Ethan Marcotte: “Through a design system, darkly.”

I appreciated this post by Ethan Marcotte, with his observations on the emergence and usage of design systems:

Users of a design system frequently uncover new needs that weren’t originally anticipated. The result is that there’s now a gap: between the standard and the use. The design system falls out of sync with real-world application. And we’re back dealing with a fancier version of the old problem we used to have: our interfaces are no longer consistent.

This is an incomplete thought, but: the work that goes into making artifacts, deliverables — and, yes, patterns — is where the value lies, more than in the artifact itself. In other words, the process-led approach that Ethan advocates for here could be a way to recognize that the design system is less of a fixed entity, and more of an evolving organism:

Rather than starting with design patterns, we need to looking at the ways our teams currently work, and then identifying how a design system would function within that broader organizational context.

The process-led approach strikes me as descriptivist, the pattern-led approach as prescriptivist. That’s too simplistic, perhaps — you need a bit of both — but identifying those two overlapping approaches would serve all of us well.