Brad Frost tackles the challenge of building a design system that works across different tech frameworks. It’s a nasty and common conundrum.

If your design system or pattern library puts down roots too deeply into any one JavaScript framework—Angular or React, for example—or a specific templating engine, then you’ve created a barrier for teams using a different tech stack. (And you’ve likewise created a barrier for future change, when product teams want to shift to a new and improved tech stack.)

Brad outlines the approach that we’ve followed in the design system work we’ve done together: the core design system should focus on the rendered interface—the HTML, CSS, and presentational JavaScript. It should otherwise be “tech-agnostic” on implementation. Easier said than done, of course:

Of course there’s a lot of work that goes into getting that HTML, CSS, and presentational JavaScript onto a page. That’s why teams reach for different backend languages, templating languages, and JavaScript frameworks. Which is where things get complicated. The evolution of JavaScript has especially made things thorny. since it’s gone from simple UI manipulation (a la jQuery) to full-fledged application frameworks (a la React, Angular, Ember, et al). It can be tough to find to find the seams of where the canonical design system ends and where the tech-specific version begins.

Brad suggests that development teams then build implementation-specific versions of the components that match the recommended rendered output. So you might have a React layer, an Angular layer, and so on. But those implementation details are all carefully segregated from the recommended markup.

The design system itself doesn’t care how you build it as long as the end result comes out the right way. Of course, developers do care how it’s built, and one promise of design systems is to deliver efficiencies there. So organizations should make it a goal for teams to share those platform-specific implementations, Brad writes:

This architecture provides a clear path for getting the tech-agnostic, canonical design system into real working software that uses specific technologies. Because it doesn’t bet the farm on any one technology, the system is able to adapt to inevitable changes to tools, technologies, and trends (hence the placeholder for the “new hotness”). Moreover, product teams that share a tech stack can share efforts in maintaining the tech-specific version of the design system.

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