When we announced we'd be hosting design system dinners internationally, we were shocked by the flood of messages we received. Within days, thousands of people had responded to our survey. The dinners became meetups so everyone could be included, and we hosted eight around the world from Lagos to Amsterdam.
Despite the geographical distance between events, they each shared common themes:
How do you know your company is ready for a design system? How do you implement one without too many pain points? How do you efficiently maintain one once it’s built?
Each city we visited was in a different stage of the design system adoption cycle. In some places, attendees wanted to focus on specialized topics, like diving into the nitty gritty of motion design systems, while designers in other places appreciated a more fundamental approach to the systemic beast.
Below are postcard snippets from the different meetups.
Our first meetup was, in truth, a dinner with friends from companies such as Google, Combine, Airbnb, and Lyft. Rasmus Andersson, a designer here at Figma, MC’ed the roundtable salon style discussion. We were curious to see just how long people would want to talk about design systems. It turns out, quite a long time.
The room discussed the struggle between exercising creative autonomy and acting within the constraints of a design system. Several designers argued for the latter. They reasoned that constraints help communicate the intent behind the stylistic choices in a design system.
For our first official design systems meetup Figma’s CEO Dylan Field headed to Lagos, Nigeria.
This was one of the first design conferences in Lagos. The meetup came at the perfect moment. The tech industry is growing exponentially in Lagos, raising people's expectations for app and website experiences. As a result, companies are coming to see the value of good design and they're actively recruiting skilled designers.
At this point in time 85% of designers have less than 3 years experience with 80% as self-taught. Because of this, the conversation around design systems is just beginning. The design community has shown a huge interest in systematizing their process even while dealing with limited resources.
Five of us flew to sprawling Toronto to immerse ourselves in the Canadian design community. We met with 40 design leads for a happy hour and hosted an event with Design X, Toronto’s largest UX community, to discuss design system trends for 2018 and beyond. We also led a Figma 101 workshop at TribalScale, a digital design firm.
Toronto falls somewhere between San Francisco and Lagos as far as interest in and the practicality of design systems. Of the designers we met, maybe 30% worked at companies with design systems, with many of those designers hailing from Shopify and Canada Post, the national postal service.
Compared to other cities, the number of designers coming in from bootcamps is very high, which means there are a ton of fresh-faced newbies eager to build up the infrastructure necessary for design systems.
Our Design Manager Noah Levin flew out to speak at the Design Systems meetup In Bengaluru, a megacity in southern India. He led an introductory workshop for 70 people on how design systems influence products.
After speaking to many designers at the workshop, he discovered that — similar to Lagos — design is in a state of exponentially growing importance. As a result, their biggest challenge is consistency, particularly in the designer to developer handoff — developers find it difficult to prioritize visual design polish. A similar thing happens for project managers who, through pressure from their higher-ups, prioritize everything else as being more important than visual quality.
Designers see design systems as the key to solving these pain points. They’re the best way for designers to keep in sync and speak the same visual language, and for developers to implement clean, consistent code.
New York, in all of its thin slice sophistication, was a trickier city to entice. This is because it’s past the adoption phase and its designers are more interested in the intricacies behind design systems. Noah Levin hopped from Bengaluru to New York to lead yet another workshop, this time on the collaborative tools most helpful when building and maintaining.
A common theme emerged: How do you quantify the success of a design system: Should you be able to write less code? What percentage of imported components are from the design system? How many lines are from our class library versus how many were made custom? Should we set parameters around these metrics?
New York is well past design system basics. They’re deep into the rigorous testing phase and need hard numbers, ROI, and proof points. They want to know: how can we quantify a design system’s efficacy?
In London we were honored to have Alla Kholmatova, the product designer who wrote a book on design systems, as a speaker. Dylan joined her onstage to chat about how design principles influence a company’s success.
Alla spoke to the crowd about setting design principles around your product’s design to help guide your team’s work. Similar to a mission statement, principles help a company mature into one that stands for something. And just like a design system, the principles you choose are components that can be plugged into each new project or product. These principles should be unique to your company. If you can read your principles and name other companies they could apply to, then you aren’t being specific enough.
When the meetup switched over to the Q&A portion, Dylan fielded tons of questions about Figma’s recently announced API — it seems London’s designer and developer communities are merging now more than ever. Those same designers also asked about using design files as a single source of truth and how that would impact a design system.
Our Amsterdam meetup was hosted by Ladies that UX at the Uber HQ offices. Ladies that UX is a huge design organization with 1900 members focused on making the world a better place for users. Their mission statement is all about inclusivity, collaboration, and increasing female talent and visibility, objectives that resonate deeply with Figma.
Three speakers took to the stage who spoke on the future of design trends with an ever vigilant eye towards design systems. As with Toronto, many of the designers were curious about how to implement a design system if you work at a design agency with multiple clients. Design agencies face the challenge of creating a new framework for each client. When faced with short-term projects, a design system may not be the right choice. The last speaker, Heleen Boland, gave an entire talk on how to build a design system in Figma.
For our final design system meetup, we joined forces with meditation app Headspace. They hosted us in their Los Angeles office, which featured floor to ceiling windows and carved wooden booths. We kicked off the event with (what else?) a 5 minute meditation.
Afterward, designers spoke to a range of subjects, from how to catalogue and define motion in a design system, to what role AI will play in future design systems.
Just like in San Francisco, a common pain point emerged: The tension between consistency and flexibility in a design system. Designers don’t want to become the brand police, limiting people’s freedom of expression, but systems require rules. Alli McKee from the visual communication company Stick, thinks this tension can be resolved by building room for play into the system itself: “Pure control is bland and pure freedom is chaos. A design system’s job is to help us balance these things.”
Do you have stories to share about creating a design system? Maybe you’re interested in being interviewed or writing for our next issue? Email a two-sentence pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org — we’d love to hear from you.