Making Design Systems Public

Is making your design system public worth the effort? In short: yes, it is.

March 17 2020 at 4:21 PM

Designers and developers often look for ways to make their work easier without sacrificing quality. After all, a design system is an attractive idea partially because its reusability makes design and development easier in a fraction of the time.

Unencumbered access to the documentation needed to use a design system plays a big part in how much that system is used. If the system is difficult to use or a practitioner can’t figure out how to use it, they’re often content to find another resource that’s easier for them, which is likely a big part of why many folks look to Bootstrap or Material Design over creating their own design system or even using the one they already have.

This begs the question: should all design systems be public?

What is a public design system? #

The phrase “public design system” seems to be shorthand to mean “a design system that has a publicly accessible reference site.” The Lightning Design System is a public design system because you can see its reference site at https://www.lightningdesignsystem.com/. Shopify’s Polaris is a public design system because you can see its reference site at https://polaris.shopify.com/. SuperFriendly’s Hall of Justice is a public design system because you can see its reference site at https://superfriendlydesign.systems/hall-of-justice/.

Why make a design system public? #

As design systems consultant Nathan Curtis puts it, “A design system’s value is realized when products ship features using parts from the system.” That’s why we focus so much on the piloting aspect of design systems: to focus on the products and process a design system can enable, not seeing creation of the system itself as the goal. If a design system exists but no one knows about it, how much value can you actually realize from it?

Front-end designer Brad Frost is explicit about this in his book Atomic Design. His subsection about making a design system public is part of a larger section called “Make it visible,” within a chapter entitled, “Maintaining Design Systems.” And rightly so! Making a design sytem public is a crucial part of understanding how to keep it managed and maintained. Brad explains that making a design system public:

The value of a public design system is apparent, but that’s not to say that it’s easy to pull off. Or is it?

How to make a design system public #

In theory, there’s not much to making a design system public. After all, if there’s one core skill a web designer or web developer should have, it’s taking some HTML files and putting them on a server that has an associated URL. (FTP, anyone? Perhaps this section should have been titled, “How to keep a design system public.”)

So what prevents a design system from being public? In short: business. If you work at an organization with enough sprawl to warrant a design system, chances are high that there’s an IT process for getting any site deployed. That process likely includes authentication of some form, and launching something publicly is one of the most risk-loaded actions you can undertake, so it has the most amount of rigor attached to it. We’ve seen this process take months or even be blocked all together. All of that can be a deterrent to even attempting to have a public design system.

In an interview about public vs. private design systems, LinkedIn senior UX Lead Nate Whitson makes it plain: “It’s non-trivial to be able to share all of your documentation publicly.” Nate expounds on that statement to say that sharing information outside a company means you have to additional context for the uninitiated, which amounts to extra overhead what you might write, design, and document.

But “public” isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of decision. The accepted definition of a “public design system” tends to refer to a design system with both a public reference site and an open-source code library. But in her chapter for the Design Systems Handbook, Diana Mounter describes the different degrees of how a design system can be public:

In his article, “Design Systems are About Relationships,” software engineer Ryan DeBeasi shares how he’s split the difference in the past. “We didn’t have permission to make our design system public, so we did the next best thing: we treated it like a small open-source project within the organization,” which reinforces the idea that making a design system public has many different flavors.

If there’s one thing you take away from this section, it’s that easy access to even some part of your design system is likely better than none.

Should your design system public? #

Yes, you should have a public design system. (What do you mean, “Why?” Because of all the reasons you just read about above! Get your head in the game!)

In all seriousness, there’s a lot of value for design system creators and consumers as well as the organization for a design system to be public. And remember: there isn’t just one version of “public.” Open access to something is better than nothing. Be kind to yourself and your team members. Give yourselves room and permission to not have fully public design system, or even a fully public design system yet. Unlock certain pieces over time, as you can. This is all a journey, so as long as you’re all marching together, you’re headed in the right direction.

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