Rustam K. Lead Designer

Every design is a system

The main thing that makes the designer stand out is systems thinking. Experienced designers usually have an outstanding way of thinking. And it won't even be about how they think, it will be about how they don't think.

They don't think of every design project as a design system. They don't value the interconnectedness of their design decisions. They solve design problems in isolation rather than as a whole.

To put the long story short, most of the novice designers lack systems thinking, and this is what prevents them from succeeding in the big, meaningful projects they so dream about. Of course they could learn new skills and develop new ways of thinking but in the current design education it would be extremely difficult

What is systems thinking?

Let’s address to Wikipedia here:

Systems thinking is the ability or skill to solve problems in complex systems. A system is an object with interconnected and interdependent parts; it is defined by its boundaries and is something more than the sum of its parts. A change in one part of the system affects the others and the system as a whole with predictable patterns of behavior.

Systematic thinking can refer to the universe, planet, a local population, an organization, or a household ecosystem - anything that has groups of parts interacting with each other to form a coherent whole.

Systems thinking beats the reductionism of design thinking which states that everything can be reduced to its individual parts and expansionism, which is a belief that a system is always a subsystem of some larger one.

In UX/UI design, systems thinking is not always connected with system design, although pattern libraries and design systems are often artifacts of large-scale systems thinking applied to the digital design process.

Systems thinking in design means that every decision you make affects both past and future decisions. Every pixel you draw is subject to the rules you previously established. When you make a change, no matter how big or small, it can affect your entire design and require some kind of update to keep the integrity of the system intact.

Everything you create, even if it's just a single page, is an ecosystem of components that need to live in harmony, not just coexist. If your system is inconsistent or incomplete, it cannot support its elements. Lack of systems thinking always leads to unintended consequences.


Why do designers underestimate systems thinking?

Designers love simplicity and minimalism. When a new level of interactions is added, solving problems in that space becomes exponentially more complex. Sometimes it's enough to make you drop everything or shift that responsibility to someone else. But the pursuit of simplicity is not achieved by ignoring complex problems.

Systems thinking is an awareness that requires you to hold many variables and connections in your head simultaneously. It requires a tremendous amount of attention and a broad perspective. And it's draining. No wonder many designers try to avoid it.

You avoid it when you think your project is too simple to need a design system. What if I'm creating a blog, a website with a brochure, an IG story template or a business card? Does it really need a design system? Does anyone besides product designers need all these systems?

You can also avoid systems thinking when your work is so disjointed that you simply can't see the rest of the system in which your creation will live. This is a big problem, because context is often at the forefront and cannot be neglected.

Systems can be a lot simpler than you think

You should keep in mind that every time you save a color pallet or font pattern, you define a system. When you reuse a permanent pattern, you are following the guidelines of your system. All those micro decisions you make subconsciously add up to a system, even if it is small.

Now you can see more clearly that every design project is a system. You have no chances to avoid systems thinking. You do it all the time, whether you realize it or not.

What ideal systems thinking looks like

Outstanding designers have one and the same approach for all of the projects no matter if they are big or small. An important part of a successful design process is an ongoing understanding of systematic thinking, which includes:

Atomizing work and reusing it in a timely, frequent manner - this automates system-wide changes and helps avoid rework and unintended consequences.

Define such basics as type, color and spacing as early as possible. Changing these fundamentals has the biggest impact on your system. Don't let them stay in motion for too long, or your system will become a mess.

Respect the butterfly effect. Never make a design decision without realizing in advance the magnitude of its impact. What appears to be a small change in one place can escalate into a major change at the other end of your system.

Keep track of the details and the big picture at the same time. Never lose sight of the integrity and consistency of your system when looking at even the smallest details

Strive for maximum consistency in your system.

Expand your research capabilities. A system that is too strict will stifle creativity. Systems must evolve organically over time. Defining a system means finding a balance between consistency and flexibility. You will feel this when you are too restricted by your system.

Learn how to stand your ground and explain why your choice is right. When you choose a certain style of text or form control, do you understand why? You will often have to justify and "sell" your design choices to customers, bosses, or employees.

Documenting your system. This can be a time-consuming task, but if anyone but you can work on your designs (including an external/internal developer), you need to document the decisions you make so that the system you created can be understood.

Systems thinking is the key to creating a coherent design because every project-regardless of its size-is governed by the system on which it is built. Ignoring that system is like building a sandcastle.

Systems thinking is also a method of balancing the reductive approach to problem solving that design thinking often creates. Anticipating and reducing unintended consequences before they occur is the peak of skill.


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