On Visual Design

I am a designer and I do not have an innate talent for visual design. I am not just a UX designer; creating beautiful visual designs is part of how I describe my professional skills. My ability as a visual designer is a direct result of working at it. I’ve worked hard to get better at visuals, enough so, that I am decent at it.

That means that I may rely on existing patterns more than some other designers. My designs are not artistic, but they are simple and coherent.

I get there by iterating and by relying on design systems. My story of visual design is one of design systems. A design system, quickly defined, is a set of patterns and rules of which a design follows. So much of visual design is the repetition of colors, sizes and spacing that the consistency of a design system creates a coherent visual design that results in something better looking.

My story of visual design is one of design systems.

Design systems can help weaker visual designers create better visual designs. But they also create consistency when scaling the number of designers working in a system.

A strong design system can prevent the worst visual design from happening. It won’t create amazing visual design by itself, but it gives the foundation for amazing visual design.

But who designs the design system? Early in the design maturity of an organization, does the designer who creates a design system have to be a fundamentally talented designer?

Maybe this is my own personal strengths biasing my opinion, but no. A design system is something that can be created by a less-than-amazing visual designer.

There a few specifics of a design system that can make for a solid foundation. These specifics are not necessarily difficult design decisions. If a design system has defined system of typography (headers & body fonts, sizes), colors (brand colors, cta colors, font colors), spacing (8pt system, margins / grid) and a few fundamental components defined (buttons, cards, dialogs, form fields) then it is almost there.

The rest of successfully using a design system is to stick to it. This may be the hardest part for both new or confident designers.

The funny thing about design systems is the reason why they’d fail is if they’re not adhered to. If they aren’t adhered to, the product as a whole looks less good. I’d venture to say that a bad design system which is adhered to produces better designs than a good design system that is ignored.

Design systems can be quirky and different from a designer’s personal style. But a good designer will stick to it and learn it’s quirks. Do not try to “evolve” a design system organically through designing features. This just leads to inconsistencies

There are a couple tricks to make it easier to adhere to a design system:

1.  Have all the designers using the same design software; ideally one that utilizes symbols.

2.  Share stickersheets and symbols across the design team and then use them.

3.  Have coded versions for easy/consistent implementation and have them on display for easy reference.

4.  Do not create new components while designing a feature; components should be created in the design system first then applied to features.

5.  Hold yourself and others to it. It’s too easy to just create one-offs.

All that being said, design systems are not the silver bullet. They’re hard to maintain, evolve and fit multiple settings. They’re hard to adhere to and keep from spiraling out of control. But in my experience when practiced with self-discipline, they’re an absolutely incredible tool.