Design Systems: Where to Begin

You're thinking of creating a Design System. Should you do it yourself or get help?

In our last article, we explored reasons you might need a Design System and how they can help. If you’re interested in the promises a Design System can offer, you might be wondering if you need help and where to start. This article is written with that in mind.

Why hire an agency? Why not DIY?

It’s true that many large companies are beginning to address the need for Design Systems from within their organization. So, why work with an agency when you can start working on this yourself? Here are a few important reasons:

Scale

We can scale according to your needs—either by doing everything for you or by supplementing your in-house team. An agency has, by design, a diversity of roles—everything from UX, design, copywriting, and development. We have specialists who can consult on your work who you wouldn’t otherwise hire. Maybe you have developers but zero to few designers. Maybe your designers are already at capacity on internal projects or focused on other matters.

Timing

Hiring and ramping up a solid team is a lengthy process. An agency has a team that can begin immediately. We regularly adjust our long-term planning to account for schedule fluidity and can usually assemble a team quickly for pressing needs. If you need additional resources, it’s far more likely for us to have availability by someone winding down a project than for you to go through another long hiring cycle to find exceptional talent.

Quality

Before you commit to hiring more people it’s a good idea to work with people who know what they are doing. We have a system of accountability to ensure that the work we do is technically correct, extensible, and of a high caliber. We have high standards when it comes to recruiting and only hire the best.  

Expertise

Maybe an agency has a reputation of being leaders or innovators in an emerging area for you. Within each area of expertise, we take time for professional development within our groups and as individuals. We believe in lifelong learning and continual growth. As an agency, we’re exposed to a variety of industries and companies that are at varying stages of growth. We pay attention to emerging technologies and invest time into learning more about the ones we believe in.

Advice

We can offer advice on how best to organize your assets and what to look for if you’re thinking of bringing expertise in-house more gradually. An agency may be better positioned to look at products and services across a large organization, whereas internal teams may be too focused on a single product or service to see the larger picture.

How do we get started?

Maybe you’re thinking you need a Design System but don’t really know where to start. As we see it, there are three primary entry points—evolving your existing system, revolutionizing with a redesign, or starting from scratch.

Evolution

If you’re a large organization that’s been operating in digital for years, there’s a good chance that you simply need to reverse engineer what you have into a better organized system. In this case, we typically start with an audit of your system to see what you have and look for patterns and inconsistencies. From here, we would take things into a fairly typical research, design, build, launch, analyze, and repeat lifecycle. In a case like this where we’re starting with what you already have, we’d recommend working in agile sprints that could coincide with your existing release cycles.

Revolution

Sometimes we’re faced with an opportunity to take what you have and completely revamp it—often referred to as a redesign. This is often the biggest lift because it involves research to better understand what got you to where you are and where you’d like to go from here. Sometimes it’s as simple as a reskin—a focus on improving the look and feel without thinking more strategically about the possibilities. Preferably, we’re also helping you with your objectives to better help you tie everything back to your vision and mission, positioning, and messaging with great thought, care, and detail put into your look and feel as well as your voice and tone. In this case, we recommend a more strategic approach which would likely involve staggered sprints based on milestones catered to your needs.

Creation

If you’re a smaller organization just starting out, we’d likely go through a slightly different process. We wouldn’t necessarily need an audit of your existing system, but we’d still want to do proper research to get to know you and your competitive advantages better. It’s likely in this scenario that we’d spend more exploratory time up front to figure out what would work best for you. For this, we’d recommend more of a milestone approach to the design to better cater to you seeing things for the first time.

Extension

There's one more area to consider where it might make sense to get help. It's possible you already have a good Design System in place. Where you could be facing challenges is in extending that system further. Maybe you don't have capacity or the right people right now to take what you have and apply it further at the speed you would like. In a case like this, it would be natural for an agency to help you. While we may not be educated about your system out of the gate, we've worked with other companies and their systems and can be quick studies to understand what you have and how to scale in accordance with the system. We can also advise on how to leverage the system to tackle new problems that emerge. 

What goes into a Design System?

These are just some examples of how an agency, like Viget, will evaluate your needs to know how best to help and where to begin. In our next article, we’ll share more about what goes into a Design System to give you a better picture of what a typical makeup looks like are and what is best for you.

Tom Osborne

Tom is vice president of design and works in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He has over two decades of experience as a designer and team coach, and works with clients such as the University of Pennsylvania and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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