If your organization is contemplating building a design system, a good place to start is clarifying

what exactly a design system is. Many companies may think they already have a design system when, in fact, they only have a style guide or pattern library. At its core, a design system is a set of reusable design elements and practices that can be used to create new products, interfaces, and visuals faster and easier than recreating everything from scratch. 

A true design system encompasses not only the assets and components you need to create a digital product, but, most importantly, must be managed by a strong set of standards that governs how these assets are used to create a final product. A collection of assets without a set of standards isn’t a system, it’s just an archive. 

There are a variety of tools and technologies that can be used to create a successful design

system. Whichever you select, the end result should be a system whose pieces you can build with and manage predictably. Your system should include components that can be reused in a variety of situations and be accessible across teams.

How can you create a successful design system? Here are four tips to get started.

Take an inventory

Before you can begin to craft a design system, you must first evaluate your current product(s) from a visual standpoint. How does your CSS describe the visual components of the design, be it an app, website or some other digital product? Do you reuse certain visual elements in your designs and how do those elements work together? 

Fashion a visual design language

A visual design language is made up of four areas—color, typography, sizing/spacing and imagery. How these four elements interact with each other forms the core of your digital product’s appearance and your overarching design system. We can call this interaction of these four areas a “design language,” and understanding that language is key to creating a functional design system. Typically, a visual design language will encompass one to three main colors and two fonts. You’ll also have standards that govern any images and illustrations used, as well as the sizing/spacing, to create balance in the design and to ensure ease of use on various devices.

Produce a UI library

Unlike the visual inventory that you conducted already, now is the time to delve into all the pieces of your existing pattern or user interface library. The goal is to analyze all components, see what can be combined, and then purge what is no longer needed.

Log all components

The final step in the creation of your design system is what truly sets it apart from a simple pattern library. This step requires detailing what each component is and how it should be used. Developing this standardized system will ensure you’re effectively using your design library for the long term. 

While creating a design system requires more time and effort than assembling a library or style guide, the upfront effort will pay dividends by helping your design teams work smarter, faster, and with greater efficiency.