This Twitter storm shows design systems are still up for debate

Valerie Veteto

Ask any designer for a one-size-fits-all definition of design systems and you’re bound to receive scattered answers, or even a not-so-subtle change in subject. It’s 2017 and industry thought leaders are still molding this nebulous concept. In fact, Airbnb’s Design Language System Lead Karri Saarinen brewed up a Twitter storm of opinion only yesterday.

Photo courtesy of Kaari Saarinen

Last year he publicly ruminated on the subject by writing a treatise posted on Airbnb’s design blog. He explained in order to succeed at scale, design teams must have a design system. Larger, long-term projects need constraints and consistency across platforms. With principles like unified, universal, iconic and conversational in his arsenal, he set out to form a design system for Airbnb, documenting the process for all to see.

But yesterday’s digital maelstrom allowed for a public tête-à-tête between him and other thought leaders, including Sean Blanton, a Product Designer at Facebook. While it is literally Saarinen’s job to define the subject, it’s fascinating to watch the concept solidify in real-time and whittled down to its true core by designers both new and experienced. Below are some of the more illuminating tweets.

At just 16 words, Saarinen’s first tweet was the skeleton key for design systems: “set of shared and integrated principles and patterns that define the overall design of a product.” He then went on to define or extrapolate on several of those words. Patterns could be patterns and/or components. The design of the product refers to how the end product feels and looks. And so on.

Then Sean Blanton jumped in, remarking on the shortcomings of language and how that can lead to a smashed beehive of expectations. If we can’t agree on definitions for seemingly simple words, how can we build a consistent framework? Blanton advised, “Always pay attention to the words you’d tend to never look up in the dictionary.”

At Figma, we’re doing our best to address the obstacles design teams face when creating a design system. Our recent release of Team Library 1.0 empowers teams to create, use and maintain design systems through elevated organization, component documentation, an advanced search system and an intuitive UI redesign.

And while I’m still dancing on my own digital soapbox, Twitter could learn something from the beauty of design constraints too, what with their recent pivot to 280-characters.