Death by design systems

Eric Walker,

Vice President, Experience Design and Strategy, Virtusa

Published: July 3, 2024

I attended the Figma Config 2024 conference for the first time and became concerned about the future of design. Figma's evolution is nothing short of transformative for product design. Bridging the collaboration gap between designers, developers, and product managers Figma's emphasis on design systems as their core framework elevates consistency over innovation. While design systems promise efficiency and consistency, they also lead us down a path of homogenization that threatens the essence and impact of true design.

The rise of design systems

Design systems have become the cornerstone of modern design workflows. They offer standardized guidelines, components, and tools that streamline the design process. Many companies have adopted design systems to ensure brand consistency and operational efficiency across their vast digital landscapes. With its collaborative platform, Figma has been at the forefront of this movement, enabling designers to work seamlessly within these systems.

The homogenization trap

However, the strength of design systems—their ability to standardize—has become a double-edged sword. As more companies adopt and rigidly adhere to these systems, the digital landscape becomes increasingly homogenized. Websites, apps, and interfaces across different brands start to look and feel remarkably similar. The unique visual identities that once defined brands are getting replaced by uniformity. This sameness is not just an aesthetic concern; it undermines the role of design as a tool for innovation and problem-solving.

Incrementalism over innovation

Design systems encourage incremental changes rather than groundbreaking innovations. When designers get confined to pre-defined components and templates, the scope for creative exploration is severely limited. Instead of thinking outside the box, designers make minor tweaks within a rigid framework. This approach might improve efficiency but rarely leads to revolutionary user experiences.

The result is a digital world where changes are often superficial and incremental. We see new iterations of apps and websites that offer marginal improvements, but we seldom encounter truly transformative designs that redefine how we interact with technology. The focus on maintaining consistency and adhering to guidelines often comes at the cost of solving real user problems in novel ways.

The loss of human-centered design

At its core, design should enhance users' lives—solving their problems, easing their tasks, and delighting their senses. True design is empathetic and human-centric. However, the user can become an afterthought in the race to implement design systems. When the primary goal is maintaining consistency across platforms, user needs and behaviors often take a back seat.

Designers must ask themselves: Are we designing for the system, or are we designing for the user? The over-reliance on design systems can lead to a situation where user needs are secondary to maintaining the system's integrity. This shift in focus diminishes design's value in genuinely improving user experiences.

The potential of genAI for personalized experiences

Enter generative AI (genAI)—a technological advancement that holds the potential to break the homogenization mold. GenAI can analyze vast user data to create highly personalized experiences, tailoring interfaces and interactions to individual preferences and behaviors. This capability can be a powerful tool for designers aiming to move beyond the constraints of standardized design systems.

By utilizing genAI, designers can craft unique user experiences that dynamically adapt to each individual, making the digital interaction more engaging and relevant. Imagine an app interface that evolves based on how a user interacts, offering personalized content, layout adjustments, and even color schemes that resonate with the user's preferences. This level of personalization can reignite the essence of true design, placing user needs and satisfaction at the forefront.

Breaking free from the mold

To reclaim the true essence of design, we must balance the efficiency of design systems and the freedom of creative exploration. Design systems should serve as a foundation, not a ceiling. They should provide a starting point, not a set of constraints that stifle innovation.

Designers must advocate for flexibility within these systems, pushing for guidelines and allowing room for experimentation and deviation. It's crucial to reintroduce human-centric methodologies that prioritize solving real problems over maintaining visual consistency. By doing so, we can create digital experiences that are not only efficient but also unique, engaging, and genuinely helpful.

The Figma Config 2024 conference highlighted the incredible advancements in design technology and methodologies. Yet, it also served as a stark reminder of the potential pitfalls of over-reliance on design systems. We must ensure these systems do not hinder design innovation as we move forward. By balancing standardization with creativity, efficiency with empathy, and leveraging the potential of genAI for personalization, we can ensure that design remains a powerful tool for improving lives and solving real user needs.

In the end, death by design system is not inevitable. It is a call to action for designers everywhere to break free from the mold and reclaim the soul of design. Only then can we create digital experiences that are efficient, consistent, genuinely human-centered, and transformative.

Eric Walker

Eric Walker

Vice President, Experience Design and Strategy, Virtusa

Eric Walker is an accomplished Experience Design and Strategy Leader with over two decades of expertise in crafting innovative, user-centric solutions. His career is marked by a deep understanding of both digital and physical touchpoints, driving engagement and satisfaction across diverse industries. Eric's strategic vision and hands-on approach have led to the successful implementation of numerous high-impact projects, enhancing brand experiences and fostering customer loyalty. Known for his ability to blend creativity with analytical thinking, he excels in guiding multidisciplinary teams to achieve exceptional results. His passion for elevating user experiences continues to shape the future of design strategy.

Unleash the power of human-centered design to deliver business value at scale.

Learn more about our Experience Design services

Related content