Beyond design systems for interfaces: an ecosystem of design systems | by Marie Lu Vinh


An ecosystem of design systems

Our design systems are a series of independent systems, sometimes nested within each other or co-existing in the same planes, yet they influence each other. Disruption to one might lead to more or less impact on another one. Or maybe a catastrophic event disrupts all of them at once.

To illustrate the idea, let’s imagine our ecosystem of design systems as being a series of restaurants, their set menus, recipes and ingredients.

Suppose each of those restaurants belongs to the same organisation…or part of a franchise. They share a common philosophy, certain values and vision, and brand elements. They tap into the same playbook of guidelines and objectives to drive their individual offering. Yet each restaurant manifests itself differently: maybe they have different themes and specific variations based on factors like their location.

Each restaurant has its own brand identity, and its way of applying the playbook. Distinct yet part of a whole.

They have their own brand and guidelines, operate somewhat independently, and have different values and principles.

Say each restaurant offers different 3-course set menus. Because they belong to the same mother organisation, they might be sharing knowledge and recipes with each other. Some of them might offer the same menu…albeit with a small variation to match their brand and story.

Each restaurant serves a pill-shaped menu but with some variations suitable for their own brand.

Menus are composed of different dishes. A given dish might be featured in several menus, or only in 1 menu. If repeated across menus, they might be subject to variations to match the menu and restaurant that serves it. Each dish has its own purpose in the dining experience, designed with consideration about how it is plated, what it looks, tastes, smells and feels like; how you might interact with it.

Dishes are of course made from simple or complex components: base ingredients combined (or not) are of care made from complex or simple ingredients. Just like interfaces are built using components from the design system.

Each system influences the others. If the essence of one system-level changes, it might affect another one. This can be driven by internal change or external events. In our restaurant analogy, this could be events like the availability of some ingredients changes. Dishes must be adapted to maintain harmony but this sometimes means changing the flavour direction or presentation, and triggering and larger response or changes. Or maybe the brand direction and strategy change: restaurants are asked to target a different audience. Their menus, dishes and ingredients must be adapted to suit the new guidelines.

For organisations providing services and products, this could be new regulations or other market forces. It might not affect the company’s vision, the brand or the service experience…but maybe it will create significant changes in the services you can provide for some key user journeys or interfaces.

This restaurant analogy is not perfect, but I hope it helps clarify the essence of what I mean by levels of design systems. I’ve only chosen it to illustrate how intertwined different levels of systems might be.

In reality, the hierarchy between the levels may not be as clear-cut as in this example, where each level visibly operates on a different scale. For example, a service might feature several products, but a product might also make use of several services. More on this later.


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