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Scaling design: Why your business needs a design system now

November 2, 2021, 2:21 PM UTC

C.H. Robinson has been offering its customers transportation services and third-party logistics for over a century. The Fortune 500 company, which serves upwards of 105,000 customers, manages 73,000 carriers with $21 billion in collective freight, and handles more than 19 million shipments every year, relies heavily on the tacit knowledge of product designers, developers, and engineers to ensure transparency for the retailers and manufacturers across their individual supply chains. User experience is at the core of the business’ success and ability to deliver for its customers day after day.

“We are connected very tightly to our users,” says Monique Sauvageau, group manager of user experience at Minnesota-based C.H. Robinson. “We are here to help in solving their problems and increase their productivity.” That’s why, says Sauvageau, the business expects that by 2025 they’ll have invested $1 billion in technology to better meet those needs. The effort, which began in earnest in 2020, includes building and implementing a design system to increase productivity (for customers and on the design team), bolster ease of use across the company’s platform, and make communication and design more seamless across the organization.

A design system refers to how a company builds and scales its design practice. That process, says Gina Bhawalkar, whose work at research firm Forrester focuses on experience design, is truly about up-leveling the entire organization in terms of a collective design language and mindset. “Design systems are the most powerful tool for scaling accessibility across a company’s products,” she says. “It is more than a glorified brand style guide. We think about it as the engine that powers any design team. It is a set of principles, foundations and components, guidelines and resources, that an organization creates and evolves to guide its design.” Roughly 65 percent of the companies Bhawalkar has researched say they use a design system, while 37 percent have dedicated teams to building and managing their systems.

The need for a formalized design system can come at various points in the lifetime of a business—usually around the same time it is ready to streamline the design process and make design more accessible across core disciplines, says Dylan Field, co-founder and CEO of Figma. In fact, says Field, two thirds of the people logging into Figma—a leading cloud-based software platform that helps teams at companies such as Microsoft, Netflix, Airbnb and BMW create, collaborate, and share their design work—aren’t actually designers.  

Figma and similar design products (Sketch, Google Material Design, Adobe XD, Anima and others) aim to bridge the gap between design and code, allowing engineers, members of the sales team, and others to interact across a design system, leveraging established components (fonts, buttons, colors, etc.) to save time and increase the opportunity for innovation. “We had people try to complete a task both with and without a design system and we found they were 40 percent more efficient leveraging the design system,” says Field. “Some designers spend 3x more time on problem solving after adopting a design system.” That, he says, keeps your design team engaged and happier in their roles, devoting their time to broader, more strategic objectives, rather than repetitive, task-oriented projects.

Google’s design system, Material Design, launched in 2014 and is an open-source option for businesses to borrow from or build upon. The design philosophy behind Google Material Design, says head of design and product Itai Vonshak, is to make it easier for stakeholders to use the system than operate outside of it. “We have this saying here, “Tools not rules,” says Vonshak. “It’s a new level of interpreting accessibility. That’s the first value prop; making sure everyone can use it. Then there’s consistency, or transferring knowledge throughout the ecosystem. The third is speed.” If used correctly, he says, a design system can be a really effective communication tool within an organization and a means of generating consensus. It can foster strategic conversation and help everyone understand the journey between from design, to code, to end user.

Last month, Figma hosted Schema, an online event to share best practices. Design managers, product designers, software engineers, UX specialists, and developers from companies such as Netflix, Lyft, and Microsoft talked about their experiences building out and maturing their design systems, what’s working, what’s not and why. Luca Orio, Design Manager at Netflix, talked about the two-year-old design system at Netflix named Hawkins (after the town in Stranger Things), which he says has allowed his team to work 10 times faster than before they built out the system. “We started small with 18 components,” says Orio. “Fast forward to two years and we don’t even know where to put all of our components.”

The lesson, he says, is while the system has helped fine tune the stunningly seamless user experience at Netflix, the process of building it requires some restraint and mindfulness. It is important, he says, to remember that once you build the system it requires support and maintenance. “You want to keep the functionality as balanced as possible,” says Orio. “There are two good reasons: to let your partners understand how complex and time consuming the job in design systems is. And to also establish sustainable expectations around the output and pace of the team. It also keeps the composition of the team balanced.” Field adds that as your design system matures, it’s also important to maintain some tension between freedom to create and governance: “One of the big questions is. ‘How do you guide people in design systems to do the right thing?’” When there are multiple stakeholders moving in and out of a design system, there’s going to be subjectivity in terms of what components are used when and how to retain creative license amid the ordained structure, look, and feel of the system.

For the team at C.H. Robinson, that journey is still unfolding. With about 20 UX designers on staff there, the company aims to transition 100 percent of its design work to a cohesive design system using components of Google Material Design within the Figma platform. “This has helped our product managers to see things from a design standpoint,” says Sauvageau. “We see the same happening with engineers; we are in lock step. We have the documentation from usage guidelines, the implementation specifications and know how the interactions work. We are more productive than we were a year ago.” And while internal productivity is a big win, she says, the end goal is to pass that onto the user. “Customers expect things to work exactly the same for air, ocean or ground – no matter the user, shipping mode or deal location. We have to consolidate to make our customers more productive.”

Nicole Gull McElroy


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The Annual Report of Feltron 2012 by Nicholas Felton

I’ve always been inspired by Nick Felton’s annual reports. He painstakingly recorded and published data about himself from 2005 - 2014. Beyond the beautiful graphic design and data visualization, the reports also stand the test of time as a commentary on corporate personhood and surveillance. - Dylan Field, CEO and co-founder Figma.

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