The future of design systems

Design systems aren't just for designers; code isn't just for engineers. The future of design systems is collaborative.

March 2, 2022
Chris Strahl

Since 2020, we’ve all been thinking about the future of work. Companies are moving to fully remote models, four-day workweeks, sky-high salaries, and unlimited PTO—but those are perks. When we at Knapsack talk about the future of work, we want to talk about the work: the ways we interact with each other and get things done.

Knapsack was built to represent the future of collaboration: to give designers, engineers, and content writers a place to work together.

We've just announced a $5.5M seed round lead by Gradient Ventures that is helping us continue to define the future of design systems. Read more about it here.

We imagine a world where design systems are more than repositories: they’re platforms for innovation. “Systems thinking,” a way of work that’s based on utilizing existing patterns and resources, will become the norm. We’ll rely on what has worked as a framework for creativity and experimentation.

Creative collaboration thrives inside guidelines, and design systems can be the springboard for that work. “Upstream” and “downstream” are words of the past; design systems turn designer-developer collaboration into a continuum. From a river to a waterwheel.

Design systems aren’t one-way streams

As they stand now, design systems move like rivers from requirements to UX, then to design, engineering, QA, and release. Changes and content travel that same path, and it gets exhausting.

It doesn’t have to be that way—and with Knapsack, it isn’t. We’ve built a waterwheel model where updates and builds travel to multiple places and channels. It’s not just a different collaboration model: it’s a different approach to building.

By taking advantage of established patterns, we can build on-brand working apps with high amounts of design value that achieve objectives in the most direct way possible, because they’re back up by data about what works. Business goals, accessibility requirements, and design standards have already been tested on previous builds. 

The goal is to build a robust centralized system of patterns that supports your team in building and innovating, now and in the future.

We see four impacts of this approach:

  • Data will start telling stories
  • Code will become accessible to non-engineers
  • Systems thinking will include content
  • Automation will take care of mundane tasks

1. Data tells a story

Product ideation doesn’t have to be data-driven—but the process works more efficiently, and the results are predictably better, when it is. When collected and used well, data is the key to building impactful products. 

Data-driven design and engineering are core elements of pattern-based building. By analyzing what has and hasn’t worked in past releases, we can create design systems that reflect success and failures—and working, usable patterns.

2. Code shouldn’t just be for engineers

Cross-functional collaboration demands transparency. How can we work together if we don’t understand each others’ work? For designers and developers to work together, they need to not only share workspaces but understand each others’ work.

We're trying to make code become more accessible to non-technical people. And through that, what we're able to do is we're able to harness democratization inside of an organization.

Especially while so many companies are experiencing hypergrowth, hiring niche talent can feel impossible—and it’s taking a long time to get new hires on board. That means we’re stuck scaling that design and capability across different product teams and different products without the teams and talent we planned on having with us. To fight back against that, we should be focusing on democratization. How do we make it easy for anyone to draw boxes and turn those into coded components? Think about taking the code that you already have and making it practically accessible to everybody else.

3. Systems thinking includes design and engineering—but that’s not all

Design systems are built to serve product teams in their entirety—not just designers and engineers, but content writers, product managers, and executive stakeholders too. For systems thinking to become your product team’s de-facto way of work, it can’t be limited to design and code.

Design systems aren’t just repositories for building blocks and documentation: they’re the inner workings of your digital products. To foster collaboration, they have to be open and available to everyone—the people doing the work, and the people benefiting from it. Inclusive systems thinking fosters holistic decision-making that benefits everyone on your product team.

4. Automation leads to better innovation

We all know what a good password reset email looks like. 

We don’t need to spend another minute writing, designing, or coding one.

Same goes with newsletters, terms of use pages, and possibly (probably) most landing pages. They’re not the dynamic or interesting parts of product work. So why shouldn’t we lean into automation for these kinds of projects?

Our vote for the future: anything that is not core or canon to your unique experience that brings people back should be automated. We can get so stuck in the weeds trying to build innovative shopping carts or banners that we don’t end up innovating anything at all. What we need is differentiators: experiences that are more streamlined, A+ accessibility on every page, consistent content.

The future is collaborative

The future is accessible. The future is streamlined. The future is consistent. The future is space and time to innovate because the busywork has been taken care of.

The future is alignment. The future is cross-functional. The future is digital products that stand out from each other. The future is mutual respect between designers and developers. 

The future isn’t far off. We’re hiring to make it happen faster.

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