Informal
Design
Systems

14. February 2020

As a designer working at an agency, rather than a product company, I often feel like the design systems discussion Like we haven’t had enough of that already … is missing an important perspective: that of impromptu, short living design tasks — which can none the less be tackled systematically.

At our agency, there are two fronting types of tasks: On the one hand we do work on classic large-scale design systems for corporate clients, some continuously maintained and updated for years, spanning many dozens of meticulously documented components. But on the other hand many of our projects are strictly time-boxed to one or two months, often with only one or two designers working on the same project.

Usually I define a design system as “a structured documentation of knowledge on practices of design within an organization” This is of course a deliberately nebulous working definition and is continuously being refined and changed — don’t pin me down to that.. I like the “structured” bit, because it implies a formal and organized manner without defining a format. Structured knowledge can appear in many places: Wikis and documentation tools, Figma and Sketch libraries, code and more.

But even where there is no visible structure there may be a system. This is what I call “informal design systems”. Informal design systems are on the opposite end of the spectrum from the most famous examples of design systems, which are all polished and clean and are of course built and maintained by huge organizations. An informal design system might not even be documented at all, not even in the form of symbols or components in the design tool. Why then do I still call it a design system? Because it still exists as a layer on top of concrete artifacts, as an abstracted meta-space. Whenever two buttons in a design look similar, someone has done the act of recognizing a pattern and abstracting a concept from an instance, whether consciously or not Granted, this is a low bar — but the point stands..

Every person has a pattern language in his mind.

Your pattern language is the sum total of your knowledge of how to build. The pattern language in your mind is slightly different from the language in the next person’s mind; no two are exactly alike; yet many patterns, and fragments of pattern languages, are also shared. Christopher Alexander in “The Timeless Way of Building”, p. 203

This is of course also one of the central points made by the godfather of design systems Don’t tell him I called him that!, Christoph Alexander, in is seminal book “The Timeless Way of Building”. Alexander writes: “When a person is faced with an act of design, what he does is governed entirely by the pattern language which he has in his mind at that moment. Of course, the pattern languages in each mind are evolving all the time, as each person’s experience grows. But at the particular moment he has to make a design, he relies entirely on the pattern language he happens to have accumulated up until that moment. His act of design, whether humble, or gigantically complex, is governed entirely by the patterns he has in his mind at that moment, and his ability to combine these patterns to form a new design. This is as true of any great creative artist, as of the humblest builder.” (p. 203)

When we speak of design systems we think of them as tools for organizational management and mandated coöperation. But this angle is immoderatly reductive. Recognizing the pervasive nature of systematics in design is important, because it manifests as an appreciation for the order that is latent in any artifact created by an experienced designer. Most often when people say that they “created” a design system, what they actually mean is that they formalized an existing informal design system. This simple shift in perspective mandates a different approach for design tooling where both the natural chaos and uncertainty in drafting, as well as its inherent amenability for systematization are recognized equally. Is this post bullshit, because when everything is a design system is nothing is? I am not sure. Let me know what you think.

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