5 Point Guide for Implementing a Brand Design System

By Bek Agius
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28 October 2019

Some organisations are better than others at effectively managing and evolving brand over time. For some, simply producing a style guide every 3 years and providing static branded material to their organisation meets the basic criteria. For those looking to really invest in brand long-term, a living, breathing design system is just what the doctor ordered. 

If you missed it, recently we wrote an article on the basics of what a design system is. This will help you with grasping the basics of the concept. Once you're able to start thinking about brand in relation to all its parts and applications, it changes the way that you think about design projects in general, whether digital or print. 

We'll talk a little more about the why, when and who of starting to implement a design system within your organisation to fuel more consistent production with particular emphasis on skillsets and maintenance.

When would I use a design system?

The decision to develop a design system is not one that every organisation is ready for. There are a set of specific criteria of 'ducks that should be in a row' in terms of brand before undertaking a design system project. The easiest sense check is to make sure you can answer yes to all of the below questions:

  1. Do you have a robust set of brand guidelines?
  2. Have they been iterated over a period of at least 3 years?
  3. Do you have good spread of digital and print collateral?
  4. Do you have an organisational focus on brand consistency and integrity?
  5. Do you have well-defined rules around how elements are used or a desire to move toward this?

If you're nodding ardently at your screen, it's time to start thinking about what's involved in starting a design system and what the point of the work is for your organisation.

What is the point?

The best illustration of the need and value of a design system is the Case Study around SuperFriendly working with General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to find a scalable way to allow stakeholders to roll out consistent looking websites easily. 

The major barriers in this case were that all the websites in circulation had vastly different aesthetics and also that the client decision-makers weren't technologically savvy enough to immediately appreciate the value that a design system would bring to the project.

So what was the answer? Web Manager Brent Hardinge decided to print a sample thumbnail of every live website under the organisation's umbrella and mounted and presented them all side-by-side to stakeholders to display in a simple, visual way the extent of the visual identity problem. 

Collected boards to demonstrate the lack of design system

Source: https://superfriendlydesign.systems/articles/selling-design-systems/

This case study shows us that it isn't always easy to see a consistency problem that can be solved by a design system. By bringing all the collateral together and getting back to basics, it's easier to find the holes, create rules to simplify, and create centralised consistency to maintain a strong brand identity moving forwards. It also helped empower decision-makers that the money being spent would be worthwhile in the long run. 

Who is responsible for creating and maintaining a design system?

Once you've decided that a design system is the right choice, you'll need to assemble a team of experts for creation, evolution and maintenance. 

The type of skillsets required to make it all happen include:

  • Web Designer / Developer: Your web developer and designer will be responsible for creating the design system. Ideally within your team you'd have a more senior developer to act as a team lead as well as a support. Their job would involve setting up the code, deploying to the web and maintaining the code over time. 
  • Graphic Designer: This would ideally be the designer responsible for creating and/or maintaining the brand guidelines - someone who knows the brand inside and out and can be responsible for the aesthetics and rules that comprise the design system. 
  • Content Expert: Your content expert could be focussed on UX or marketing content - their responsibility is to inform the tone of voice behind the brand as well as the voice behind the design system for anyone needing to use it. 
  • Project Manager: Lastly you'll need someone organised to keep the initial build on track, sense-check the design system from a non-technical perspective and keep innovation a priority.

How do I know when it's right to invest in a Design System?

Timing is everything - in life and in design systems. The best time to dive in is when you're feeling the pain caused by a high volume of brand-related projects that require highly manual maintenance by an overworked team. 

We've listed a few indicators that might suggest the right time is now:

  • You're finding more and more problems with inconsistencies across printed collateral and online material
  • Your team is constantly struggling to meet deadlines
  • The design and/or development teams are overstressed and overworked
  • You're staring down the barrel of a major brand-driven project or campaign
  • You're about to embark upon a brand refresh
  • You have just been through a brand refresh
  • You're struggling to make the brand guidelines stick and be actively used within the organisation
  • Marketing management has transitioned within the organisation which has lead to an increase in activations and a faster pace of delivery

If your brand team is finding themselves in any of the above scenarios, it may be worthwhile taking the time to establish a design system preventatively to enable faster, more accurate production of collateral in the near and distant future. 

What are the benefits of using a Design System?

While there is some time and money involved in getting a design system off the ground, the benefits to your brand, and internal brand teams can be huge.

Firstly, when elements of the brand change, you're updating 1 central location that spills into every piece of collateral. This means you can trust that once a decision has been made, it is quick and easy to ensure the change has been made everywhere. 

Also, it will save time in design and development, meaning that more technical and creative projects can be undertaken with time that would normally be spent on tedious work. 

Secondly, it brings teams together who should work together, but would normally be siloed due to differences in skillset or ownership. Suddenly the creative and technical teams own the brand together and can be empowered to innovate the brand with purpose. 

Lastly, a design system allows you to take the guesswork out of developing collateral and gets everyone in the organisation speaking the same language in every sense. 

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