Idean is a global design agency with 24 studios across 4 continents. They use the power of design, technology and business to create great products and services that transform organisations. Forrester this year recommended Idean for Design System initiatives.

We spoke to Jules Mahé (design system expert at Idean) about how Idean use zeroheight with their clients and their process for building a successful design system.

Idean + zeroheight

How do you approach a design system project?

We start with the definition of what we like to call the 'perceptual patterns', which is all the colours, fonts, shadows, icons – everything that builds a brand and its identity. When we have this foundation defined, zeroheight becomes the interface helping us to provide the components for developers and evangelise the designs to other teams inside our client's organisation.

At Idean we think that documentation is at the heart of a design system, but it's actually not an easy task! That's why we are really close to our clients and help to write their documentation so they can start off with a solid foundation and learn how to do it properly.

At Idean we think that documentation is at the heart of a design system, but it's actually not an easy task!
The homepage of Flashlight, a design system built by Idean

What do you see as the biggest value of a design system?

The biggest value of a design system is to bring teams closer together so they can work better and faster. A design system is also a powerful tool to evangelise and leverage a design culture within an organisation. I guess it's really about the human and cultural aspect of it.

A design system is a powerful tool to evangelise and leverage a design culture within an organisation.

What are the biggest challenges you've seen with design systems?

The biggest challenge I've faced with design systems is how to maintain them over time so they don't die! That's why it's important to design the process and have a clear roadmap to help guide your design system over time. You really have to have a team for your design system that can maintain it, evangelise it and help people to adopt it. So yeah – process, roadmap, people.

You really have to have a team for your design system that can maintain it, evangelise it and help people to adopt it.

How do you encourage adoption and build a design system community?

I think the best way to encourage adoption is to avoid the term 'design system' altogether because it's probably not the right term for your organisation! We help our clients to find the name that fits their values, brands, and teams. We work with all the people involved with the design system e.g. designers, developers, communication experts, product owners. With the right name it's easier for everyone to adopt the design system because it doesn't relate to a specific team or a specific skill.

For example, for our client Crédit Agricole, we named their design system 'Muesli'. It really tells a story because Crédit Agricole was, when initially founded, a bank aimed at farmers and so we identified the link with cereals and fields. 'Muesli' aggregates all the different cereals in a bowl so it's a bit like Atomic Design. As a result everybody at Crédit Agricole talks about 'Muesli' and not design systems – 'Muesli' is a real product and it really helps to create a community.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting to build a design system?

You have to start with the right questions – what problems are you trying to solve with this design system? Is it about consistency, is it about reducing the cost? Is it about working better with your teams? What's the foundation of your brand? What are your values? How flexible should your design system be regarding all the products it has to align? Does it have to be really strict because you want everything to be consistent? So start with all these questions because it will guide you when you create the perceptual patterns, functional patterns and libraries.

A component documentation page built using zeroheight

Who should be involved in creating a design system?

I think that you need to have different skills and jobs represented in the design system team. The minimum you need is at least one designer and one developer who lead the design system team, as well as someone from the product owner team. I think having at least these three people is great because they will be good ambassadors for the whole design and development team – they need to spread and evangelise the design system across their own teams. If you have your core team represented by these experts it helps to encourage adoption.

How will design systems be different in 3 years?

Today we are naturally all wondering how to build a design system. But in the future, when everyone has their own design system, the questions will be 'how do you maintain it in the long run?', 'how do you manage a design system team?', 'how can I be creative with a design system?', 'do I need a community manager for my design system community?' etc.

What are you excited about in the design system space?

I see all this effort we are putting into design systems as an investment to stop working on details which don't add value and start working on what we are best at: experience, emotion and users. I really think that design systems are a transition to help us focus on what we are best at – and what technology can't do – and that's the human side of design.

I really think that design systems are a transition to help us focus on what we are best at – and what technology can't do – and that's the human side of design.

You can find out more about Idean here and find Jules on Medium. Get started building your own documentation with zeroheight for free.