Design systems promise efficiency and consistency. But what’s the end game?

Jeremy Keith
Jeremy Keith
29th January 2020

I compared design systems to dictionaries. My point was that design systems—like language—can be approached in a prescriptivist or descriptivist manner. And I favour descriptivism.

A prescriptive approach might give you a beautiful design system, but if it doesn’t reflect the actual product, it’s fiction. A descriptive approach might give a design system with imperfections and annoying flaws, but at least it will be accurate.

I think it’s more important for a design system to be accurate than beautiful.

Meanwhile, over on Frank’s website, he’s been documenting the process of its (re)design. He made an interesting comparison in his post Redesign: Gardening vs. Architecture. He talks about two styles of writing:

In interviews, Martin has compared himself to a gardener—forgoing detailed outlines and overly planned plot points to favor ideas and opportunities that spring up in the writing process. You see what grows as you write, then tend to it, nurture it. Each tendrilly digression may turn into the next big branch of your story. This feels right: good things grow, and an important quality of growth is that the significant moments are often unanticipated.

On the other side of writing is who I’ll call “the architect”—one who writes detailed outlines for plots and believes in the necessity of overt structure. It puts stock in planning and foresight. Architectural writing favors divisions and subdivisions, then subdivisions of the subdivisions. It depends on people’s ability to move forward by breaking big things down into smaller things with increasing detail.

It’s not just me, right? It all sounds very design systemsy, doesn’t it?

This is a false dichotomy, of course, but everyone favors one mode of working over the other. It’s a matter of personality, from what I can tell.

Replace “personality” with “company culture” and I think you’ve got an interesting analysis of the two different approaches to design systems. Descriptivist gardening and prescriptivist architecture.

Frank also says something that I think resonates with the evergreen debate about whether design systems stifle creativity:

It can be hard to stay interested if it feels like you’re painting by numbers, even if they are your own numbers.

I think Frank’s comparison—gardeners and architects—also speaks to something bigger than design systems…

I gave a talk last year called Building. You can watch it, listen to it, or read the transcript if you like. The talk is about language (sort of). There’s nothing about prescriptivism or descriptivism in there, but there’s lots about metaphors. I dive into the metaphors we use to describe our work and ourselves: builders, engineers, and architects.

It’s rare to find job titles like software gardener, or information librarian (even though they would be just as valid as other terms we’ve made up like software engineer or information architect). Outside of the context of open source projects, we don’t talk much about maintenance. We’re much more likely to talk about making.

Back in 2015, Debbie Chachra wrote a piece in the Atlantic Monthly called Why I Am Not a Maker:

When tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who teach, criticize, and take care of others.

Anyone who’s spent any time working on design systems can tell you there’s no shortage of enthusiasm for architecture and making—“let’s build a library of components!”

There’s less enthusiasm for gardening, care, communication and maintenance. But that’s where the really important work happens.

In her article, Debbie cites Ethan’s touchstone:

In her book The Real World of Technology, the metallurgist Ursula Franklin contrasts prescriptive technologies, where many individuals produce components of the whole (think about Adam Smith’s pin factory), with holistic technologies, where the creator controls and understands the process from start to finish.

(Emphasis mine.)

In that light, design systems take their place in a long history of dehumanising approaches to manufacturing like Taylorism. The priorities of “scientific management” are the same as those of design systems—increasing efficiency and enforcing consistency.

Humans aren’t always great at efficiency and consistency, but machines are. Automation increases efficiency and consistency, sacrificing messy humanity along the way:

Machine with the strength of a hundred men
Can’t feed and clothe my children.

Historically, we’ve seen automation in terms of physical labour—dock workers, factory workers, truck drivers. As far as I know, none of those workers participated in the creation of their mechanical successors. But when it comes to our work on the web, we’re positively eager to create the systems to make us redundant.

The usual response to this is the one given to other examples of automation: you’ll be free to spend your time in a more meaningful way. With a design system in place, you’ll be freed from the drudgery of manual labour. Instead, you can spend your time doing more important work …like maintaining the design system.

You’ve heard the joke about the factory of the future, right? The factory of the future will have just two living things in it: one worker and one dog. The worker is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the worker if he touches anything.

Good joke.

Everybody laugh.

Roll on snare drum.

Curtains.

This was originally published on my own site.