The Limitations of Design Systems
The most common argument against standardization is a fear of restricted creativity. Rigid constraints can feel — well, constraining. Most software developers understand the value of rules: they typically follow certain frameworks or methodologies that, at a high level, dictate the way they work. But sometimes solutions require outside-the-box thinking, and a design system is, by definition, a box.
Design systems can also sacrifice variety for consistency. Of course, when it comes to user experience, consistency is an incredibly important consideration. If users are met with a new experience over and over again, it can lead to confusion and frustration. But at what point does consistency become boring or stale? How much is too much?
Beyond creativity and UX, there’s the question of business needs and goals — which are complex and always evolving. These should never conform to a design system, and a design system should never get in their way. But if we’re constantly finding ourselves in a position of updating and revising the system to account for changing business objectives, the system starts to feel less and less useful.
Essentially, the argument against a design system is about freedom – or lack thereof – to create the best solutions. When we submit to a set of guidelines, when we’re limited to a specific set of tools, we’re sacrificing some of our decision-making capabilities. For many designers, that’s simply asking too much.
The Middle Ground
Our team understands the benefits and limitations of design systems. Simply put, a design system isn’t ever a substitute for skill and experience.
A design system is basically a set of rules, but rules and creativity aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, rules can foster the creative spirit: consider the alphabet, or music, or even math.
We believe it’s all about “seeing the forest for the trees.” Design systems are a great way to grow trees — to build a piece of something larger. But it’s never going to help you see the forest. Design system or not, high-level design is always going to require discernment and analysis, critical thinking and creativity. So long as we recognize them for what they are and what they are not, design systems can help us design more efficiently and deliver solutions that are as unique as they are useful.