It’s a great time to be in the field of experience design. More organizations are waking up to the business value of design and making it an enterprisewide priority. We recently estimated the size of the global design industry to be $162 billion and growing. Hiring of designers is also high: Over half of design teams told us they expect to grow in 2021, and one-third expected to grow by more than 25%.

But if you’re one of those many organizations making significant investments in design headcount, it’s important to ask yourself, “Are we doing the necessary things to maximize our investment so we unlock the business benefits of design?”

This question is key, because growing the design team is only one strategy for scaling design across an enterprise. I’ve found in my research, How To Scale Your Design Organization, that the best organizations focus on four other practices, as well. One of these practices is to align on a common set of principles, foundations, components, guidelines, and resources that allow designers to do their best work. How? By focusing the team’s time on solving uniquely differentiating design challenges instead of getting sucked in to reinventing the wheel by expending effort on design decisions (like how to align labels and fields on a form) that someone else at your firm has already figured out. A mature organization does this by creating a living, breathing design system.

Over the last year, we’ve seen a significant increase in companies adopting design systems. In 2020, 65% of companies told us they use design systems, and I project that number is going to continue to increase throughout 2021 for three reasons:

  • First, design systems help democratize design practice. Experience design (XD) teams can add lots of value to the business through design work that goes beyond efforts like designing buttons or form layouts. But they often lack the bandwidth to do so. So it’s good for the business if designers can make these tasks more efficient by democratizing the work they require. Design systems help teams do this by providing a set of user-experience-“blessed” components that developers and product managers can pull from when doing basic updates. This eliminates the need for XD pros to create yet another wireframe, freeing up that time for higher-impact work. As a member of Twitch’s design systems team said at SF Design Week, “The system [addresses] 80% of what design and development need so they can focus on the other 20%.”
  • Second, design systems help power accessibility efforts. More firms are recognizing what Forrester calls The Billion-Customer Opportunity: Digital Accessibility, and companies can use design systems to help achieve their accessibility goals. How? By making sure all design elements and code in the system adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it’s less likely that accessibility issues will creep into the organization’s digital experiences. Adobe’s Spectrum, Zendesk Garden, VMware’s Clarity, and Westpac GEL are just a few of the design systems that reflect accessibility throughout.
  • Third, design systems help indirectly improve talent retention. Ask any designer what they like least about their job, and you’re likely to hear things such as “I hate solving the same problem over and over again — like how to lay out a form.” Designers leave companies where they’re creating wireframes for the same design problem again and again to go where the work is more challenging and exciting. And exciting work means solving complex challenges that someone hasn’t already figured out — like reimagining an entire customer journey or designing an innovative new feature that fulfills an unmet customer need. Design systems document design decisions that are already made and can be applied again and again across products so that designers are not caught in this cycle of working on the same problems again and again.

Have you successfully put a design system in place? If you have and you’d be willing to share your story, please reach out to me! And if you’re just getting started and need some guidance on where to begin, check out our report, Get Your Design System Right: Approach It Like A Product, or feel free to set up an inquiry with me.