Design System Won’t Fix Your Problems

Ever read an article praising design systems and how they magically solve design and frontend challenges? I’ve sure seen this being repeated in one form or another. Maybe not with these exact exaggerated words, but the underlying message has been close. While there might be a spark of truth there somewhere, it can be quite misleading to make this kind of statements without explaining what’s really required.

You might’ve seen or been on the other side as well, where organizations invest large sums of money to hire external agencies to create design systems for them. These agencies often work completely detached in their own silos and only claim to blend into the client’s organization. While this is a good business model for the agencies selling and creating these systems, it rarely works out for the client organization.

Real life example of this behaviour: a manager at Organization Y hears about design systems and how they solved the challenges of Organization X. They want to get on the bandwagon as well. Agency Z sees this as a money making opportunity and sells them a team of designers and developers who will design and build the system for Organization Y. The starting price is over one million US dollars.

While this works as a great marketing and produces a nice portfolio piece for the Agency Z to sell even more expensive projects like this in the future, the Organization Y is ultimately left with a product that isn’t utilized or serving a real purpose.

This happens for a few reasons, but the main one being that the people working in-house don’t really believe in nor are part of the design system Agency Z created. Why would they care or change their habits for someone who doesn’t even work in Organization Y?

So begins the slow and painful death of the system.

Eventually someone needs to be blamed, so Organization Y fires the manager and stops further contracts with Agency Z.

Everyone loses.

At no point does Organization Y consider, nor is told, that for the design system to actually work, it needs to be an internal product owned by the organization, not an outsourced project.

You can’t just hire an agency to create a design system and expect that the system alone will solve something. It won’t do much before the people in the organization align on this idea as well, believe in it, invest in it, and create a culture of collaboration around it.

Many agencies selling design systems as projects won’t explain this to you. I’ve had to witness this so many times that it lead me to write this post. I’m thinking the biggest reason being that they either don’t have enough experience on the matter, or that it’s against their core business model that relies on selling as many hours as they can.

Imagine someone from an agency explaining in a sales meeting:

We don’t think you should hire an agency to create your design system, but instead have an in-house team. The most we can do is to help you kick off the work while providing our expertise.”

There are exceptions of course. To both reasons why you might need an agency and the agencies themselves.

We don’t live in a black and white world.

So while it’s probably a bad idea to hire an external agency to create your whole system, it could be helpful to have someone external from an agency to lead you towards the right direction if your organization lacks the necessary experience and expertise.

Just stay away from folks who try to convince you that having a design system alone will solve something.

It won’t.

It’s just the beginning. ❦