A few weeks ago Jina Anne hosted the fourth Clarity conference – A community conference about Design systems. This year I was very fortunate to have Mojang sponsor a trip to San Francisco for my first attendance.
Design systems is more than a trend at this point, and I was very excited to get to nerd out for a few days with other people who do the type of work that I do with Minecraft.
Designing how we work
Before any design work happens, and before a Design system is formed and used, there is that system in place that shapes how that work happens.
This theme of designing this meta-system was revisited throughout the conference with a unique take on topic by almost every speaker.
Meta-design is much more difficult than design; it's easier to draw something than to explain how to draw it.
— Donald Knuth, The Metafont Book (1989)
Rune Madsen and Martin Bravo from Design Systems International captivated the audience with well-picked quotes like the above, which framed their presentation of case studies for clients.
And as if the Knuth quote wasn't enough, the Jack Burnham quote below summarised their thesis well, that systems needs a deeper encoding than the surface-level building blocks:
We are now in a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done.
— Jack Burnham, Systems Esthetics (1968)
Teresa Aguilera walked through quite a few methods for building a process and shared culture of design systems, based on how you'll involve consumers of the system in your organization.
The methods ranged from the classic Office Hours, to Lean UX and embedded team members, and the lenses of what you share with the partner team clarified where benefits come from.
(As pictured, office hours checks all the boxes)
Building systems tools
The fruitful relationships between design systems and software that supports it was another popular topic.
Design Systems International went into detail how they didn't just delivered design work, but applications and tools for the client to use on their own, to keep generating design according to the defined systems.
I missed out on capturing some of the neat examples on camera, but definitely check out the case studies on their website
Scorecard-tools was one of the exampless mentioned by Theresa, for building shared equity and helping shared execution.
Scorecards, if you haven't seen such tools, is way to present the status of design systems to visualize the state of the different components, and make the expectations of the system more clear.
Polaris is a good publicly-avaliable example.
Daniel Eden gestured toward our future of system's collaboration, in his Where We Can Go presentation (here's the online version).
Daniel emphasised the anthropological aspect of system's work at a company the size of Facebook, and the need for unifed work across disciplines.
In the above photo a systems-tool at Facebook was discussed, that was used for visualizing all the individual outcomes of tweaking a system component—A tool that goes hand-in-hand with another quote presented by the Design Systems International team:
A final point from Daniel that resonated is how we should always talk about systems as though they were real and fully functional, to not obfuscate the vision.
A system is always evolving, never finished, so there is no point short-selling it. What you have right now is a system.
Humane, holistic systems
"On one hand, components are a way to bake assumptions into our work, embedding barriers at a systemic level —
On the other, they’re an opportunity to embed accessibility best practices into our workflows & up front."
The above quote, paraphrased from Marcy Sutton's talk Garbage Pail Components, gets to the heart of another problem that many speakers approached—How we need to do more to build ethical and equitable systems.
Ethan Marcotte, Design Systems Lead at Vox Media, presented a captivating narrative that went into detail of the above topic.
To start off, Ethan described a simple enough example from his work — Making a "drop cap" typesetting accessible to users with screen readers.
The rest of his talk kept zooming out, and added historical context for how new technology promised freedom, but eventually became institutionalized and instead ended up disenfranchising the people.
Mina Markham described several example from her work, on making products not only internationally viable, but fully localized through custom graphic design, layout and data.
What I found especially interesting was the localized content design, with examples of how Slack localized language and avatars in screenshots that demonstrated the product.
Finally, Daniel Eden also touched on the topic, suggesting how systems and tools can not only ensure accessibility and localization, but also privacy, through ensuring that products based on the system protects the rights and data of customers.