To be successful with a design system, you need to learn how to teach the value of design systems — and to earn the support and trust of stakeholders

A book spread showing content related to selling a design system
Laying the Foundations by Andrew Couldwell
  • They take up a lot of development resources.
  • They distract from working on any roadmaps of features.
  • They’re tricky to maintain.
  • Designers can see them as a threat to their creativity.
  • And, they require a lot of stakeholder support to succeed.

Find your partner(s)

To illustrate this process, I’ll share an example from my real-life experience of selling design systems at a company.

More than design and engineering

It’s important to note: in these early stages, Nick was also working with his larger product team — including product managers and designers — to identify problem areas in their products and processes that the design system would address.

Laying the foundations

In parallel to Nick’s story so far — as Nick was highlighting the need for a design system — I was working on what I called the ‘Digital Foundations’ (which I cover in my book, Laying the Foundations). For now, think of these as ‘digital brand guidelines’.

Start small, and adjust your pitch accordingly

Continuing our story: in parallel to the design and build work, we continued to present to different stakeholders. Selling a design system never really stops, no matter where you are in the process. We started small, working our way up the chain of command, gaining support and momentum as we went.

Product managers, leaders, and heads of departments…

…care about how fast the team can ship products, and the impact the work has on business goals, sales, reports, and analytics.

Engineers…

…care about a unified codebase, version control, consistency, performance, organisation, efficiency, and naming conventions.

Designers…

…care about aesthetics, brand, typography, colour, user experience, and shipping beautiful products, which stay true to their original vision.

We’re all in this together

For all parties, be sure to pitch the importance of this being a collaborative team effort. Some may worry their voice won’t be heard, or that the system will go against how they like to work. A good design system won’t be designed and built by only a few people, then closed to changes from everyone. It will evolve. It requires everyone’s input and support, over time, in different capacities.

Screenshot of a Keynote deck
Screenshot of a Keynote deck
Screenshot of a Keynote deck
  • The design system saves us time and money because _____ (e.g. we can ship updates faster, as engineers won’t have to write as much new code).
  • The design system makes us/you look good because _____ (e.g. we can ship more updates per quarter, which could have a positive impact on sales).
  • The design system sets us apart from our competition because _____ (e.g. our competition doesn’t have a consistent brand across their digital platforms, so we can stand out from the crowd with a stronger brand and user experience).
  • Our competitors are doing _____, which helps them because _____. (e.g. They are publicly sharing their design system, which helps them recruit a higher-calibre of designer and engineer).
  • How can you help us achieve this? (e.g. We need your endorsement. And who else do you recommend we talk to, to make this happen?).

At what stage do you sell?

In terms of the process, ‘selling a design system’ doesn’t belong at the end — because you don’t want to put in a lot of work only to be told “No” by someone higher up the chain of command. And it doesn’t belong at the start, because you don’t know yet what you’re selling. You first need to understand what a design system is, why it’s valuable, and what problems you’re solving in order to build and present your case.

Selling a design system isn’t a stage of the process. It’s ongoing.

You need to always be advocating for the system, or it will fail. Even — and perhaps especially — after you’ve successfully designed, built, and integrated the system.

The importance and quality of ‘the sell’

You need a convincing pitch to sell your vision, and you need to present it passionately and concisely — as some stakeholders’ time and attention can be limited.

If you believe in design systems and want to see one thrive at your company, you need a compelling case that’s tailored to your business, team, and user needs.

It’s easy for higher-ups to say no. Very easy. As I mentioned earlier, creating design systems can be involved, and therefore expensive to the company.

A word on office politics

Every stakeholder wants something different. Some focus purely on business needs. Some care most about customer happiness.

  • For designers who want to make something beautiful for your users; advocate for the quality output that comes with a well-crafted library of elements.
  • For developers who want well-performing code; celebrate the efficiency of a consistently designed interface.

In summary

  • Start small.
  • Be prepared.
  • Identify the problems you’re trying to solve.
  • Do some (enough) impressive design and build work to get people talking.
  • Make friends and build a team of people excited to work with you.
  • Come up with a cool name, and create a sexy presentation.
  • Tailor your pitch according to your audience.
  • Earn trust and support.
  • Be an advocate and a guardian for the system, and inspire others to do the same.
A book spread showing content related to selling a design system
Laying the Foundations by Andrew Couldwell

Web designer & developer • Portfolio at: https://roomfive.net

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