Design systems have plenty of tactical challenges — how to start, maintain and adapt them, and so on. But arguably the biggest question is cultural: What will happen to software designers’ jobs as their work is increasingly automated?
We spoke with a lot of designers who were adamant that design systems wouldn’t replace jobs see our “No” article here. Of everyone we interviewed, there was only one stalwart contrarian: Combine designer and investor Adam Michela.
Adam — known more widely by his Twitter handle @soopa — is not one you should dismiss on this subject. He’s credited as the creator of Facebook and Airbnb’s design systems, arguably the two most significant front runners in the modern day design system trend.
We sat down with him for a Q&A on where software design is headed. It’s been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s dive right into this. Do you think design systems will replace design jobs?
Yes, design systems will replace many design jobs as we know them today — they already have. Interface development patterns, processes and tools are like interchangeable parts and factory assembly lines — tools of industrial productivity that enable fewer people to create the same product as before.
You are the only person I have interviewed who has said that.
The rapid adoption of design systems can be an uncomfortable reality for those who entered software design as a way to practice craft. You’ll experience this dissonance most when talking to art school grads: ‘I was taught to be an artist, but now I’m being asked to avoid artistic expression?’
When visual and interface design is standardized, production design jobs become some of the most plentiful.
But most designers would argue that their true skill set isn’t pixel pushing — it’s design thinking. I.e. A systematic and empathetic approach to constructing a user experience.
It’s true that most designers are creative problem solvers whose skills extend beyond their ability to use a tool like Figma or Photoshop. But many other disciplines in a modern technology organization are trained in this same way of thinking. What’s often most unique to designers is an aptitude for operating visual tools and a passion for creating visual artifacts. This is the quandary for designers: What often motivates and differentiates them is craftwork that’s not needed en masse at scale.
Many of today’s designers are unprepared for and unwanting of the emergent demands of the roles they fill.
So are you saying that interface designers’ jobs will disappear entirely?
A need for aesthetic talent will still exist, but it will be a much smaller and earlier need for any organization. Take the automotive industry as an example: The car designer still exists and is very much a craftsperson with skills like being able to sketch or shape clay. But in that industry, design roles are very finite relative to production roles. The same will be true in technology.
Many of today’s designers must be content assembling pre-designed components — a task that will be increasingly automated. Or they will need to gain more general skills to fill higher level functions in an organization. The product managers of today may be the product designers of tomorrow.
I feel like you hold the trump card in this debate, since you actively led the formation of Airbnb and Facebook’s first real design systems. Can you talk about that experience?
There were 18 designers at Facebook when I joined. When we began work on Facebook’s current design system a year later there were over 40, but the product engineering department had eclipsed 1000 people and product management was approaching 200. The company was suffering from slow growth of the design organization.
We set out to solve this by softening our hiring criteria, by building tools and processes that would reduce the need for new hires to have highly specialized skills while ensuring high quality production. That’s the idea behind modern design systems.
But Facebook has far, far more designers now than it did back then. We’ve heard rumors that the design hiring target is more than 800. So how does that fit with what you’re saying?
We must consider two realities:
We’re still in the innovation stage of design systems. Their full impact has yet to be realized. As younger companies implement and improve upon design systems they will design and scale their organizations in fundamentally new ways.
Facebook during my time was effectively one business and product. Now it’s many independent businesses and products. Likewise with Airbnb. Design systems enable more rapid product development, and therefore enable companies to develop more products. On a net basis there are more designers in these companies but the nature of these roles has changed, and fewer designers are needed per product.
Well — that sounds like good news?
Yes! Design systems are an incredibly positive evolution of the technology industry. They allow more people to contribute to the creation of software without having to be an artist or master craftsman. A more productive and more accessible industry will enable more companies to produce more products that are cheaper and more reliable.
That’s better for everyone...except the craftsman.
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.