If you feel like you’re struggling to keep up with the pace of technological change, you’re certainly not alone. We feel this pressure at an individual level, but also at an organizational level. How do digital organizations establish solid, stable foundations while also responsibly exploring the future?

Organizations with solid foundations in place are better equipped to adopt emerging technology. This isn’t particularly revelatory; a person standing on a stable, tall structure peering out over the horizon can better anticipate what’s coming than a person flailing around on the ground trying to extinguish a grease fire. But the fact remains: the sturdier an organization’s critical front-end infrastructure is, the better positioned they are to explore the future.

At Big Medium, we’ve spent more than a decade helping organizations to establish sound foundations while also helping them adopt emerging technology. There’s a “stability vs innovation” dynamic that can sometimes feel like competing tension, but we’ve found that stability and innovation are more complementary than competitive.

Design system success is more than assets

High-performing teams have design systems, but having a design system won’t make you a high-performing team.
Josh Clark

Merely having design system assets in place doesn’t mean it will succeed. It’s the successful orchestration of people, processes, technologies, and assets that really makes this stuff hum.

Illustration of assets, people, and process. Assets are depicted as a 3-legged stool of design, code, and documentation.
A design system is more than its kit of parts. People and process are where those assets succeed or fail.

While the assets are important, they’re merely one part of a broader picture. It’s the human systems and the processes by which humans wield technology that overwhelming make or break a design system effort. What we’ve learned is that those same human systems and processes are what truly matter when it comes to innovating and adopting new technologies.

Rounding the corner from building to wielding

It feels like there’s an urgency to get solid foundations in place — and fast! — because there are bigger fish to fry. AI exploded onto the scene and sucked the air out of the room. While we’re still no doubt in the AI hype cycle, its emergence has lit a fire for teams to get their badges and text fields in order so that everyone can move onto other important initiatives.

Thankfully, AI can help streamline many aspects of design system asset work, freeing up teams’ time and energy to do the important human work that is critical to a design system’s success. Just so it’s said: creating a design system’s assets has never been the end game, but rather an important foundational layer for other important work to stand on. What you do with the design system is where the excitement and focus should be. Whether it’s the ability to blast out higher-quality work faster than ever, explore new technologies, or spend more time building relationships, the opportunities are many. We want those opportunities for everyone!

Stability and innovation go hand in hand

This week our team ran an AI and Design Systems virtual session where we showed off how we’ve been integrating AI into many aspects of our design system work. When Kevin and Ian showed off how LLMs can help generate and translate component code, people reacted with “Wow! How are you getting such consistent results?” The answer is: with solid design system architecture and conventions in place. We’ve been sweating the details and iterating over our design system architecture for over a decade, and we have our conventions consistently implemented and well documented.

We’ve all heard garbage-in, garbage-out when it comes to AI, and the inverse is also true. It turns out that high-quality input yields high-quality output, so the sturdier the design system foundations are the better AI-powered results are going to be. To me it feels like a continuation of future-friendly thinking; there are things we can do today that better prepare us for an unknown future.

Learn more in Paris!

If any of this resonates with you, I’m happy to announce that I’ll be talking about this and more at a Wine and Cheese event (!!!) in Paris the evening of June 26, 2024. And the very next day on June 27, I’ll be delivering a full-day design systems masterclass where I’ll dive into all of the foundational concepts and best practices around creating and maintaining a successful design system.

If you’re in or around Paris, I hope to see you at one (or both!) of these events. We’re at an exciting — and disruptive! — time in this field, and I’m tremendously excited for the discussions ahead.

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