Design Systems and Emergence

Every once in a while you’ll hear that the editors of the Oxford Dictionary have nominated a particular word to be the “word of the year.” (In 2017, it was youthquake.) Have you wondered what that’s about? Aren’t dictionaries the standard reference on the language? Why change them?

There are two approaches to curating language: what the pros call prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. The two names tell you what you need to know about the differences between them. The prescriptive folks argue that there are set rules to language and that those rules need to be obeyed if the coherency of the language is to be maintained. The descriptive folks aim to describe language as it’s actually used; they spot patterns, such as the most frequently used new words, and fold those patterns back into the ruleset. (That’s how youthquake happens.)

In both cases, the rules still matter. Language enables communication. We need to be on the same page if we are to communicate: I need to know what the word you’re using means given its context. That’s why we have dictionaries and grammars. So the question is not one of whether or not a ruleset exists, but how (and by whom) the ruleset is created and managed.

When you’re developing a design system, you’re establishing a set of rules others will use to create information environments; your team’s role is like that of the editors of a dictionary or a grammar. I’ve seen many such systems during my career. Some failed because of over-prescription (the rules were too inflexible) while others were too lax. The more successful ones were the ones who established the right mix between prescription and description.

Like the dictionary curators, you want to develop a general grammar and vocabulary but then leave space to accommodate actual usage. Because of this, developing a design system is less an exercise in traditional design than one in systems design. You need to put in place not just the initial vocabulary and grammar, but also the governance structures that will make it possible for the vocabulary and grammar to evolve. The system should also provide mechanisms to accommodate emergence: components and uses the core design team couldn’t have predicted.

There is no final deliverable in such a system; only an ever-evolving artifact that designers and product managers use to establish common ground. The yearly edition of the dictionary comes from a time when publishing was a process that resulted in a fixed artifact: a printed book. We need not be beholden to such constraints: A design system ought to be a dynamic, ever-evolving information environment. (A meta-information environment, since it will be used to produce other information environments; much as dictionaries and grammars are meta-books.)