A new barrier to communicating about design systems

I wrote down a quote recently from Hayley Hughes’ talk at Clarity 2022.

She said “when you work on design systems, there are people that think they know what you do, but they have no clue.”

What’s struck me about this is that it highlights an important change in the design systems communications directive in the past few years.

If we go back 5 to 10 years, an important task for those of us pitching and working on design systems was to explain what a design system was, to budget-holders who had never heard of them.

Nowadays, it’s much more common that those budget-holders we’re communicating with have encountered a design system before - even if only from a distance. Design systems have made their way firmly into our corporate vernacular.

And while this is certainly a positive thing in many ways, it puts us in a riskier position when it comes to communicating our work.

Why? Because the only thing more dangerous to a design system’s funding case than a lack of understanding of what it is, is a false understanding of what it is. Particularly when that false understanding is often built on a collection of common myths that have elbowed their way, without nuance, into the psyche of our organisations’ leaders. Myths like:

  • “Design systems help teams go 10 times faster!”
  • “We don’t need a design system team, we can use that Nathan Curtis federated model and get contributors to make everything”
  • “Design systems will completely eradicate duplication of effort!”
  • “Design systems bake accessibility into components, so we no longer need to test our products - hurrah!”

All of this is to say that we are no longer starting from square one, we are starting from square -10.

We’ve gone from having to explain what a design system is, to now having to help people unlearn common misconceptions about design systems, and re-educate them.

Nevertheless, we persist.