Tech design is undergoing its biggest cultural shift since Apple introduced the iPhone, thanks to the advent of design systems.
As companies build new processes for designing at scale, these systems will impact organizational structures in ways we can’t even foresee. They may fundamentally change how design happens—at minimum, by removing the pixel-pushing grunt work.
That raises a big question: Will design systems replace designers, much like how machine automation eliminated workers on the factory floor? It’s a touchy subject—a possibility no one wants to consider—but it’s something the industry needs to contemplate as these systems grow in prominence.
We spoke with five design leaders and got their take on how design systems could change—or eliminate—the role of a designer.
Our panel of experts for the "no" argument:
Despite their wide range of backgrounds from consumer to enterprise, everyone we spoke with was adamant that design systems wouldn’t replace designers’ jobs…or at least, they really hoped not. (For the "yes" argument, read our Q&A with Adam Michela, creator of Airbnb and Facebook's design systems).
“I 100% think some people will believe, ‘Oh we have a design system, so we don’t need this many designers anymore,’” said Ben Wilkins, design technologist at Airbnb. “That would be the wrong takeaway. They’ve learned the wrong lesson.”
The Precious Resource
These days tech designers are in high demand. There are simply not enough designers out there who possess the unique skill set and experience that the tech industry requires: Aesthetic sensibilities, problem solving, critical thinking, technical competency (and often coding or data analysis experience), the list goes on. It’s a unique interdisciplinary—some witch’s brew of art, math and psychology—and unlike computer science, tech design doesn’t have dedicated university programs to train people. Most people wind up designing at Silicon Valley companies by accident.
The lack of trained designers didn’t matter in the nineties or early 2000’s, when tech was still in its heyday. But with the reach of the internet and advent of mobile, companies have grown desperate for design power. That’s led to the Great Designer Shortage -- designers have become Silicon Valley’s oil and water, a precious resource up there with celebrity engineers.
“Whenever there are designers available, it’s never like, ‘Ok let’s hang out for a bit,’” said Craig Wattrus, product designer, at Braintree. “Instead it’s always, ‘What new problems can we tackle now?’”
That’s part of the reason teams need design systems in the first place -- to scale design work so it doesn’t bottleneck growth. With processes in place—agreed upon components like navigation bars or drop down menus, ways to keep them up to date automatically, agreements on when to make new elements, explicit guidance on how all of them should work together -- the burden of interface creation is lifted from designers’ backs.
No longer focused on recreating the wheel (or icon), designers can turn their attention to different types of challenges. “I want GitHub designers to be thinking ‘How do we make project management easier for developers, PMs and designers in companies?’” said Diana Mounter, design systems team manager at GitHub. “Not, ‘What should this button look like? How should I code it?’”
That’s the dream: That design systems will give designers the space to focus on what matters: The bigger picture. After all, very few designers join a company to redline or wireframe into infinity.
With systems in place, designers hope they’ll be able to:
- Spend more time on researching, interviewing and studying users.
- Talk to engineers more often to understand their constraints and smooth out the handoff process.
- Explore and test more avenues and options for new products and features.
- Think through new features on a holistic level, figuring out how the changes will ripple through the entire user experience.
- Maintain and evolve the design system itself as new needs arise.
- Achieve consistency throughout the user experience.
- Move faster...on everything.
It’s a lovely vision for the future, and it’s not unprecedented. In the last six decades, developments in engineering freed people to focus on technological advancement, instead of coding grunt work.
For example, back in the 1950s, engineers would code directly to computer hardware, writing instructions for the actual CPU. Over time, developments like assembly language expedited the process. “Today you could ask the question, do all software engineers need to understand how memory works?” said Rasmus Andersson, a Figma designer. “Back then it wasn’t an option.”
New frameworks and tools have propelled the industry forward—expanding, instead of limiting, the number of computer science jobs.
GitHub’s Diana is optimistic the same thing will happen with design. “If we solve this problem now with design systems, that will give us space to tackle design challenges in the future,” she said.
But will other people see it that way? "Maybe at Facebook you might not need hundreds of designers if you have a more established system," Mikael from Lever conceded. "But it's hard to say because designers are using more data, defining more experiences, AB testing, and thinking more about the larger experience."
Unfortunately, not everyone in tech understands the true value of a designer’s skill set. Some dismiss it as the realm of finishing polish. How can we trust that leaders, once presented with a design system of prepackaged components, will still understand the need for designers?
When I raised that possibility with the designers I spoke with, they all seemed a little queasy.Some admitted it was a possibility, especially at bigger companies. Others believed it would never happen. Either way, they all argued vehemently against a world in which design systems replace designers.
“If you look at Lego for example, Lego is a design system,” said Ben from Airbnb. “Just because the system is in place doesn’t mean you don’t need someone to build it.”
It’s up to those creating design systems to help paint this vision of the future. Whether through informational sessions or water-cooler conversations, designers should talk about the ways design systems will benefit and change everyone’s role—including the designers themselves.
Sure, the marketing team will be able to throw together their own campaign emails; sales can put together pitch decks; product managers and execs can mock up high-fidelity ideas; engineers can play with components to understand the changes they need to implement in code. But even with all this autonomy, in the end there will still need to be a team vetting and overseeing all these moving pieces to ensure consistency—and that’s where the designers will come in.
“Design systems are not like autonomous cars that take the driver out of the seat,” said Craig, from Braintree. “Think of it more like…parking assistance.”
Do you have stories to share about creating a design system? Maybe you’re interested in writing or being interviewed for our next issue? Email a two-sentence pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org — we’d love to hear from you.