San Francisco, California

The hardest thing about design systems

One of the hardest parts about design systems work is that you have to treat it all like designing a blog – the work requires tiny, incremental improvements that build up over time instead of giant reinventions of the wheel that never ship.

Saying “we need a good design system” – with the implication that we can start all over again – is kind of like saying “we need a better government” which...sure...but that’s such an impossibly vague and kinda useless thing to say. Instead, we should get to work improving this button, fixing this infrastructure policy, or tackling this gnarly accessibility issue with our links.

I see this problem everywhere in the community; dudes seem to think that design is a problem of taste rather than a problem of diligent, patient work built up over many years. There’s a large contingent of designers that believe the hard work of design systems is walking into a room and telling everyone they need more drop shadows.

Fuck your drop shadows.

Likewise I’m bored of how many folks treat design systems as this super cool and sexy work that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. An example? Yesterday I spent all day searching through a million lines of code to find how many instances of the class name “checkbox” exists. I’ve been doing “design systems” work since I was 18 and so many other front-end oriented folks have done likewise.

Because the only way to build a great website is with a system – we just didn’t call it that back in the day. We called it front-end architecture.

Anyway, I am an old man and my point is that design systems work is painfully, awfully, beautifully boring. There aren’t any sexy projects after you’ve picked the border-radius of your buttons. Each project after that will feel like an enormous hurdle because that’s the nature of the job.

I’m not saying this to dunk on the field – I love my career whole heartedly – but design systems requires a love of all those unsexy things. And I want to ensure that folks aren’t turned away by all the dudes with nice hair that talk about their goddamn drop shadows.

To all the people that love making spreadsheets and organizing their cupboards: you are sorely missed.

And we need you.