Myths of the design system

myth # 1 of the design system: “it saves time”. (well, it shouldn’t.)

as a new swimmer, i spend all my time fretting over little details, like, “how do i perfect the angle at which my fingers hit the water?”. i run drills, repeat movements, and focus intently on that single movement. once that movement gets ‘streamlined’, however, what should i to do? should i finish swimming in lesser time and go home? should i swim more laps, without doing anything different at all? unlikely. i’d move on to focusing on my breathing, or neck, or legs or hips, and so on.


by ‘streamlining’ some movements within the industrial process, design systems can help ‘save time’ on specific tasks. with that excess time, however, most designers will get drafted to execute larger volumes of the same work, or get promoted to manage a team designing larger chunks of the same project. some designers, however, may use this time to shift perspectives on the problem itself.

even though i am capable, i strongly resist requests to increase my work-volume or to put me in a ‘senior’ role on the same task. instead, i leverage the ‘time saved’ (by using design systems for experience prototyping) to adjust the lens on the tasks i’ve been given. it helps me question problems, burst them open, re-frame them, and prioritise thought over craft. it’s not even about ‘quality over quantity’ : it’s about changing perspectives instead, and gifting yourself the chance to ask different questions.

design should move beyond being a ‘craft to be utilised by the industry’, shouldn’t it?1 we shouldn’t just make larger volumes of what’s delegated to us : we should use our abilities to demonstrate new possibilities, explore alternate approaches, and use our ‘saved time’ to completely rework the problem-statements themselves. in such a world, design systems wouldn’t save us time : we’d actually be busier, focusing on forests instead of trees.

in closing:

have you watched the eames’s film, ‘powers of ten’? or heard carl sagan talk about earth as a “pale blue dot”2? elon musk uses fast spacecraft to run away from the shitshow he dumps on earth : carl sagan used them to change how we look at our lives on earth instead.

myth # 2 of the design system: “it’s like lego”. (well, it can be better.)

lego-bricks are precision-engineered, can be assembled in oh-so-many ways, and resolutely resist mis-combination. seen one way, they facilitate creativity within a controlled framework. and, creativity plus control is—on the face of it—beautiful.

a gardener starts with a basic plan. some seeds she sows ; some plants she brings in from other gardens ; more plants, still, emerge unplanned. even after placing them carefully, plants expand in expected and unexpected ways — she knows, and she smiles. our gardener could build walls and dividers to rigidly prevent mis-growth, but she doesn’t. she is comfortable with organic growth, and is alert to interesting patterns that may emerge. she listens to the plants, understands at the weather, talks to the birds, shovels the soil, and smells the flowers.

good gardeners don’t control : they prune, weed, and re-sow.

lego bricks are fabulous, but plastic is nowhere near as rich as a garden, with its mud, moisture, flora, sun, frost, scents, thorns, growth, and—well—everything!

lego bricks might seem infinitely-combinable, but they operate within a cartesian-coordinate-system and are limited by it. children’s imaginations need to go further (much much further!) than three-dimensional things. (ergo: a child may play with lots of lego, but all their lego play, combined, should only be a fraction of all the play they engage in.)

metaphors are seductive, but powerful. so, let’s choose metaphors wisely.

when it comes to design systems, i prefer an organic metaphor over a mechanical one3, because the organic world resembles the realities of design much more than a mechanical toy.

so, let’s think of design systems as gardens4
: not, lego.

  1. while advertising a course, donald norman lamented, “the way we design today is wrong” (2021). he began by quoting victor papanek’s ‘design for the real world’ (1971), to call out design’s contributions to a myopic, wasteful, and unsustainable world. next, he pointed at design’s lack of power (in the industry), which he blamed on unsuitable design education (which only seems to prepare craftsmen, not designers): “what we’ve learned in design education is to be a wonderful craftsperson, to build beautiful, wonderful objects that people love.” 

  2. read carl sagan’s note, on wikipedia, on the “pale blue dot” image shot by the voyager spacecraft. 

  3. the idea for using gardening as a metaphor for design systems was planted by shekhar: “using an organic system like gardening as a metaphor instead of mechanical one … will offer us all the opportunity to think more like ‘humans’ and not as ‘robots’”, he said. 

  4. the attached video is a year-long timelapse of a garden i was assigned to prune and mow. for project details, see: tree (2017–18)