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A Design System Isn't One-Size-Fits-All

December 2018


Article credits
Jillian Nichols
Josh Mateo

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At Spotify, we’re investing in how we support and deliver a design system to the business. We’re starting to formalize flexible opinions around our foundations and shared components while exposing new ways to evolve our design language with our peers across the organization.

Quick pulse check: are we heading in the right direction? How do we prioritize explorations alongside product needs? What about scaling components to a global audience? We’re building a product, so how do we celebrate our milestones? How do we encourage others to get involved and build a culture of contribution?

When working on a design system, there are so many things to consider along the way, and we have to be harsh critics and prioritize work ruthlessly. It's easy to fall into the trap of going in circles on decisions, so it's important to take a step back to examine our efforts and ensure that we're going in the right direction.

We took these questions to our comrades in San Francisco to gauge where the industry is heading and give back to the community what we’ve learned. We’re all in this together, even if our businesses function differently.

Design systems are products, too.

Products need full resourcing and support from a cross-functional team in order to be built, maintained, and evolved. We saw teams comprised with areas of expertise including UX PMs, Producers, Product Owners, Design, Engineering, Research, and Production. Each company had their own methods, but teams were able to drive adoption and awareness early on by building the design system into the onboarding process for new hires.

Work with what you’ve got.

Everyone’s business is set up differently and will need to lean into their values and structure to move in the right direction. A system typically seems to start with one person interested in creating a more efficient, consistent working environment for their peers and the end-user. However, once you have both organizational buy-in and grassroots support, you create a “pincer” effect coming at various products from all sides.

Not accessible? Not usable.

Inclusive design can be difficult to achieve, but those investments pay off when it’s baked into the system or - even better - the organization. Tug at the heartstrings, it’s everyone’s responsibility. As a system team, we are building infrastructure to support not only product teams, but also the end-users of our products.

Principles first, tactics later.

Define the underlying principles that drive decisions and strategy for your design language. These will outlive copying what other teams do on the surface. You’ll be able to refer to the “why” behind decisions powering the system for the long haul.

Experiment or expire.

Design systems are like living organisms—they must continue to build on what’s working, discard what’s not, and create spaces to explore what’s next. Embrace the explorations from outside the core system team and understand how these decisions can come back into the system for everyone.

Track your impact.

Without metrics, it’s very hard to know how our work is impacting others or the ecosystem at large. A better understanding of usage can aid in prioritizing future efforts. Aim to quantify the quality and depth of adoption (e.g. using scorecards or surveys).

Make it real.

Don’t treat the system as an abstract ivory tower. Show how much better products look when aligned with a system by creating fake products or examples with a partner or a team. This helps to stress test and educate your peers.

Always be releasing.

There are some artifacts that every systems team produces with loads of custom tools and solutions. Don’t sweat until you have a “complete” system, start with scrappy tools that are useful immediately. Own and highlight the gaps and inconsistencies.

Communicate all the things.

Do it until people tell you you’re repeating yourself. That’s when you know you’ve communicated enough. Soft skills are just as important as hard skills when creating a system. You have to work hard to build relationships with those around you in order to build on a culture of contribution and inclusion.

Say it with swag.

Identify and elevate early adopters, ambassadors, and high-quality implementers. Swag is one example, but you can celebrate contributors in many ways. A simple thank you can go a long way. Get creative in how you involve others.

Over the next year, we plan to take these themes and see how we can apply them to Spotify’s design system and culture. We want to empower the team with the right tools and guidance to uplevel our craft and build better, more inclusive experiences for all our users: like you, artists on our platform, or even employees of Spotify building tools.

A special thank you to the design system teams who were open to having a conversation with us at Twitter, Google, Lyft, Pinterest, Dropbox, Adobe, and PayPal. We couldn’t be more grateful for the insights we gathered during this trip, and we feel it’s important to keep an open line to the community-solving in this space.


Jillian Nichols

Senior Engineer

Jillian focuses on a design system for Spotify for Artists. She works remotely from Cleveland, OH and enjoys reading books, cooking, and doting on her two cats.

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Josh Mateo

Senior Product Designer

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