In late 2023, Belka’s Sara Fazzini and Maria Sole Biondi interviewed designers, developers and managers at 27 companies in Europe and N-America to learn how they approach design systems. This article is the second in a series about what they learned. (Click here for more information.)
In the first article in this series, we explained how first attempts at building design systems often fail because teams can be too ambitious. Instead of starting small, they want to build the “perfect” design system right away.
With that mindset, having a dedicated team is really the only way to make things work, since the whole project feels too big to proceed without one.
Talking to design teams about their design system journeys, we were surprised to realize how pervasive the myth of the dedicated team was. To many, the initial steps of building a design system had felt overwhelming, as they struggled to obtain the necessary support and resources.
Many of them also told us that they’d had to reframe their beliefs about design systems to overcome this frustration and find a way to get things done with what they had.
Thinking big and thinking small
Setting up a fully functioning design system from scratch can be a real challenge, especially when you're already juggling a bunch of product-related tasks. To many, it seems clear that having a team solely devoted to building the design system would be the most sensible way to kickstart this project.
But then you take a look at your company’s situation: The product needs to grow and the bills need paying — having a full team dedicated to building a design system is just not on the priority list at the moment.
Sure, it's a bit frustrating. You know how much of a game changer the design system could be for your team's workflow. But if your company is on the smaller side, struggling to turn a profit, or has some other major fires to put out, dedicating people full time to process improvement might just not be in the cards.
So, how did the teams we interviewed solve this problem?
A shift in perspective
What we found surprised us: Having a dedicated team is definitely not the only way to get things rolling. It might not even be the most advisable way for everyone.
Many of the professionals we talked to told us that they had only found their footing after a period of trial and error. And in the end, it turned out they managed just fine without a dedicated team, especially in the early stages of their journey.
They all had one thing in common: A shift in perspective. Instead of thinking of the design system as the ultimate goal of all their efforts, these teams had started treating it for what it really was — a means to an end.
You shouldn't build a design system to just to show that you're hip to the latest industry trends. You don’t want to obsess over the craft more than the results. Instead, prioritize improvements to your product and workflow based on practical needs, steering away from purely reputational or technical goals. Focus on how the design system can enhance your team's efficiency and the product's functionality in the short term.
Once your priorities are clear, you can make a more realistic plan of what needs to be done in the immediate future, and define some practical actions that will bring you there.
Here are my top picks from the conversations Sara and I had with professionals who already faced this challenge.
1. Start small and focus on bringing value
“Our design system evolved slowly, bottom-up rather than top-down to begin with. We worked on it parallel to other stuff, but always prioritized more urgent matters. Now, with tangible benefits evident, it has evolved into a point of pride — a flag to wave.”
— Design Lead at a large fintech firm
"Our design system grew out of a tiny project I got approval for: a review of all the buttons we used in our product. After presenting the results to the head of design, and getting approval from the design team, I was encouraged to continue working on it.”
— Design System Manager at a SaaS company
With the dream of having a dedicated team not happening, make the most of whatever time and resources you have available to start building your design system. Think of it as a small project you could work on when you’re not working on something more important.
Start building a few fundamental components that you know will be reused often. This will be a good proof-of-concept, showing how ready-made building blocks can speed up development of new features or interfaces.
You could also start by simply analyzing the product to identify components (different types of buttons, for example) where user experience could benefit from a more consistent design approach.
Channel your efforts into producing tangible results that can be showcased to the team, paving the way for increased credibility and leadership buy-in.
2. Grow gradually and stay flexible
“Our goal is to build one or two components every two weeks. But we’re flexible — if something is needed, we do it, otherwise, we don't. We know that the design system doesn’t directly generate revenue. It facilitates our work, but it’s not our primary focus.”
— Design Lead from a high-growth scaleup
Ask yourself, what’s the most important thing that the team needs right now?
Gradual growth lets you understand evolving needs and adapt to them, keeping your efforts relevant and aligned with the team’s work.
This can mean starting off designing a few of components that appear on the majority of the product’s interfaces and gradually integrating them in the design of the new features.
Or it can mean starting a pilot project where you implement the design system for a specific feature only, instead of aiming to refactor the entire product by mapping all the components at once.
Whatever your preferred method, you’ll be able to produce tangible results in a short time and improve your process on the go.
The path to creating an effective design system is not confined to a one-size-fits-all approach. If you cannot have a dedicated DS team right now, it’s time to redefine your goals. Tailor them to your company’s current stage, making sure they align with the impact your team actually needs.
Accepting the fact that there will be intermediate steps from where you are and where you want to go is a sign of maturity. These intermediate steps, often overlooked and underestimated, will allow you to lay solid enough foundations to support your team along the way.
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This article is part of a series of articles about design systems practices in the real world, based on interviews with design and developers at 27 tech companies in Europe and N-America, conducted in late 2023.
Belka would like to thank all the great people we talked to at the following companies for their help with this project: Balsamiq, Buddyfit, Coverzen, DaVinci Salute, Docebo, Docsity, Doctolib, Fatture in Cloud (TeamSystem Group), Fiscozen, Generali, Immobiliare.it, indigo.ai, isendu, Jet HR, Klarna, Musixmatch, NeN, Nibol, 1Password, Scalapay, Serenis, ShippyPro, Subito, Switcho, Telepass, Tot, and TrueLayer.
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