Mike Bowser from Vista: The past, present, and future of design systems

Mike and Chris discuss design systems at the enterprise level, the history of systems, and UX design at the beginning of the internet.

February 7, 2022
by
Shayna Hodkin

Listen to the episode here.

Chris:

Hey everybody, welcome to the program. This is Chris, your host. Today I'm with Mike Bowser. He's formerly the Global Creative Director at the AP. He's the current design director in charge of design Systems at Vistaprint, which you guys might be knowing... Or Well, let me retake that actually. He's the Design Director in charge of Design Systems for Vista, which you guys might formally know as Vistaprint. He also teaches the Design Systems course at the Parsons School of Design. Mike, thanks for being with us.

Mike Bowser:

Hey Chris, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Chris:

So, I was really excited in this conversation largely because you take this historical perspective to systems thinking and a systems point of view and this idea of three work teaching and understanding of where all this stuff comes from. So, help me understand a little bit about that historical context that informs how you think about this world?

Mike Bowser:

Sure. Yeah, I was really excited to have the opportunity to teach the class and that required putting together a curriculum, and obviously trying to figure out how to break up these emerging and complex subjects. So, one of the areas that I wanted to focus on was the evolution of design systems. And that allowed me to go back and really dig in all the way back hundreds of years and what that has looked like in change over time.

Chris:

So where does the starting point really, I guess, begin for you in this historical viewpoint?

Mike Bowser:

Well, I went all the way back to moveable type as lot of folks do when they talk about design and design systems. And I just looked at what some of the important evolutions in graphic design over time and so probably not unlike what you would have in a history of graphic design course. But I focused in on specifically how decisions were being made that would facilitate efficiency and design it scale. And I found that to be a really interesting place to focus. So the evolution of identity systems and even going back further than that, starting to develop specific typefaces for organizations and the idea that an organization might be represented by a particular typeface, and then how those design patterns would start to become easier and more scalable for designers contributing to that system.

Chris:

Got you. So this idea that there is identity that is wrapped up in your system that ultimately represents concept or an organization or a person even?

Mike Bowser:

I think that they, that was an important part in the evolution of systems because when corporations started, this goes back to late 1800s and early 1900s start to be identified by identity systems. But then in particular in a systems thinking way, how design patterns started to emerge out of some of those decisions and allow for design at scale, which I found to be super interesting, obviously, especially in the context of teaching design systems.

Chris:

Got you. So when you think about the evolution from type systems and identity into more modern concepts like Alexandrian patterns and atomic design. help me understand how you go from thinking about those very early systems into that more modern context?

Mike Bowser:

Sure. Yeah, one of the examples that really stood out to me which I like was Unigrid System. And I think that that's one that gets referenced a lot and it should. That was designed in 1977 and then went on to win a Presidential Design Award in 1985. And one of the quotes from that was, the program fulfills the primary objective of a design system, which is reducing routine decisions so that efforts can be concentrated on quality. And I really like that idea. And in looking at that system, super tight grid structure and typography and everything that was needed to create super effective design at scale.

Mike Bowser:

And so I think coming out of the what might be considered more traditional design considerations, typography color grid, and structure and going into digital product design, I think that the concentration is still there in thinking about how to create a system that can scale, but maintains quality so that you're giving the freedom empowering designers to make good decisions, but do that in a way that's still changes that quality thread.

Chris:

So the idea of scale, it's less about necessarily the ability to have a bunch of digital products or to have a large team involved in design, but a lot more leans on that effectiveness, that ability to reduce the mundane so that you can focus on things like quality or create those repeatable patterns. So there's not a redefinition every time you try to build a part of a product.

Mike Bowser:

I think so. Yeah. And it's an interesting space. Obviously, like designing systems is not a new thing, I think that having dedicated teams is a little bit more of a new thing meeting in the past few years. And now you're seeing large organizations scale that concept. And it does give the opportunity to look at some of the more underserved or areas that have benefited from less focus throughout apps and applications and see what can be made more interesting about that. How can that be further connected to whatever an organization's identity or differentiation in visual design might be?

Chris:

Yeah, it's a really interesting concept because we talk frequently about the perimeter thesis of why design systems exist. That interdisciplinary cross-functional workspace where people collaborate around these patterns is obviously a really essential part of it. And it goes beyond just components that are visualizing code in a repo or well structured design files that have a managed set of variants and good handoff tools and all that other sort of stuff. It's really about this representation of this collaborative space where people go to actually define and build these patterns. Have you seen that gap play out in your experience or change in some meaningful way as you've begun to think about this from a historical context moving into your role now?

Mike Bowser:

I have, yeah. Part of what attracted me to systems, and I hear this as a theme when I hear other people that have talked about their experience in systems is I think like the hybrid nature of designers that find systems work interesting. I taught myself early on how to code. And I like the idea of being able to prototype. I was always fascinated with what was possible with design in code, what it actually looks like in a product UI. And so I think for a lot of folks that I've worked with that that has also been true. And so visualizing design in that way and actually being able to access code is critical.

Mike Bowser:

And I see that in a lot of instances, especially in my new role now, being able to go in and actually see what happens when it's not as easy for a designer to control everything about the design. And that's where when you start to get into localization and different aspect ratios for images and different cropping at different sizes, it's not necessarily anything new in terms of the challenges of digital product design. But when you can move the conversation to being able to see how these components or patterns are actually holding up or where they break and flex, it becomes a lot more meaningful in terms of those conversations and how to make adjustments.

Chris:

Got you. And you're actually rooting something in the medium its destined for instead of this idea of, let's think about this mores strictly. I love the idea that a lot of these concepts aren't new on their own, but the way we're thinking about working on them is somewhat new.

Chris:

And like you said, there's this the first time just very recently, I would say within the past three or maybe five years, you've actually had a lot of dedicated teams to these sorts of practices. I think it's where you get DesignOps. I think it's where you get design systems. I think it's where you get a lot of these structured systems for tackling exactly this space of how do we collaborate more closely into a medium that ultimately is consumed by users?

Mike Bowser:

Yeah, absolutely. And it's been interesting to see that develop. I think it started with organizations thinking about UX Maturity and what that has looked like for teams. And now you have a lot of very UX mature organizations. And I think then DesignOps and systems started to evolve in many ways, organically. There was a need that was filled. And I think it's been nice to see that evolution continue, and to have adjacent teams start to think about the benefits of working with DesignOps and design systems and how that might help them, what they're bringing to digital product design.

Chris:

Got you. So you see design systems almost as this natural organic extension of work that was already happening with a system space viewpoint in UX?

Mike Bowser:

I think so. Yeah, in many ways, it's codifying some of those decisions and research and scaling that out. And for me, that's been important when I think about components evolving into patterns. And I try not to get too hung up on language around how components might be broken out. I think language is critical. I try to be consistent behind the scenes of systems and how we do that work together. But I think having the UX rationale be a little bit easier to access, for anybody that's working with the system, benefits the organization as a whole. And there's a clear understanding of why decisions were made. And then that's what provides that focus of, okay, I don't know that I need to rethink this right now. Let me go and look at some other part.

Chris:

Got you. And so how is your... This is going to be a funny question. So you've been doing this for a while. You've been thinking about this stuff in historical context. You've lived some of these historical contexts. Give me a sense of that journey from going from working in this industry a number of years ago where these established systems didn't exist? And now looking at a much more modern or even to the future viewpoint where these systems are front and center in the creative process associated of building an application? For you personally, what has changed in, in your career path there?

Mike Bowser:

A lot has changed since I've been doing this. I remember I worked in an early startup that was actually called myway.com way back in the day when internet portals were the thing and everyone was trying to figure out what that space look like. And then and even before looking at identity systems that were just starting to lean into what it was going to look like online, that was really fascinating to me, and to see the work that people were doing, thinking about all of the different areas that would need to be considered as organizations were transitioning online.

And then that growth, for me personally, I probably violated a ton of best practices in stumbling my way into learning about the right way to do things. And what became clear was that if you took the time to really think through, but not overthink, just start with enough components and patterns to start to put things together in a meaningful way, that had a lot of positive impact. And then it also got buying and adoption because it became easier to build with and design with because the pieces were already there and in place. And so it became very helpful.

Chris:

Yeah, those fundamental building blocks being what you started with instead of a blank screen.

Mike Bowser:

Absolutely. Yeah.

Chris:

Yeah, so tell me a little bit about that? Now you've gone from thinking about this in a startup context to leading this at rather substantial and important organizations. Through that journey, how do you think about team dynamics within this systems point of view? How do you think about adoption of these sorts of systems?

Mike Bowser:

I think about it a lot through the lens of the people that are contributing to the system and then will need to work with the system. And so thinking of about the design system is a product which a lot of folks that I've listened to over the years have talked about. So, certainly not a new concept, but I think an important one, understanding how to apply the same good product management principles that you would to any other product to a system, meaning listening to your stakeholders, listening to the folks that are going to have to work with this, understanding what they need and baking that in and making sure that there's all of the necessary feedback mechanisms and prototyping mechanisms to make sure that it's not a one-sided conversation.

Chris:

And how's your teaching informed that? Or is it the other way around? Has your experience informed your teaching?

Mike Bowser:

It's a little bit of both. I learned a lot, like I said, by going deep into research. And my hats off to all the pioneers both back in the day and in the contemporary sense that have [inaudible 00:13:32] out a path to make systems more of a tangible thing for large organizations. So, I learned a ton in that research, and then I learned from the students who take the course. And again, focusing on people, I think is really critical.

Mike Bowser:

I'm interested now, like when I think about team building for design systems, now we have a lot of product designers with great design systems experience, I think it's also important. And I would recommend for other folks that are putting teams together to also look at skillsets that can help us think differently about how we develop and apply systems, meaning there's a need obviously to be super organized. And I think that design systems designers probably also could be very good project managers and tend to be very detail-oriented and that's important. But I think it's also important to challenge the system that you're developing and making sure that you're trying things that probably you shouldn't be trying and maybe you won't work, but at least you're sparking some conversation and taking a look at that. And you probably will have enough people within your broader team to give feedback on that. But it's important to have that innovative mindset.

Chris:

So is that about just sparking innovation or is that about trying to be innovative in a new way because this is still an evolving space in an evolving industry where not all the best practices are known or baked in to our daily work?

Mike Bowser:

It's certainly about understanding that it's still a process of discovery and baking in some of those best practices. But I think it's also critical important to remember that we are still designing. And so we are still trying to differentiate a product and an experience through design. And so we don't want to become too reliant on efficiency alone. It's not just about that. It is for sure, but I think it's also about making sure that as those decisions create the space to improve quality in other areas that then you're looking at, well, how actually are we going to do that? What are the things that we're carving out the space for? And how are we going to maybe become a little bit uncomfortable with where we're going to see if these ideas can work?

Chris:

Got you. Got you. Yeah, it's interesting. There's always this question of, how do I have a system that is highly scalable? That is able to adapt and mold itself to a lot of different design requirements? The idea that a design system can be constraining or feel constraining instead of empowering? How do you view that? And through what lens do you talk to people on your team when they run up to those constraints?

Mike Bowser:

Yeah, I've heard conversations about that. I think it's scarier for me as a designer to have the absence of constraints. I think that there needs to be... There's always going to be constraints from the business strategy side, from understanding who it is that you're designing for and why. And I look at the constraints as tools for getting to better decisions more quickly.

Mike Bowser:

So, I think that if the feeling was that a system was far too constrained, then it might be more worth reevaluating, understanding where that tension or frustration is coming from. But generally, I think if you take the time to think through systems architecture,= collaboratively with designers and engineers, you're more likely to end up in a place that empowers a lot of future-thinking designs, and designers will feel more empowered than constrained, but that that's probably unique to each system.

Chris:

Yeah, how does that work for you guys at Vista? You're in the process of a lot of change at the organization, not just the brand, but I'm sure a lot of other things in the organization as well as it relates to systems. What are the ways that you guys are looking at the systems you have now, thinking about that future and adapting them so that they don't feel constraining, that they feel like they're aiding in all the change that's happening?

Mike Bowser:

It's interesting at Vista because I think it's a little bit atypical of a lot of other organizations with respect to design systems because it started more as an engineering led pursuit. And so we have a fully functional component library, and there were a lot of really smart decisions made about how those components were made available. And there were some really great decision on the design side too. But I think the engineering outpaced design in terms of guidelines and documentations and things like that.

Mike Bowser:

So I'm thinking about how to express those decisions and what that will look like, but then also how to start to bring together other systems and what that might look like. And probably that means starting with either design tokens or pilot projects where we can start to experiment, and then have that inform of what we're doing.

Mike Bowser:

So, I think at this point we're probably a little transactional. And then over time, we'll start to lead with some ideas and hopefully have other folks or adjacent teams around the organization start to see some of those ideas in application and work with us in that way.

Chris:

Got you. So you're looking to nail the basics and then iteratively build from there? And you were just mentioning you had really good adoption. What are some of the other things that you're looking to do either with tooling or with process or with people that are going to help you foster this system across the organization?

Mike Bowser:

Yeah, sure. Yeah, we do have a good adoption. Everyone from the CEO on down understands the value of working in systems and the efficiencies and innovations that that can help for us. So, even we brought in a [inaudible 00:19:27] and that's a helpful way for us to visualize what that looks like. I think that that for me is a big change.

Mike Bowser:

When I first came on, I was talking about systems with some adjacent team members. And I'm a huge fan of Mural Cooper, MIT press. And in the research that I did in teaching looked closely at a lot of the work that she had done. And in her earlier efforts, she talked a lot about the reduction of the real time gap between concept and visualization. For me, that's like... I think that's a really important construct to keep in mind. And I think that being able to see... Bringing the designers closer together with the developers and being able to have those conversations like we talked about earlier is super valuable.

Chris:

Yeah, that common workspace again. That place where a lot of decisions get made, and reducing the time between those handoffs. I've definitely been on projects before where the designs that you've received as an engineer are months old. And then when you go to ask questions of that design team because there's a missing benefit fidelity or something that is inconsistent, that designer might have moved on and that's two or three projects ago.

Chris:

And so that iterative loop of what are we building, what are the decisions that we're making, what are the ways that we're thinking about this, the faster we're able to make that loop happen, the more real-time it is, the better off we are. And that goes, I think both for the design and the engineering in front. We shouldn't have to wait for a build process to be able to visualize our components. We shouldn't have to wait for an engineering review or a creative review meeting to get feedback on design. I think that there's a lot more of this real time way of working that we're all moving towards as we embrace these systems.

Mike Bowser:

I think so. And it changes so fast, not just in tooling and ways of working. And I think what is now an API plugin will eventually become part of the tool that you're using. And the way that we'll communicate on the back end continues to rapidly evolve. So I find that to be pretty fascinating. And I think that those methods also help to close that gap and we work together.

Mike Bowser:

I think also you're asking about the evolution at Vista. One of the other unique challenges is that we're trying to build in as much flexibility into the system overall. We're going through a rethinking of our identity system and brand system and things like that, and that all obviously has in effect on decisions that we make about the product UI. So trying to anticipate that and figure out what's the right way to scale, knowing that we have a lot of future change ahead of us.

Chris:

So when you think about the future considerations of how your system's going to grow and evolve as you becomes more adopted at Vista, what are some of those things that you're thinking of about?

Mike Bowser:

Yeah, I think it's a little bit counterintuitive to me because I've tended with teams that I've led in the past to make sure that we're nimble and can respond quickly to project needs. Certainly at the associated press, which is a breaking news organization, there's a need to be quick and responsive. And I think now I'm investing a little bit more upfront into some of the processes that will help us scale and really ironing out ways of working and making sure that we engineer in enough flexibility so that some of the things that we're anticipating coming our way don't become blockers for us as we scale.

Chris:

Got you. So you come from a place that is actually engineering-led in its implementation of its design system. I think that while that's not unheard of, our experiences it's more than twice as likely that it comes out of the design organization first. What sort of differences has that made for you? And how has bringing design in after there's already a robust engineering system changed the way you think about this stuff?

Mike Bowser:

I don't know that it's changed the way I think about it. I think it's that it's a little bit more just adapting to what the environment is. So for me, code is the source of truth because that's what the users are actually using. And so I think it's about building good relationships with the engineering teams and understanding what's needed in order who have design realized in the way that the UX and product designers are thinking about it. And I also think that, again, with the focus on people, engineers, they have a certain way of working with stakeholders and with other folks and product folks do and UX. And so I think it's about understanding how to get alignment on what the initiatives and the mission is, and then figuring out the best way to make that happen.

Chris:

So, one last thing relating back to the original part of the conversation around, you're learning some research here. As these systems get created, there's this necessity for these interdisciplinary cross-disciplinary groups to get closer together. Is there a historical precedence here in other parts of design or engineering where we can look at a designer today and say pretty definitively that the people that are designing today in the world of digital are closer to the code they've ever been> and I think that likewise, you could say on the front end developer side of things, those folks are closer to design than they've ever been. Is there another historical marker for this cross-disciplinary need?

Mike Bowser:

Man, that's a tough question.

Chris:

I fired the big shots over here. What can I say?

Mike Bowser:

Yeah. I don't know that I have an exact example for that. I'm sure, obviously there's many throughout history. But I think anytime that teams are coming together to do anything important or at scale, you have to have ways of working together that facilitate listening, prototyping, testing, validating. It doesn't necessarily mean that it's like a huge initiative or a big company, but you make a good point about that we're a little bit closer now to those disciplines. And I think for me, the common thread there is communication. It's about how we communicate with each other in a way that makes it clear how we need to work together. So there's a lot of different ways that we can do that and some work better than others. But I have learned over the course of my career that understanding communication is critical to the success of cross-functional teams working together.

Chris:

Awesome. Well, hey, Mike, I really appreciate you being on today, chatting with us about your historical perspective and what's happening for you, and even a little window into the future. So much obliged. Thank you so much for being on the program.

Mike Bowser:

Yeah, thanks, Chris. It was a pleasure to be on with you. I really appreciate it.

Chris:

That's all for today. This has been another episode of the Design Systems Podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any questions or a topic you'd like to know more about, find us on Twitter @TheDSPod. We'd love to hear from you with show ideas, recommendations, questions, or comments. As always, this pod is brought to you by Knapsack. You can check us out at knapsack.cloud. Have a great day.


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