower. And this joy of use becomes especially important if a company is confronted by many competitors who are offering more or less identical products.
But there were also other speakers who made this a very stimulating conference. The opening talk was given by none other than Alla Kholmatova. If you want to wade deeper into the field of design systems, there’s no getting around her. She’s the author of Design Systems, a book that I highly recommend. Her talk primarily focused on already existing design systems. She argued heavily from the marketing/UX viewpoint, pressing home that each design system update should be driven by concrete data. If you want to set up a successful design system in a company – and more importantly, to maximize the return on investment – it’s best to work with validated data and not just assumptions.
Emil Björklund and his systems theory
After several talks and a ton of information, my personal highlight was the last speaker of the day. Emil Björklund focuses on systems theory, and here he asked himself: How do ecological systems work internally, and what are their limits? He presented a very high-level look at the topic, going less into details than previous speakers did. In essence, he said we should view design systems as a process, instead of focusing on just the components within that system. For example, if we look at the team behind the gov.uk design system, we’ve got thirteen people working there full-time (incl. frontend developers, UI designers and content designers) to build a living product with a roadmap, backlog and accessibility standards, in order to serve an enormous ecosystem (incl. 25 departments and over 700 service teams).
Shifting perspectives to work more efficiently
Emil’s talk helped me discover my own personal takeaway from the conference: when you’re deeply engrossed in a topic, you quickly lose sight of the big picture and get bogged down in details. So when you work intensively with design systems, you soon lose a sense of the overall view and end up contributing to a monocultural design landscape. This is a valuable lesson that I can immediately apply to my everyday work. It means that if you’ve reached a point in the project where can’t see the big picture anymore, but only the details, then you should change your vantage point. A shift in perspective lets you approach the project with a clear head, which then helps you to identify and solve problems. You can work again with greater focus and efficiency, thus driving the project forward.
Patterns Day was a great way to set aside everyday routines and discover fresh new ways of seeing things – which ultimately helps sharpen your own mindset. It was a thoroughly successful conference, offering many fascinating insights into the working process of other teams. I’m already looking forward to the next edition!