Do you need a design system?

May 10, 2023 by Martin Jespersen

Maintaining design consistency on large websites or other digital solutions that change over time through optimization or user customization can present a number of challenges. A design system can be very helpful for both your organization and external stakeholders who need to make design decisions, helping to avoid misunderstandings when expanding or updating the existing design.

A design system can help ensure that your user interface is consistent, including a set of standardized components and guidelines that can make it easier to create a cohesive and well-designed user experience. This can save time and effort in the development process and also contribute to improving the quality of your web project. In addition, a design system can make it easier to maintain and update your web project over time, as all design elements and components will be centrally managed and organized.

A bit of history

Design systems have existed since the 1960s and have evolved over time. In the 1980s, for example, Apple introduced their "Human Interface Guidelines," which outlined a set of principles and design patterns for creating user-friendly software." However, public interest grew when Yahoo introduced their Design Pattern Library back in 2006, and since then, Google has also entered the fray with their Material Design, which is also run as an open-source project.

Design systems have gained significant popularity in recent years as more and more organizations have recognized the importance of having a consistent brand identity.

Design System


Before implementing the principles of a design system, it's worth considering how much time you want to invest initially. The level of detail in your system depends on the scope of the project and the amount of variation across your content.

The building blocks of your design system can vary in size. How you choose to organize depends on whether your project has a long lifespan. The longer the project lasts, the more likely it is that adjustments will need to be made, functionality will need to be added, or the general visual design will need an update. If no new functionality is added, the question arises as to whether it is cost-effective to spend time on an extensive solution. In this case, it may be advantageous to simply release the project. However, you should continuously work to improve the user experience and update the UI as needed.

Design systems are the operating system for design
Brad Frost

Benefits of a Design System

There are many benefits to implementing a stringent approach to digital design. Once the building blocks are in place, it is more efficient to add variations to existing components such as buttons, menus, and other elements that are reused across the UI.

Another significant advantage is that your team, as well as external stakeholders, have a single source of truth to refer to. The system can be used, for example, in the initial phase of visual design. A common understanding is created of what is expected to be implemented in the end. The system also helps in the handover from designer to developer, where important details about the interface and layout can be conveyed exactly. Depending on how you choose to organize, it should be noted that things like animations, transitions, and how components behave can be a challenge to introduce in a clear and understandable way. Again, it is about how much energy you want to spend on expanding your system. In some cases, it may be sufficient to provide some general guidelines instead of being super detailed in all aspects of your design.

Atomic Design
Atomic Design by Brad Frost. See link at the bottom for more information.


Usually, the starting point for a design system is the design guide that has hopefully been developed for the project or your company, but that doesn't mean everything is clarified in advance when it comes to the web. It depends on how diligent the designer has been in mapping out the web UI, but often this part is somewhat sparse. It may not even be the point of the design guide to go into depth, and that's where a design system can be an important supplement.

You can think of the design system as a living document, where the design guide is used as a reference in relation to the final setup of the basic elements that make up your web UI.

Typical building blocks for your design system include:

  • Colors
  • Fonts
  • Buttons
  • Form elements
  • Navigation


  • Components (grouping of elements)
  • Panels (use of components)
  • Pages (panels and components)

The level of detail you go into about your components is up to you, but you should also consider different breakpoints such as desktop, tablet, or mobile layouts.

Ongoing adaptation

When a project is underway and UI adjustments or updates are desired later on, it is advantageous if the design is already systematized. If the system is well-established, one can quickly find the precise design elements that require adjustment. It is also easy to expand parts of the system with variations as needed. As previously mentioned, it is important to have a central location to refer to, as it streamlines the process and eliminates doubts about the latest versions. This not only reduces the risk of design errors and inconsistency, but also enables greater scalability, as more designers can contribute to the project without creating bottlenecks.

It should be noted, however, that maintenance hours must be factored in for ongoing updates to ensure that the system remains relevant and up-to-date.

A design system is a living, breathing entity that should evolve as your organization and product does
Nathan Curtis

Design systems offer many communication benefits for design teams, developers, and stakeholders. By providing a shared visual language and set of design guidelines, design systems enable team members to communicate more effectively. With a common understanding of design elements and components, designers can create consistent and cohesive design solutions that are easily understood by all team members.

Moreover, design systems can facilitate collaboration across different teams and departments, breaking down silos and enabling more effective communication and teamwork. This can lead to improved efficiency and productivity, as well as better design outcomes.

Overall, design systems can greatly improve the design process by facilitating collaboration and reducing the amount of time and effort required to create high-quality, consistent design solutions.

Benefits and drawbacks of design systems


  • Efficiency in the long run
  • Easy for others to take over the design
  • Creates overview
  • One place of truth
  • Simpler handover
  • Efficiency in the design phase


  • Time investment at the beginning
  • Requires ongoing maintenance
  • May lead to longer processes for smaller design additions