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I read Brad Frost's post on A Global Design System with interest. After all, Atomic Design is one of the most popular concepts in UI Design since Bootstrap came out years ago, and there hasn't really been any significant progress in design systems that I have seen recently (unless you count using AI tools to build them).

One thing that did catch my interest was the work that has been done by the OpenUI project to try and standardize a lot of the web components. Projects like this certainly can provide solid foundation to creating a more accessible baseline for designers and developers, compared to design systems where accessibility was considered as an afterthought. As Brad argues:

There is a massive opportunity to save the world’s designers and developers millions upon millions of hours, freeing up time and human potential to work on far more pressing problems than making an accordion open and close.

There’s a massive opportunity to dramatically improve the accessibility, semantics, and overall quality of the world’s web experiences.

And that:

A Global Design System would be a common library containing common UI components currently found in most design systems. In order to be successful, these components would need to be:

Vehicles for accessibility and other front-end best practices, creating a single source of truth for common UI components.

But with so many design systems already out there, is adding yet another one going to really solve the problem? Or are we at the point where the only way to make some progress in this area of design is to accept that what we have done is not good enough, and that we should start over again?

So the question is, should a global design system be adopted to help improve the overall user experience of the web, and is it a feasible solution or approach to increasing overall accessibility?

UPDATE: A new post from Brad Frost addressing some concerns and next steps for a Global Design System

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    I believe XKCD already touched on this subject xkcd.com/927
    – Luciano
    Commented Feb 15 at 10:44
  • @Luciano my concern is partly due to what XKCD referred to, but then again I don't see any other organization (even government ones) take accessibility seriously, at least not until someone takes them to court.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Feb 15 at 23:42

6 Answers 6

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That's not a design question :-( but an interesting one :-)

Rather, it's a social question: Will we designers push (our managers, our product owners, mostly ourselves) enough to stop YADS (yet another design system), because we want to reap the benefits you cited in the question (focussing on more important questions, avoiding repetition, deliver better designs)?

Why is it a call to action for designers (as opposed to the other roles involved in system development)?

  • Because we benefit most,
  • because we see and value these benefits,
  • because we should advise the others on such questions anyway.

So I think it will work only if enough designers start asking the same question: "Why are we not using <any public design system here, e.g. OpenUI>? Why are we not contributing to it in the places where we think it's insufficient?"

What would need to change for that to happen? Designers would need to say good-bye to two common traits, I think:

First, we need to become more of an engineering profession (there's input such as user research and business value and a design system, and the design is a consequence of that). We need less of the artistic mindset which tries to make an impact on the world or the users each time over.

Second, we need to focus more on the flows and processes our designs shall support, and less on the visual qualities. As long as you focus on the visual qualities, you need to differentiate on that level. When you focus on the user flow (and it's better in your app than in others), the visual differentiation becomes less important.

But everybody (not just designers) will need to say good-bye to another common behavior: We need to become again (or return to be) social, seeing the value in contributing to a group instead of being the individual hero who can pump out YADS alone. After all, the multitude of design systems (or any other product group on the world) only exists because everybody thinks they can sell their own variant better than improving on something which exists.

Sorry for the rather philosophical rant, but I think the answer to your question really is on each of us.

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  • The specific design question is whether accessibility baked into a global design system will have the effect of improving overall website and web application accessibility. Also, if you have YADS that extends from the Global Design System, then it will meet the basic accessibility requirement while also catering for your own user's needs.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Feb 14 at 23:38
  • I will admit in a way that yes, it is also a social/philosophical question because everyone knows that we are not doing nearly enough about accessibility since it needs to be a collective effort, but there is a lack of collaboration on this because everyone is working on their own version of the solution.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Feb 14 at 23:39
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If you create a new standard, all you will achieve is adding a new option to the list of already existing standards.

There are going to be people who aren't happy with the global design and branch off to do their own thing.

This doesn't really directly address the question, but my answer essentially means that yes it would. If only people would adhere to it.

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  • It almost seems like the tech world prefers to adopt de facto standards rather than to endorse or establish one. Which worked well in terms of Bootstrap being adopted and used in the early days when design systems was not such a popular concept, and also when design languages like Atomic Design was just introduced. But it is strange that even though the W3C has set many web standards like WCAG, and worked on projects like OpenUI, they didn't see the need to create a basic design system that is WCAG compliant out of the box. A lot of people probably use it if it had been available earlier.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Feb 8 at 2:00
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This is my opinion (a controversial one.)

In the past, flat design came up (remember the ones with the long shadow to right bottom for example) and literally all designers were adopting it to save their time. enter image description hereBut after some time, it became redundant and businesses and products wanted to stand out hence products start diverging back into different styles again – say neumorphism etc.

enter image description here


To answer your question – *"should a global design system be adopted to help improve the overall user experience of the web":*
Effectiveness of design solutions is different for different target users and business problems. Eg: A rotating arrow refresh button does good enough for most users. Whereas the text label would be required when targeting non familiar users. Doesn't mean we should always add text labels to all buttons all the time.

IMO, a global design system is gonna be just another design system for reference that has the term "global" in it.

At the start we all would use it (similar to flat design) as it saves us designers' time. But eventually, businesses and products would need to be differentiated in the market, look fresh etc.. and we would start diverging again.

And to close it off, I think the saying "free up time and human potential to work on far more pressing problems" is not right. We are problem solvers yes, but at the same time we are UI designers (for those who are) – who SHOULD find the time for working on the aesthetics to be better and better than any systems or SOPs out there to serve your target user better, forever.

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    See: Corporate Memphis (or Alegria). Although I don't think it ever looked good. Commented Feb 15 at 10:29
  • Thanks. I didn't know!
    – Kish
    Commented Feb 15 at 10:31
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    I don't think it's a controversial opinion, I really agree what you mentioned here. Business, people, products, will always try to find "their way" to stand out from the crowd. Generic "global" design system is good, of course, but it's more useful for groups or businesses where they don't have budget for UX or don't need to stand out, where the functionality and number of features (hosting, domains, dashboards) are more important than interactivity (entertainment, games, graphical, museum, etc etc).
    – Niutah
    Commented Feb 16 at 13:37
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+50

It's long been the rule that in a world of haves and have-nots, the haves will always be able to use bespoke products that serve their niche needs, and everyone else will be ever-increasingly moving toward automation, templatization, and self-service.

Which is to say, the richest companies will continue to use their own systems, and it's almost guaranteed that a GDS will someday provide components and patterns for everyone else. Self-service tools don't really need to stand out and be noticed, they just have to work.

If the GDS prioritizes accessibility and keeps making it better, then everyone wins. It won't make sense for businesses to do bespoke work that isn't accessible. But if accessibility becomes an afterthought, it will be very damaging and hard to come back from that.

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    What about a future use case when Web 3.0+ means everyone has their own website, and a Global Design System will be like what bootstrap was, but now for people looking to build their own website using AI and not having to write any code?
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Feb 15 at 23:45
  • Could absolutely see AI doing it all... design system, and the sites that consume it...
    – Izquierdo
    Commented Feb 16 at 15:17
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That's an interesting question.

My take on that matter would be that establishing a global design system can indeed be a feasible solution or approach to increasing overall accessibility. Only if, we can establish it as a baseline requirement and allow people to build over it because ofcourse brands or websites in general would want to have their own brand value so cannot have everything look just the same.

I think rather than creating a global design system, the bigger problem would be to make people use it and regulate the global design system.

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Such a global design system for everyone to adhere to is a bad idea because

  • you lose the specific branding that comes with that UI even if color schemes can be switched.
  • It would make the UI bland and boring.
  • accessibility is not a one size fits all solution. It does change with respect to the user and business needs associated with a specific problem in hand and its context. Bootstrap is an example in this case and why not all companies will use it. This will make the UX inefficient.
  • It would be increase the user's cognitive load when the UI and UX variations between different designs aren't that much enough. Imagine skipping 10 spammy sites to find the right one. So, UX suffers.
  • Some users (not all) may gain but companies would stand to lose their UX advantage.
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  • Can you add some background to your opinions? Are there resources to back them up or what is your experience with the subject?
    – jazZRo
    Commented Feb 17 at 22:10
  • There are some very popular design systems out there, and you could argue that many e-commerce and blogging platforms ate design systems in their own right. So I am curious whether it would be any better or worse than what is already out there for accessibility, considering most of them are theoretically but not practically accessible out of the box.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Feb 18 at 0:25

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